Bridget Louise Riley was born on April 24, 1931 in London (UK). Bridget was educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College; she studied art first at Goldsmiths College and later at the Royal College of Art, where her fellow students included artists Peter Blake and Frank Auerbach. She left college early to look after her ailing father, and suffered a mental breakdown shortly thereafter. After recovery, she worked in a number of jobs, including several as an art teacher, and briefly in the art department of the advertising company J. Walter Thompson.
In the late 1950s, Riley began to produce works in a style recognisably her own, a style inspired by a number of sources. A study of the pointillism of Georges Seurat, and subsequent landscapes produced in that style, led to her interest in optical effects. The paintings of Victor Vasarely, who had used designs of black and white lines since the 1930s also had a strong influence on Riley’s early works. In her later works, the influence of the futurists, especially Giacomo Balla, can also be observed.
It was during this time that Riley began to paint the black and white works for which she is best known today. 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 sensations in viewers as varied as seasickness and sky diving. Works in this style comprised her first solo show in London in 1962 at Gallery One run by Victor Musgrave, as well as numerous subsequent shows. Visually, these works relate to many concerns of the period: a perceived need for audience participation (this relates them to the Happenings, for which the period is famous), challenges to the notion of the mind-body duality which led some people to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs (see Aldous Huxley’s writings); concerns with a tension between a scientific future which might be very beneficial or might lead to a nuclear war; and fears about the loss of genuine individual experience in a Brave New World.
Although remembered today mainly for the impressions of movement and colour they give through the exploitation of optical illusions, it is speculated that the impetus for Riley making these seemingly cold and calculated works was a failed love affair. One of the more famous works in this style is Fall (1963).
In 1965, Riley exhibited in the New York City show, The Responsive Eye, the exhibition which first drew attention to so-called Op art. One of her paintings was reproduced on the cover of the show’s catalogue, though Riley later became disillusioned with the movement, and expressed regret that her work was exploited for commercial purposes.
Following a major retrospective in the early 1970s, Riley began traveling 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 created a shimmering effect, , while in other works, the canvas is filled with tessellating patterns. In 1986 Riley met the postmodern painters Philip Taaffe and Ross Bleckner, and was inspired to introduce a diagonal element to her work. Typical of these later colourful works is Shadowplay.
In many works since this period, Riley has employed others to paint the pieces, while she concentrates on the actual design of her work.