In Appreciation of Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley portrait
Portrait of Bridget Riley by John Goldblatt

There’s an old saying about Bridget Riley which I just made up – to really understand her abstract art work, you have to read between the lines.

In case you haven’t heard of Bridget Riley and you wandered here by some aimless web mis-direction, let's start you with some basic facts. Bridget Riley was born in London in 1931. She became best known in the mid-1960s for her dazzling black and white abstract art pieces, exploiting contrast, tension and optical illusions. Her style became known as “op art” for that reason. She featured repeating geometric shapes, inter-locking, developing, vibrating, and tricking the eye into a sense of movement beyond anything seen before in a painting.

For me, the iconic Riley painting is “The Fall” (1963).


The Fall
The Fall, 1963

Tate Gallery

In “The Fall”, a cascade of curves langorously drops from the top of the work, bunching together at the bottom like a well-trained curtain. And you can detect a ghostly apparition of colour despite the work being completely black and white. This is a classic piece of op art dazzlement.

Abstract Art Inspiration

Riley was born in London but spent much of her childhood in Cornwall, UK. Coincidentally, we (Amanda and Dave of Artspiration) lived many years in Cornwall. For New Zealanders, the nearest comparison to Cornwall would be the Coromandel Peninsula, having the best climate, a backdrop of rocky outcrops, hidden streams, and the ever-present awareness of the sea all around. A place lending itself to an outdoor life.

Given such a rural and nature-connected provenance, it may be surprising to find that she disowns landscape as a source of inspiration.

"I am trying to give the eye something more to do."

Unlike many abstract artists, Riley seems not to be striving to capture some essence of the physical world, at least not as a primary purpose. She said “nature is not a starting point somewhere outside my work which then leads me into doing it”. Instead, I think she is trying to build a piece of art which stands by itself, which is an end in itself. You look at her best work and think “Wow”; maybe afterwards you might think you see signs of a waterfall, coins, a rainbow, or folds of flesh, but only as a collateral advantage. This is refreshingly honest.  In contrast, personally I find the famous works of Mondrian, the spiritual founder of abstract art, as quite sterile and devoid of long-term viewability. He may well have shaken a might fist at the figurative painters of the establishment, but I don’t believe his abstract work offered anything better to replace them. Bridget Riley inhabits a whole other world of viewing pleasure.

In the late 1950’s, having left the Royal College of Art in London, Riley devoted two years to painstaking copies of George Seurat painting to learn from his pointillist techniques. Since then she has painted nothing figurative. Seurat was one of the Impressionists who celebrated colour almost beyond everything. I wonder how he would feel about inspiring Riley at the start of her career in black and white?

Riley's Op Art at the Tate

Auckland visitors can see a few works by Bridget Riley at the Auckland Art Gallery. Of their five pieces, we have only seen one visible, but maybe the others can be found with persistence.

The Tate Gallery London is a great place to see some of Riley’s work.


Fragment 1 7
Fragment 1/7 1965

Tate Gallery
Fragment 5 8
Fragment 5/8 1965

Tate Gallery

Bridget Pays Her Colour Licence

Perhaps inevitably, black and white gave way to tones of grey, and then to colour in the later 1960s.

Coloured Greys III
Coloured Greys III 1972

Tate Gallery

Who knows whether this was the influence of Carnaby Street and hippy 1960’s, or chafing against her self-imposed monochrome restriction. No matter: the transition sacrificed nothing, and gained another dimension. Clashes and vibration were still the order of the day, par excellence.

High Sky 2 1992
High Sky 2 1992
Ra 2
Ra 2, 1981

Riley took a trip along the Nile in 1979/80 and was especially struck by the effect of a limited colour palette, used in Egyptian wall paintings. See “Ra 2” for one of a series where she explores the organisation of sympathetic and clashing colours to make a shimmering and dazzling wall.

Two Blues (2003)
Two Blues, 2003

These straight stripe paintings still feel a bit rigid to my taste. More recently, in my view, she has achieved the best of both, combining colour with curves in works such as “Two Blues” (2003).

"My aim is to make people feel alive."

Concrete Details About Abstract Art

While reading about Riley’s work, I uncovered two features which resonated with our work in Artspiration.

Tools for Implementing Abstract Art and Design

Firstly, in common with the Old Masters of the Renaissance and later, she uses a “studio” method: she designs, outlines and manages the work, but oversees some enthusiastic studio assistants to do the painting. This surely is unsurprising when you see a real work close up, and start to appreciate the eye-watering concentration and time involved in implementing such precise designs.

In the much more humble case of Artspiration, we originally had the same problem. We (Amanda) had the vision of a circular image comprised of many smaller circles, with a party-going jumble of colours and sizes. She was painting it as carefully as possible. Before long we were moved to try the same thing using a computer drawing package (Xara), and Amanda found the whole process less painstaking and more enjoyable. The results had the exact precision required for such a geometric design, and also fine tuning was possible as she could move and resize circles or amend colours to achieve the correct clash or sympathy. The end result was “Splots”.

Splots, 2011
Splots, 2011


This was the embryonic picture for Artspiration, our starter motor, if you will. Subsequent pieces have used Xara or used computer software, written ourselves. We do not feel that the images are any less worthwhile for not having our hands directly on the brushes or mixing the paint. Like the discovery and happenstance process of a watercolour painting, we can start with an approximate idea or visual ambition, and we develop it fitfully and in layers, but somewhere along the way, the image takes control and leads the process. Sometimes the thing has to be discarded and we start over, but other times, the end result has grown up to become more than we bargained for. As I think Bridget would have said, the image speaks for itself regardless of how it got there.

Abstract Images by Repetition and Variation

In an interview in 1998, Riley paid homage to sequences in music: she said “Repetition and variation, assembling and dispersing, reversal, mirroring and development are part of a method which, far from inhabiting the sensual pleasure of sound, actually provides for and enhances it”. Repetition and variation is very much the technical formula for Riley’s pictures and for those in Artspiration.

For example, in building one of our Spraydiation family of images, we might start with one set of radial spokes calculated to be repeated, say, every five degrees. Then we can overlay another set with a different colour, radiating every seven degrees, but with a finer line-width. That tells us that the spokes will converge every 35 degrees and gradually drift apart between the meeting points. In this example, see the finer yellow lines mingling with the broader blue-purple siblings.

Spraydiation 11_07_04_18_33
Spraydiation 11_07_04_18_33, 2011


The Lesson of Bridget Riley

I don’t claim to have great insight into her work, but I take away one small lesson. Other artists, both figurative and abstract, claim some deeper meaning is available in their work, waiting to be unearthed like a prize easter egg. Or if the artists don’t, then their critics and analysts do. It means busy art-diggers can toil away to deconstruct the latest, newest and most different work to hit the limelight. It’s good for the industry, after all, and often it’s true. But this view is sometimes used to defend work which is frankly ugly.

Instead, I think Bridget would probably say that an artwork can justify itself simply by being attractive or interesting to behold. It can exist in itself, it doesn’t have to signify anything else, or need unpeeling like the proverbial critical onion. In the view of some people, that debases artwork to a level of mere decoration. But if an artwork is welcoming and attractive, I really believe that’s good enough.

Useful Links for Bridget Riley