The life … and colours and shapes … of Riley
Artist Bridget Riley in 1979. Photo: Scott Whitehair
WHEN Bridget Riley started to make abstract paintings - beginning in 1961 with her chequerboard composition Movement in Squares - she banished colour from her art, using only black and white.
It was six years later that she began introducing colour to her dazzling geometric compositions. Recently, she became the first woman to win the Sikkens Prize, a Dutch award recognising the use of colour.
In a rare interview, Riley, 81, spoke about the use of colour in her work, which was dubbed ''op art'', a pun on the pop art movement, in the 1960s. ''In my years after leaving art school, I found a way of learning about the use of colour in modern art by copying a Seurat,'' she said, referring to Georges Seurat's The Bridge at Courbevoie. ''It was the landscape of a river and its banks in autumn. I learnt about how colours behave through interaction when placed next to each other.
''And then, on a spectacular summer day looking over a valley near Siena, sparkling and shimmering in the heat, I made my own attempt. I made studies, and later, a painting. I was quite pleased, in fact, with what I'd been able to do, but it had nothing to do with what I had experienced in front of this landscape … So I decided to start again to find a new beginning - to start from the themes themselves, that is to say, shapes, lines and so on. That led to my making a black-and-white painting and seeing what it would do: and it moved.''
That was Movement in Squares. The abstract works, in fact, began to possess qualities Riley had discerned in that Tuscan heat haze. ''Movement, shimmering, sparkling and reflecting … all those things that happen in landscape.''
Asked about the contemporary art scene - larger by far and more widely recognised by the public than when Riley began her career in the 1960s - she chose to talk about the Renaissance. ''Contemporary art is not a new thing,'' she said. ''Every period has its contemporary wing. In the Renaissance, the practice of painting would have been a much bigger thing. Many people would have been painting, for religious works, for festivals, for processions; painting churches, carriages, chests, boats.
''These things furnished a platform for high art, as it were, but no one set out to be a fine artist. Some individuals simply raised their bar, or got more ambitious.''