Bridget Riley: ‘Her prints are so emotional. It’s like watching a high-wire act’

As a number of the artist’s early monochrome prints come to auction in London, specialist Murray Macaulay explains why Riley’s works are anything but ‘dry optical exercises’

Bridget Riley in 1964, photographed by Jorge Lewinski

Bridget Riley, 1964. Photo: © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth. All Rights Reserved 2024 / Bridgeman Images. Artwork: © Bridget Riley 2024. All rights reserved

In 1960 Bridget Riley was caught in a storm in Venice and took shelter in a piazza. As she watched the rain flood the square, she noticed that the checkerboard pattern shimmered and morphed like a fun-house mirror. When the sun came out, the water evaporated, and the black and white floor returned to its solid state.

The experience was something of a revelation for the artist: here was a solid object that could, in the right conditions, transmute. Two years later, in 1962, Riley held her first solo exhibition, at Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One in London. It was, said the art critic David Sylvester, ‘an assault’ on the senses — a series of dazzling interference patterns in black and white that buckled and jittered, acting like an electric charge on the brain.

Bridget Riley (b. 1931), Untitled (Circular Movement), 1962. Screenprint on wove paper, signed in pencil, numbered 9/35 (there were also two artist’s proofs). Image: 159 x 159 mm. Sheet: 272 x 271 mm. Sold for £30,240 on 27 March 2024 at Christie’s Online. Artwork: © Bridget Riley 2024. All rights reserved

Riley never intended her paintings to be an attack, but rather a celebration of the senses. She wanted her audience to be reminded of the thrill of looking. ‘It’s a funny old thing,’ she said of the Op art movement to which she unwittingly became affiliated after featuring in a blockbuster exhibition at MoMA in New York in 1965. Her zigzags and waves were based on instinct, not a mathematical formula, and honed by her childhood memories of watching the reflections in rock pools on the Cornish coast.

Born in 1931, Riley studied under the dynamic Sam Rabin at Goldsmiths, University of London, before completing an MA at the Royal College of Art in 1955. But it was not until her discovery of Georges Seurat’s colour theories in the late 1950s that the artist found a way of turning her love of the natural world into abstraction. ‘He developed a technique you have to actively participate in, a form of active looking,’ she said.

‘Riley’s early monochromes are highly collectable because they are so loved — you rarely see them come up at auction’
Murray Macaulay

In 1958 Riley saw an exhibition of drip paintings by Jackson Pollock at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. ‘He was absolutely now,’ she said. ‘It was immensely reassuring that something so bold and daring could actually exist in the present time, that it had not been lost or destroyed by the war.’

Riley’s first exhibition coincided with a time of great change in Britain, as the country emerged from the ration-book economy of the 1950s into the modern era. For some, her eyeball kicks were the visual expression of 1960s psychedelia (the sort of canvases that got you high just by looking at them), but others recognised Riley’s rigorous experimentation as the shock needed to see this brave new world.

Bridget Riley (b. 1931), Untitled (based on Blaze), 1964. Screenprint on wove paper, signed and dated in pencil, numbered 15/50 (there were also five artist’s proofs). Image: 363 x 363 mm. Sheet: 527 x 527 mm. Sold for £40,320 on 27 March 2024 at Christie’s Online. Artwork: © Bridget Riley 2024. All rights reserved

In a new reality of radical and popular politics, printmaking came into its own. Its democratic nature appealed to young artists keen to find a more egalitarian way of making art, and chimed with Pop art’s focus on advertising and commercial reproduction.

At first Riley had been wary of the medium: ‘For me, prints were what you saw in the British Museum, with that very handmade look.’ However, new technical innovations suggested that printmaking might offer Riley the sharpening clarity she was looking for. ‘We were excited about trying new materials — we all wanted the new!’ she said. The artist made her first print in 1961: Untitled [Based on Movement in Squares] (Schubert 1) was inspired by that revelatory day in Venice the previous year.

Other editions soon followed, including Untitled (Circular Movement) in 1962, and Untitled (based on Blaze) in 1964, which are among a series of early works by Riley offered online in Prints and Multiples until 27 March 2024. According to Christie’s head of Prints and Multiples Murray Macaulay, ‘Riley’s early monochromes are highly collectable because they are so loved — you rarely see them come up at auction.’

Bridget Riley (b. 1931), Untitled (Fragment 7), from: Fragments, 1965. Screenprint in black and white on Plexiglas, with the artist’s incised signature and date, numbered 15/75 on the reverse (there were also five artist’s proofs). Image: 483 x 965 mm. Sold for £23,940 on 27 March 2024 at Christie’s Online. Artwork: © Bridget Riley 2024. All rights reserved

In 1965, the artist became her most experimental when she pioneered printing with a new type of plastic: Plexiglas. This transparent material was perfect for an artist with a precise sensibility. ‘These works have a completely machine-made look, totally smooth and high-tech,’ says Macaulay. ‘They really encapsulate that modern feeling.’

The ink is printed on the back of the Plexiglas and framed against white paper. When light hits the surface, it illuminates the paper, making the image appear as if it is floating in space. ‘For an artist preoccupied with the conundrum of how you represent an object in space on a flat surface, Plexiglas offered another dimension, somewhere between sculpture and painting,’ says the specialist.

Bridget Riley (b. 1931), Untitled (Fragment 2), from: Fragments, 1965. Screenprint in black and white on Plexiglas, with the artist’s incised signature and date, presumably aside from the edition of 75 (there were also four artist’s proofs). Image: 686 x 667 mm. Sold for £20,160 on 27 March 2024 at Christie’s Online. Artwork: © Bridget Riley 2024. All rights reserved

The prints, titled Fragments, were exhibited at the Robert Fraser Gallery in 1965, and were the only series to be made using the material. They marked a key moment in the artist’s early career, as she moved from the intense visual agitation of her black and white paintings to one of experimentation with various tones of grey, from warm to cool.

‘Her prints have always been very much in step with her paintings,’ says Macaulay. ‘She is such a methodical painter, and the same quality can be seen in her printmaking. It has an austerity that absolutely fits with her sensibility.’

When she launched into colour in her paintings from the late 1960s, printmaking was close behind. Riley used the medium to make statements about colour relationships — as in the dazzling Firebird (1971) and the later Ra (Inverted), from 2009, in which the colours give off different effects depending on how they are ordered.

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‘I sometimes wonder whether people read her work as dry optical exercises,’ says the specialist. ‘In reality, they are so emotional. There’s real tension and release. It’s like watching a high-wire act.

‘Bridget Riley’s art is all about perfection, and her prints reflect that absolutely.’

Christie’s Prints and Multiples season runs until 27 March 2024, with Contemporary Edition: London and Prints and Multiples now open for bidding online

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