Bridget Riley never ceases to amaze. Throughout her career, the visionary artist has continually challenged the ways we see and understand the world around us. Now, aged 90, she has no intention of stopping – and says she’s still learning from the mistakes of her past.
In an exclusive interview with BBC Newsnight, Riley, who is one of the UK’s most renowned artists, described herself as a sort of creative sociologist.
“I held a mirror up to human nature and reported faithfully,” she tells Kirsty Wark.
Art has contributed to her own understanding of the world, too. Artists have “borne witness” to society’s “changing circumstances and events, to horrors and as well as to wonder,” she says.
And as one of the most significant artists of the 20th and 21st century, Riley says she hopes her work has made a contribution to “order, stability and the joy of living.”
Born in London in 1931, Bridget Riley emerged onto the art scene in the 1960s with a series of abstract black and white geometric paintings.
Focusing on simple forms, such as lines, circles, curves and squares, Riley developed her own signature style – known as Op Art, or optical art – using optical illusions with the aim of actively engaging the viewer and disorientating them by triggering sensations of movement.
By the end of the 1960s, Riley introduced colour into her work and, in 1968, she became the first British contemporary artist and the first woman to win the Venice Biennale’s International Prize for Painting.
Although Riley is often described as an abstract artist, she isn’t comfortable with the term.
“I don’t know what that is… I go along with it.
“I’m a painter first and foremost. I explore and I try and understand and try to find out what I can look at, what can be seen.”
A fiercely private individual, Riley rarely gives interviews. But, discussing a career that has spanned six decades, Riley describes looking back at her previous work and making new discoveries.
“Sometimes they’re entirely old friends. Other times, I see things in them which I didn’t intend, didn’t see, didn’t hope for, or weren’t apparent to me.”
While retrospection is “tempting”, Riley says, “with the time I have still, I want to make the most use of it and explore further some of the possibilities I see.”
Swimming in a pool of diamonds
Riley’s artistic journey began in Cornwall, where, during World War 2, her family sought refuge as her father was drafted into the Army.
She credits this period, and the time she spent with her aunt, Bertha Joyce, who had studied art, with laying the foundations of her artistic personality and exposing her to a new way of seeing.
“It was beautiful… There was in fact nothing to do but look and enjoy and appreciate and move around in this extraordinarily beautiful landscape.”
Formative experiences in the countryside influenced and shaped her visual perceptions, which she describes as being like “swimming through a diamond.”
Bathing in a shallow pool in Cornwall, Riley recalls a specific moment seeing the “colours of the seaweed and anemones and other little things in it and, at the same time, there was a reflection from the cliff above.
“The mixture of all colours that you could perceive laying one upon another in this way… generated an extraordinary after-image.”
After the war, Riley enrolled in Goldsmiths College and at the Royal College of Art, where she developed her style and was influenced predominately by French post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat, who she attempted to copy in 1959.
Her copy of Seurat’s Bridge at Courbevoie, which hangs in the Courthold, was pivotal in Riley’s understanding of colour, tone and repetition.
‘No such thing as a mistake’
Beyond Seurat, Riley also sought inspiration from Cézanne, Mondrian, Matisse and Monet.
Building on Monet’s Water Lily series, Riley attempted in the early 1960s to create an expansive, three-dimensional piece of work. But although Riley’s aim was to draw the viewer in and create and immersive involvement, Continuum (1963), proved too “literal”.
“I thought I would make a big painting, which enveloped you physically and that was a great mistake… So I went back to flat painting and engaging you on a paintings’ proper condition, which is flat and open.”
Although Riley describes that work as a mistake, it provided an invaluable lesson.
“As Matisse said, ‘Don’t get rid of your mistakes’. They are the things that will help you to get to move, and to think, and to understand a little bit more about what you’re doing.”
Education and exposure to the arts paved the way for Riley’s successful career, and she is worried by the government’s recent cuts to the arts. There is a need for “government support and private enterprise to take a hand” in providing “vital” spaces for young artists to start their career, she says.
“The art… can be everything from a safety valve to a very highly-developed expression of complex responses.
“It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of wanting to do something, or wanting to make an effort.”
Now, the renowned nonagenarian artist is gearing up for her latest exhibition.
Past into Present, which will be shown at David Zwirner’s London gallery, principally features work from the last two years, but also includes references to the work of the past, both in her own practice and in the art of painting itself.
The exhibition will feature works from Riley’s current series Measure for Measure and Intervals.
Viewed together, these bodies of work underscore the consistency of Riley’s decades-long investigation of colour and form and her relentless experimentation with perception.
The exhibition is, in turn, the leading show in the inaugural London Gallery weekend – when private galleries all over the capital can finally throw their doors open to the public.
Kirsty Wark on meeting Bridget Riley
The possibility of an interview with one of the UK’s foremost and most important artists was tantalising.
Bridget Riley’s work has, so far, spanned 70 years, which is, I think, longer than any other contemporary artist in these islands. Her work ethic is astonishing – she never seems to flag – and her interrogation and forward march of her own art, constant.
The occasion for the interview was to be the opening of her latest exhibition Past into Present at the David Zwirner Gallery in London on 3 June, and I was beyond keen to speak to her. For me she is a real Titan as an artist. Her paintings are both rigorous and sensuous and her hold on colour unsurpassed and exciting.
First stop was the gallery, on Monday, to look at the latest hang. Bridget worked and reworked the hang and, over the weekend, she had made a change to the sequencing of her Intervals series, which she has painted during the pandemic, injecting a terrific infusion of turquoise.
The viewer looks at several canvases before heading to a room where there are even more intense, darker Measure for Measure canvases which are both exhilarating and pleasurable. The switch around made perfect sense.
Then it was off to morning coffee with the artist, and an hour long conversation ahead of our interview. I felt I had to be on my mettle, conscious that she had indicated she wanted to know why I like her paintings, but she greeted me with a huge smile, twinkling eyes, and a firm handshake; her grey hair framed around her face gamin-style, wearing a black t-shirt and black and grey trousers – looking every bit as cool as she has looked in photographs all the way from the 60s until now.
There followed a lively discussion about art, during which she proved to be a great educator and voracious reader about art and artists. Then, later in the morning, we met at a small, light-filled studio. When she arrived, she duly sat down in her bright white surroundings and our interview ranged over her influences, her move from black and white to other colours, her short unsuccessful foray into 3D, her childhood in Cornwall and the origins of her artistic sensibility, for which she gave her mother and aunt great credit, and the great joy she has watching children respond to her paintings.
Bridget Riley may be 90 but she is still an artist in her prime.