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Life itself is her theme: Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley's art flickers and radiates – but it can also make people dizzy. All of which can be tested in London's Tate Britain, which is currently showing a large retrospective of the most important representative of Op Art. Deutsche Bank has also been collecting Riley's work for some time, her works are hanging in the London office. A portrait by Marion Löhndorf .


Bridget Riley

Long before the term "Young British Artist" was invented, the young, attractive, and fashionable Bridget Riley ( image) had already lived up to this image and conquered New York. The young Englishwoman achieved her so-called big breakthrough in 1965 as a member of the group exhibition The Responsive Eye (more on this here) in New York's MoMA. Bridget Riley's paintings portrayed – and continue to portray – exclusively geometric forms: waves, circles, discs, stripes, triangles, squares, zigzags. The exhibition The Responsive Eye (Brian de Palma shot a short film about it) made Op Art (Optical Art), with its scientific experiments and its interest in mathematics, well-known, and the artist, then 34 years old, could have been pleased: one of her works was resplendently printed on the cover of the catalogue. The fashion and design industry had discovered the decorative value of Op Art and had fallen in love with its graphic, sign-like patterns: Op was hip, and Bridget became Great Britain's art celebrity number one.

Deutsche Bank took notice of Riley early on and has been collecting her works for several decades. A tour of the bank's London offices easily demonstrates the oppositions and secret correspondences existing between Op and Pop, in that the nineteen-sixties form a major focus of the bank's collection. Riley's complicated patterns, of course, stem more from Constructivism and from scientific schools of perception, but they also have parallels in contemporary design. And one of the secret connecting points to the concurrent Pop movement can be found in the key words design and commodity aesthetic: both are interested in repetitive patterns and the psychological effects they exert. A curious point of reference, although more of anecdotal nature, can also be observed in the London collection of the Deutsche Bank: Richard Hamilton's Soft Blue Landscape from 1979 is hanging here, which for its part picked up on a toilet paper company's advertising campaign whose designs harked back to Bridget Riley's time as a designer. She herself was working elsewhere in the seventies, creating her highly elegant silkscreens Red, Blue and Green Dominance, which are similar in color to Hamilton's Soft Blue Landscape.

The correspondence between Op and Pop Art should not, however, be stretched too thin. The famous, manifesto-like list of features that Hamilton laid claim to for Pop Art included attributes such as "low cost," "mass-produced," "witty," and even "glamorous," terms which Riley would have strongly resisted in connection to her own art.

Riley always refused, to accept the pop star status. In contrast to artists of later generations, such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, or even Jeff Koons Bridget Riley resisted the ultra-chic image. She distanced herself from the Op Art movement, saying that she had neither studied optics nor was she interested in mathematics. Riley fought against the subsumption of her works on another front, as well: she took legal action against the appropriation of her patterns in fashion and art – unfortunately, however, in vain. Allegedly, Riley detests every form of popular culture. According to one anecdote, she even avoids flipping through magazines like an infectious disease: this is how great her seriousness is.

In interviews, Riley always makes it clear that her work goes above everything else. The consistency with which she continues developing her original and unique works makes this plausible. Riley's art flickers and radiates. Again and again, the mathematical order of her geometric arrangements is interrupted by small irregularities; perceptual expectations are subverted and give rise to optical illusions. The eye believes it is seeing things that do not exist on the canvas. White shadows appear alongside black discs, and spirals look as though they were revolving ( images).

Bridget Riley, as has been said, is not concerned with unmoving surfaces, but with dynamics: "For me nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces – an event rather than an appearance. These forces can only be tackled by treating colour and form as ultimate identities, freeing them from all descriptive or functional roles." For her, the beauty of geometry or the abstraction of mathematics are uninteresting, as contrary to appearances as this might seem. Her paintings, which often carry titles referring to movement, such as Tremor (1962), Burn (1964), Breathe (1966), and Descending (1965), make life itself their theme; as she says, "an artist needs to express something about the fact of being alive, just as a bird feels the need to sing. "

At the beginning of her career, Riley limited herself to exclusively using the colors black and white. When she'd played through her possibilities with this theme, she moved on to the use of color, at first very sparingly. Over the years, the number of colors gradually increased. Work titles such as Red Dominance (1977) and Blue Dominance (1977) testify to her obsessive involvement with the subject of color.

It was only in 1978 that she expanded her repertoire from three to five colors. In this carefully considered step, she marked the perimeters of her unique and original artistic universe, which she has never departed from since. She often merely sets certain themes, forms, and colors aside in order to pick up on them once again later.


Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley's biography is as severe as her artistic uncompromisingness: born in 1931, she first studied art at Goldsmiths College, which was to attract the attention of the art world years later as a talent factory for the "Young British Artists." From here, Riley went on to the Royal College of Art, which she left early in order to take care of her sick father. She had a nervous breakdown in her twenties, which was ascribed to the end of an unhappy love affair. Today, she lives alone and says: "My personal life is not at all exciting now. It was the reverse at one time and I found it was bad for my work." Following her recuperation, she took on a number of jobs, one of which was as an art teacher. Her mature style, which she has continued to develop perseveringly and with uninterrupted consistency, formed around the end of the fifties. Among others, her influences have been the Pointillism of Georges Seurat and Futurism, above all that of Giacomo Balla.

One of the constantly recurring assessments of Riley's work is that she made the mechanisms of seeing conscious, more than any other painter before her. Yet knowledge carries its price, and the effects that she creates can hurt. Riley's paintings don't only affect the eye and the mind. People complained that they could actually - and much has been written about this - cause headaches, dizziness, or nausea. Riley once said that the viewer becomes "secretly taken in and disarmed." For more than forty years, the artist has been pursuing the theme of perception in her paintings. She once said that she was interested in the relationship between "stability and instability, security and insecurity."

To a certain extent, this theme continues into Bridget Riley's working practice. A Riley is not what it appears to be: although her name appears on the outer edge of many of her paintings, she's never painted any of them herself. She has been employing assistants since the early sixties, whom she supplies with precise orders, measures, and sketches that are exact to the last millimeter (more here). Would anyone else have been able to use them to make one of her paintings, and would it still have been a "genuine Riley"? It remains open whether she wants to provoke questions such as these with her methods. What is well known, however, is that the artistic process of production itself is unimportant to her. Rather, she is interested in the conceptual and intuitive work that precedes it: "It seems to me that the deeper, truer personality of the artist only emerges in the making of decisions – in refusing and accepting, changing and revising."

At the beginning of her career, Bridget Riley's status in the art world was still a matter of controversy. Yet her unerring insistence on being recognized as an independent, original artist finally bore fruit. She was the first woman to win the International Prize for Painting at the 34th Biennale in Venice in 1968, honorary doctorates at Cambridge and Oxford followed, and in the nineteen-nineties she received the official appointment of Companion of Honour. Today, the 72 year-old, who continues to live and work in London, is considered to be one of the most important English artists alive.

The large retrospective that can currently be seen in the Tate Britain does justice to this view: it is the first comprehensive show of Riley's work to encompass forty years of work to the present day (a conversation on the exhibition with Germaine Greer, Kirsty Wark, and Charles Saumarez-Smith here). The exhibition, which the artist herself was closely involved in choosing works for, is interesting to the extent that other Riley retrospectives, such as in the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1999, evinced a certain reluctance regarding her most recent works. Her newer paintings, such as Frieze (2000) or Blue and Pink (2001), which resembles fluttering pink leaves, are more gentle, more colorful, and less aggressive. One Blue and Pink silkscreen from 2001 belongs to the Deutsche Bank Collection in London. "Our image of her art is so bound up with its first clamorous appearance. Riley's black and white paintings of the early 1960s are among the icons of that decade," the London Review of Books wrote in this context. Yet a walk through the Tate show makes the genesis of her art appear as an inevitable, step-by-step development from the Minimalism of her earliest paintings to the increasing openness and multi-colored brilliance of her later works.

Marion Löhndorf lives as a freelance author in London.

The exhibition Bridget Riley can be seen through September 28 in London's Tate Britain.

Further Reading:
"The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley". Collected writings 1965–1999. Edited by Robert Kudielka. Thames and Hudson, London 1999. ISBN: 0500281653
"Bridget Riley: Dialogues on Art". Based upon edited transcripts of the BBC series 1992. Edited by Robert Kudielka. With essays by Neil MacGregor, E. H. Gombrich, Michael Craig-Martin, Andrew Graham-Dixon, and Bryan Robertson. Thames and Hudson, London 2003. ISBN 0500976279

Translation: Andrea Scrima