Riley was born in Norwood, London in 1931. Her grandfather was an Army officer. Her father, John Fisher Riley, originally from Yorkshire, was a printer and owned his own business. In 1938 he relocated the printing business, together with his family, to Lincolnshire.
She attended Cheltenham Ladies’ College (1946–1948) and then studied art at Goldsmiths College (1949–52), and later at the Royal College of Art (1952–55). There her fellow students included artists Peter Blake, Geoffrey Harcourt (the retired painter, also noted for his many well known chair designs) and Frank Auerbach. In 1955 Riley graduated with a BA degree.
Between 1956 and 1958 she nursed her father, who had been involved in a serious car crash. She suffered a breakdown due to the deterioration of her father’s health. After this she worked in a glassware shop. She eventually joined the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, as an illustrator, where she worked part-time until 1962. The large Whitechapel Gallery exhibition of Jackson Pollock, in the winter of 1958, was to have a major impact on her.
Her early work was figurative with a semi-impressionist style. Between 1958 and 1959 her work at the advertising agency showed her adoption of a style of painting based on the pointillist technique. Around 1960 she began to develop her signature Op Art style consisting of black and white geometric patterns that explore the dynamism of sight and produce a disorienting effect on the eye and produces movement and color. In the summer of 1960 she toured Italy with mentor Maurice de Sausmarez, and the two visited the Venice Biennale with its large exhibition of Futurist works.
Early in her career, Riley worked as an art teacher for children from 1957–58 at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Harrow (now known as Sacred Heart Language College). At the Convent of the Sacred Heart, she began a basic design course. Later she worked at the Loughborough School of Art (1959), Hornsey College of Art, and Croydon College of Art (1962–64).
Riley’s mature style, developed during the 1960s, was influenced by a number of sources, including the French Post-Impressionist artist Georges Seurat. In 2015-6, the Courtauld Gallery, in its exhibition “Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat”, made the case for how Seurat’s pointillism influenced her towards abstract painting. As a young artist in 1959, Riley saw The Bridge at Courbevoie, owned by the Courtauld, and decided to paint a copy. The resulting work has hung in Riley’s studio ever since, barring its loan to the gallery for the exhibition, demonstrating in the opinion of the art critic Jonathan Jones “how crucial” Seurat was to her approach to art. Riley described her copy of Seurat’s painting as a “tool”, interpreted by Jones as meaning that she, like Seurat, practised art “as an optical science”; in his view, Riley “really did forge her optical style by studying Seurat”, making the exhibition a real meeting of old and new.
It was during this time that Riley began to paint the black and white works for which she is best known. They present a great variety of geometric forms that produce sensations of movement or colour. In the early 1960s, her works were said to induce sensation in viewers as varied as seasick and sky diving. From 1961 to 1964 she worked with the contrast of black and white, occasionally introducing tonal scales of grey. Works in this style comprised her first 1962 solo show at Musgrave’s Gallery One, as well as numerous subsequent shows.
Riley began investigating colour in 1967, the year in which she produced her first stripe painting. Following a major retrospective in the early 1970s, Riley began travelling extensively. After a trip to Egypt in the early 1980s, where she was inspired by colourful hieroglyphic decoration, Riley began to explore colour and contrast. In some works, lines of colour are used to create a shimmering effect, while in others the canvas is filled with tessellating patterns. Typical of these later colourful works is Shadow Play.
Riley has painted temporary murals for the Tate, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the National Gallery. In 2014, the Imperial College Healthcare Charity Art Collectioncommissioned her to make a permanent 56-metre mural for St Mary’s Hospital, London; the work was installed on the 10th floor of the hospital’s Queen Elizabeth Queen Mother Wing, joining two others she had painted more than 20 years earlier.
In 1965, Riley exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City show, The Responsive Eye (created by curator William C. Seitz); the exhibition which first drew worldwide attention to her work and the Op Art movement. Her painting Current, 1964, was reproduced on the cover of the show’s catalogue. Riley became increasingly disillusioned, however, with the exploitation of her art for commercial purposes, discovering that in the USA there was no copyright protection for artists. The first US copyright legislation was eventually passed, following an independent initiative by New York artists, in 1967.
She participated in documentas IV (1968) and VI (1977). In 1968, Riley represented Great Britain in the Venice Biennale, where she was the first British contemporary painter, and the first woman, to be awarded the International Prize for painting. Her disciplined work lost ground to the assertive gestures of the Neo-Expressionists in the 1980s, but a 1999 show at the Serpentine Gallery of her early paintings triggered a resurgence of interest in her optical experiments. “Bridget Riley: Reconnaissance”, an exhibition of paintings from the 1960s and 1970s, was presented at Dia:Chelsea in 2000. In 2001, she participated in Site Santa Fe, and in 2003 the Tate Britain organised a major Riley retrospective. In 2005 her work was featured at Gallery Oldham. Between November 2010 and May 2011 her exhibition “Paintings and Related Work” was presented at the National Gallery, London.
In June and July 2014 the retrospective show “Bridget Riley: The Stripe Paintings 1961–2014” was presented at the David Zwirner Gallery in London. In July and August 2015 the retrospective show “Bridget Riley: The Curve Paintings 1961–2014” was presented at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.
In November 2015, the exhibition Bridget Riley opened at David Zwirner in New York. The show features paintings and works on paper by the artist from 1981 to present; the fully illustrated catalogue features an essay by the art historian Richard Shiff and biographical notes compiled by Robert Kudielka.
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