Visual Arts in Ayrshire
Bridget Riley CH CBE b1931
Bridget Riley CH CBE b1931
Bridget Riley CH CBE b1931
In 1961, with partner Peter Sedgley, she visited the Vaucluse plateau in the South of France, and acquired a derelict farm which would eventually be transformed into a studio. Back in London, in the spring of 1962, Riley was given her first solo exhibition, by Victor Musgrave of Studio One.
In 1968 Riley, with Peter Sedgley and the journalist Peter Townsend, created the artists' organization SPACE (Space Provision Artistic Cultural and Educational), with the goal of providing artists large and affordable studio space.
One day during the War, as the young Bridget Riley swam off the coast of Cornwall, 'a glitter of bright sunlight and its tiny pinpoints of virtually black shadow' made her suddenly feel like she was 'swimming through a diamond.' Forty-odd years later, in 'The Pleasures of Sight' (1984), she reflected that experiences like this had been the 'basis of her visual life'.
On the other side of what she calls the 'plate glass window' of adulthood, she works from this excitement about the experience of seeing. In 1968, her ability to communicate this in paint made her the first woman – and the first Briton – to win the Venice International Painting Prize, in a year of protests that would see Biennale prizes abolished. Coincidentally, they would return the year she did, 1986.
In wartime Cornwall, she was cared for by her aunt, who had studied painting at Goldsmiths' College, and her mother, who passed on a taste for reading, and a delighted eye for natural colour. As she'd had a fairly irregular education up until the end of the war, Cheltenham Ladies' College allowed her to invent her own curriculum, and, aged only fourteen, she settled on a mixture of Art and 'Citizenship', a kind of social studies course.
Encouraged by the school art teacher – future Royal College of Art tutor Colin Hayes – Riley applied to Goldsmiths' herself in 1949. Her application included a copy of Van Eyck's Man with a Red Turban, chosen out of a fascination with its contrast of vivid headdress and black space, and a belief that 'copying is the old way of learning.' On acceptance, her good fortune with teachers continued with the 'disciplined and informed', methodical approach of Sam Rabin, who taught her 'about the only thing [she] ever learnt at art school': life drawing.
In 1952 she moved to the Royal College of Art, where, by her own admission, without the structure she had become used to, she 'floundered' at the question 'what should I paint, and how should I paint it?' No answers came after graduation in 1955, or for the rest of the decade. Depressed, she nursed her father after a serious car accident, and worked in a variety of jobs. One of these was teaching children, though, and she started to develop 'an interest in repetitive rhythms' and strengthen her belief in the 'inventive potential [of] strict limitations.'
At the close of the 1950s, Riley began to find answers for how her painting might use focus, abstraction, and colour. Jackson Pollock's 1958 Whitechapel Gallery show, for example, provided an example of 'multi-focal space'; painting that doesn't let the eye settle solely on one point. Although she acknowledged the development began with the Piet Mondrian, a Dutchman, it seemed peculiarly American in contrast to the 'focally centred' European art she knew.
At this point, according to Paul Moorhouse, she was 'convinced' that 'abstract form was not for her'. This began to change in 1959, when her paintings were included in the ICA's The Developing Process exhibition, an exploration of creativity curated by art school teachers Victor Pasmore and Harry Thubron. Inspired, she attended Thubron's summer school in Suffolk, where she met the older Maurice de Sausmarez, and discovered theorists like Klee and Kandinsky.
That year, she copied Seurat's Bridge at Courbevoie (c.1866-7), aiming to learn from someone who, rather than 'external reality', painted 'his own structure of sight'. She now began to 'dismember, to dissect the visual experience', and painted the figurative Pink Landscape (1960) in shimmering, coloured dots; an 'equivalent sensation' of a heat-hazed day in the Sienese hills with de Sausmarez.
Riley looked back at the 1960s as 'a unique point in time […] an explosion of confidence, elation and drive which seemed at the time to be completely normal'. But they opened with attempts to paint an entirely black piece; an expression of her frustration with de Sausmarez.
Out of her eventual failure, and exposure to 'Hard-edge' painters like Ellsworth Kelly, she produced the first of her iconic black-and-white paintings. Kiss (1961), for example, keeps two unequally-sized bodies of black acrylic tantalizingly separate with a horizontal curving sliver of white. Again, the discipline proved liberating.
Later that year, she had a run of good luck. A London rainstorm forced her under the doorway of Gallery One, and the owner, Victor Musgrave, invited her in, and asked what was in her folder. Impressed, the following Spring he put on her first solo exhibition, of pieces The Observer described as 'experiments in perceptual experience [in which] black and white patterns of geometrical shapes bring the flat picture surface alive and vibrant to an extraordinary degree.'
This gave Riley the confidence to leave her advertising job, which nevertheless, accidentally continued paying her for another two years.
In 1965, two of Riley's black and white works were included in the New York Museum of Modern Art's The Responsive Eye. Current (1964) was chosen as the cover image for the exhibition catalogue, and she became representative of 'Op[tical] art' on a world stage. Praise for the show was extravagant; John Canaday called the exhibited pieces 'the only objects being created today, as art, that can compete with launching pads and industrial machinery as expressions of the character unique to our civilization.'
Shortly after, a New York firm made a dress based on a Riley work owned by one of its directors; sensing a worrying precedent, she attempted legal action. Although directly unsuccessful, the action led to the first US copyright legislation in 1967.
Back in London, Riley, angry at her work being 'vulgarized in the rag trade' – both newspaper and cloth – complained 'it will take at least twenty years before anyone looks at my paintings seriously again'. In fact, her growing credibility was confirmed when she was nominated to represent Britain alongside sculptor Phillip King at the 1968 Biennale.
In the accompanying catalogue, David Thompson suggested 'she is exhibiting in Venice at one of those moments in an artist's development which mark both a climax and a new departure.'
Where Arrest I-III (1965) and Drift (1966) had moved into coloured greys, Chant II and Cataract III (both 1967), shown in the British Pavilion, re-introduced colour, in vertical stripes and tight, wave like-curves, respectively, both apparently vibrating in blue, red and white. The show received international acclaim, and Edward Lucie-Smith wrote 'in choosing an individualist of this stamp, the jury in Venice have done something to rescue the reputation of the Biennale.'
Riley had tried, but failed to negotiate with the student protestors at the Biennale, but later that year, she made her own major contribution to the 'year of revolution'. On her return, she set up S.P.A.C.E. (Space Provision Artistic Cultural and Educational) with Peter Sedgely in East London's St. Katherine's Dock; in 2008, the organization still provides 'affordable studios so that emerging artistic talent is allowed to fulfil its potential and London maintains its global role as a leading creative community.'
Since 1968, Riley has continued to travel, write, lecture, exhibit and paint prolifically. Rather than simply developing over time, Moorhouse argues her career has structured itself around a process of 'statement, contradiction, fusion, echo and the redevelopment and mutation of earlier ideas.'
One example is large temporary wall painting for the Berlin Kunsthalle's 1997 White Noise exhibition, which shows a continued interest in visual manipulation, this time through what Robert Kudielka called 'deep, but not illusionistic, space'.
Riley has also consistently used her enduring public profile to champion the arts; the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing is the product of her almost single-handed campaign to reject an alternative, commercial, project for Trafalgar Square in the 1980s.
Tom Overton, 2009.
This page is based on recollections by Mike Bailey
, and other published sources. Mrs Mary E Maclaurin's
Trust is a Registered Scottish Charity
Maclaurin Art Collection ~ Updated March 5, 2016