The Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Art defines Op Art as: “an exactly prescribed retinal response . . . repeated small scale patterns arranged so as to suggest underlying secondary shapes or warping or swelling surfaces.”
But Op Art was much more than that. During the 1960s, a time when the hallucinogenic LSD was widely described as a “mind-expanding drug,” Op Art zipped across boundaries of culture and politics to communicate the timely message that a new way of seeing had arrived.
The term Op Art was coined in 1964 by sculptor George Rickey (from “optical art,” it also played on Pop Art). Influenced in part by scientific studies in visual perception, the originators of Op Art were Hungarian geometric painter Victor Vasarely, and a remarkable young British woman named Bridget Riley.
Riley was born in London in 1931, but spent much of her childhood in Cornwall, on the southwestern tip of the British mainland, before returning to London to study art at Goldsmith’s College (1949-1952) and then the Royal College of Art (1952-1955). In the early 1960s, her black-and-white paintings of patterned wavy parallel lines created a sensation.
Even more so than with other new 20th-century art movements, critics were sharply divided on the merits of Op Art. But none of this mattered to the switched-on ’60s generation, which embraced Riley’s work — much of which was co-opted by graphic artists, printmakers and fashion designers. (Riley attempted, unsuccessfully, to sue an American clothing manufacturer for using one of her patterns.)
Riley has always traveled extensively (notably to Egypt and to the French countryside, where she still has a studio) and has continuously refined her work. She experimented with new shapes, introduced colors and later added semi-organic forms to complete the oeuvre which earned her the prize for painting in the 2003 Praemium Imperiale.
In an interview at the Kinsen Room of the New Otani Hotel, Riley, relaxed and smiling, discussed her art and her life.
The early part of your career, the 1960s, must have been a wonderful time for you. One of your paintings was on the cover of the catalog for the 1965 MoMA exhibition “The Responsive Eye,” which brought Op Art great public attention; and in 1968 you became the first Briton to win the painting prize at the Venice Biennale. How did all this get started?
Well, It was a wonderful time, I think it was one of the best periods in the whole of the century for British art. This is a little bit elliptical, but I think it quite definitely had something to do with the fact that the war had just finished. I was a child during the war, and I remember the powerful tenor which said again and again that “When the war is over, such and such will happen.” It was as if we would have a promised land. But when the war did end, in fact it was still very difficult. I think that only about 15 years later did we feel that we could start, that new things could happen. Everyone knows about The Beatles, well, we started afresh on all fronts.
I had been working as a figurative artist and not enjoying it much, and so I thought that if I wanted to have an adventure and find out about myself, I should look for a new approach. It seemed to me that abstraction had gone to sleep, as it were, and was waiting to be discovered. I decided to see what the potential of abstract art was. It also seemed that abstraction offered a truly international potential.
Although you initially worked exclusively in black and white, your painting style went through many changes over the years, the first of which was your decision to add color, in 1967.
Well, I think that I moved from black and white very gradually. First, I used and introduced grays, and grays in fact are marvelous; we talk about a gray area, well, gray is a number of shades, and so that brought a very different factor into my work. I then painted for several years with just two colors, and then did three-color paintings, and moved on to five-color paintings. Later I moved from five very soft colors to five very strong colors, which were influenced by a journey I made to Egypt, on my way to Japan when I was having an exhibition at your Museum of Modern Art (Bridget Riley, Works 1959-78: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 19 Jan.-2 March 1980). I went to many museums and tombs in Egypt, and that inspired me to darken my palette.
Do you have a favorite color?
I don’t think that I have a favorite color, in fact I know I don’t, really. Colors are useful. You find the colors that can do the job, or find what sort of job certain colors can do. For instance, yellow can never be a dark color and still be yellow.”
I don’t mean to offend, but yesterday when I showed my girlfriend some of your paintings, she said the pulsating lines made her feel nauseous. I imagine this is not the first time you have heard this. I wonder, did you ever paint a painting possessed of such a dizzying effect that when you stepped back and looked at it, you thought, “Whoa, no — that’s just too much”?
No, because what you are talking about is a conditioned response. In my first exhibitions in Europe, there were absolutely no responses like that. People certainly felt the sensations, but they found them exciting and stimulating, you know, lively. But when I went to America it was different, and strangely enough, it was the intellectuals who began commenting in this way. And I think it is because the intellectual mind can be a highly conditioned mind, used to looking at things and listening to things, and reading, and habits. And so, the unexpected, having familiar sensations in an unfamiliar context — like while viewing a painting — is what triggers off this response.
Thank you Ms. Riley
Thank you (laughing), and thanks for asking that question!
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