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Bridget Riley is one of Britain’s leading living artists and is best known as a pioneer of Op Art, a form of abstract art that focuses on the optical properties of color, and of varied repetitions of lines and other motifs. Earlier exponents of what was later called Op Art were Victor Vasarely and Josef Albers, but Riley’s research interests went back to the work of the Post-Impressionists, Van Gogh, Cézanne and Seurat. Their response to new scientific color theories led to the use of broken brushstrokes and dabs of colors to create new optical effects.
Riley was born in 1931, the daughter of a commercial printer, and spent the pre-war years in Cornwall. Her father was a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese in the Second World War, and the artist’s formative influence was her aunt, Bertha Joyce, who had herself studied art. At school, and from 1949-52 at Goldsmiths and then at the Royal College of Art, Riley studied the Impressionists and Van Gogh. But her artistic development was interrupted by a nervous breakdown and a period at home in Lincolnshire. On her return to London in 1956, the American Abstract Expressionists had a strong impact on her. On a visit to Italy, she discovered the Italian Futurists, black and white marble churches and early Renaissance frescoes.
Following early paintings in a Post-Impressionist style, in 1960 Riley began the optically vibrant black and white paintings that she developed alongside her close friend Peter Sedgely (see Movement in Squares). Repeated elements, lines or dots, in black and white or shades of grey, were arranged to create effects of depth, movement and vibration. These instantly made her reputation and Op Art captured the public imagination. To Riley’s annoyance, her innovative and distinctive imagery was rapidly commercialized by the fashion and advertising industries of the swinging sixties.
By the mid-1960s, Riley had been represented in several...