Checkerboard Sensations, Sculptures and Squares: the Op Art Odyssey of Bridget Riley
By Andrew Bay, UK
Bridget Riley's canvasses, blend of pristine lines, polished colour ranges, and elegant geometric sequences, helped to instigate the stylish visual effects of Op Art in the 1960s. The intricate and compelling clarity of her paintings, cuts across the ruptured surfaces and drifting visual states, displayed in her work. Her compositions seem to be filled with optical events, created with the utmost precision, for the viewer to experience, in parallel, comfort and friction, from one moment to the next.
Riley was born in London in 1931, to an Army officer who became successful in the printmaking business, and a mother, who was the daughter of an electrical engineer. During the course of WWII, she lived with her mother and younger sister Sally in Cornwall, whilst her father was enlisted in the British Army.
She completed her education in London at Goldsmiths College and the Royal College of Art in 1955. Over the course of the next couple of years, Riley began exploring the colour blocks and flourishes, which had emerged from George Seurat's pointillist techniques, at the end of the 19th century. She also started to experiment with impressionist stripe paintings and collages, in an attempt to recreate the emergence of motion and vibration in her landscapes. During these preliminary steps towards her breakthrough in the art world, Riley supported herself by working as an art teacher, and then in a number of advertising agencies in London.
Her style gradually matured through her buoyant examination of the energetic possibilities and singularities, of the patterns that can be produced by visual experiences. "Fall," painted in 1963, was an early antecedent of what would later be referred to as Op Art, along the works of Victor Vasarely, Yaacov Agam and Richard Anuszkiewicz. The painting is characterised by its unsettling, sensory impact on the viewer's perception: gleeful black and white shades and tinges, are interspersed with diagonal slopes, rising against gradient stripes, as an approving nod, to Seurat's lean, precipitous canvasses. "Dominance Portfolio," completed in 1977, is a textbook example of Riley's process and methodical approach. The work begins with a subject extracted from Nature and then proceeds cautiously away from this premise until an opposite approach emerges: formal features and marks start to point towards the properties of volume, rhythm, and design, which are being tested as the core pictorial agents through which the whole experiment is rehearsed. In her "Ra" series, Riley draws lines in order to explore the movement patterns inherent in circles, rectangles, and squares. Curves are bent and contorted, like the arch of a body, twisted in different positions and postures. Alongside with Seurat, Matisse was always a key inspiration for Riley. His capacity to draw clear lines that could simultaneously encircle the logic of volume, and geometric abstraction, never ceased to fascinate her, and forms the basis of Riley's pioneering forays into Op Art.
The body of work she has produced over the course of seven decades has never failed to earnestly stimulate her audience. The viewer is continuously engaged in the sheer visual gratification derived from Riley's abstract artworks, and their sense of enduring aesthetic vitality. Riley has been alternating between black and white and colour large scale works, since the early 1970s, thus enlarging the conceptual and visual prospects of her work. She has remained true to the ethos of the formative years during which she visualised the vocabulary of the Op Art movement. She is still intent on creating the objective distance, which enables the viewer to see the work of art, in a much better way. By breaking the measures and boundaries by which we can visually experience her paintings, Riley enables us to become closer to her work. We are therefore free to explore every diagonal, every array, every curve. Every glance and glimpse is replaced by another one, triggering an endless movement, the basis of an enduring, seamless conversation.