Even for those familiar with modernism’s history in the latter half of the 20th century, the story of the life of the British painter Bridget Riley and the development of her work is not very well known. Now, though, Paul Moorhouse’s well-researched, lucid new biography, Bridget Riley: A Very Very Person (Ridinghouse, 2019) may help reveal to a broad audience the full scope and richness of her unusual, distinctive oeuvre, which was recognized in the 1960s as the embodiment of Op Art.
A former senior curator at London’s Tate Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, Moorhouse first met Riley, who was born in 1931, around the time he was organizing a small retrospective exhibition of her work at the first of those two institutions.
That presentation, in 2003, followed a 1998 show at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, a small museum in the Lake District in northwestern England. During a recent telephone interview, speaking from his home in London, Moorhouse recalled that the Abbot Hall exhibition had “marked a turning point in Riley’s career, for she had been eclipsed, and not much had been heard about her or her art for more than two decades until that time.”
His new Riley biography, he notes in its introduction, is a response to “a dearth of information about the artist herself” that characterizes the existing literature about her career and the innovative works of geometric abstraction for which she is best known. Subtitled “The Early Years,” it covers the period from Riley’s birth in London through her breakthrough onto the international art scene in the mid-1960s.
Moorhouse writes that, although “the perceptual experiences” that Riley’s abstract paintings generate “are self-contained, it would be a mistake to assume that their significance is only optical.” Like Pablo Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson, or, more recently, Jed Perl, the author of the first-ever, in-depth biography of Alexander Calder, Moorhouse digs into the details of his subject’s life story in order to comprehend her interest in art and her approach to making it, as well as the character of what she created.
For Moorhouse, the key to understanding her dynamically patterned, optically dazzling paintings lies in the recognition that, as he observed in our recent conversation, “even though her abstract works feel so self-contained, they are rooted in personal expression and express a personality.”
His book aims to bring together the story of Riley’s life and that of her singular art, which evolved out of her earlier, intensive engagement with drawing and her exploration of the Impressionists’ pointillist technique, and to show that they are inseparable. To gather the information he needed in order to analyze such an indelible, life-and-art connection, he began interviewing Riley in depth in 2014.
“We met at her home in London every Friday,” he told me, noting that, as his encounters with the artist progressed, Riley, who was going through a personal break-up, said of their regular chats, “This really is helping me.” He described Riley as candid, but he added, “She is very intense and does nothing by half measures, and may be seen as an uncompromising person. Her powers of recollection are astonishing.” When the artist was a little girl, one of her grandmothers described her as “a very very person.”
Moorhouse gleaned from Riley a vivid sense of her childhood years in London and in a cottage in coastal Cornwall, in southwestern England, where Bridget, her younger sister, her mother, and her aunt, a woman who had studied art at Goldsmiths’ College in London and had been “something of a flapper, complete with bobbed hair and an emancipated outlook on life,” rode out the tense years of World War II while the future artist’s father, Jack, a printer, served in the military. For the women and girls, it was a time of anxiety and making-do, but young Bridget reveled in her immersion in nature, enchanted by the sea and the textures of the earth.
Moorhouse writes, “By the time she started school, Bridget was already a very difficult child. At an early age she had begun to be uncooperative, refusing to eat and being generally stubborn. […] Determined and obstinate, [she] did well at school but did not enjoy the learning environment.”
However, “in her nature studies she was said to be very interested and observant,” and her teachers recognized that she was artistically inclined. Later during the war years, the Riley sisters were sent to a Roman Catholic boarding school, where Bridget, sorely missing her seaside home, felt restless and out of place.
Riley’s father, who had become a POW in Southeast Asia, survived the experience and returned safely to England. Reunited, the Rileys moved back to a house in which they had earlier resided in Boston, north of London, where Bridget set up an art studio. For the teenager, Moorhouse writes, “drawing became a developing passion and provided a focus for exploring her interior life.”
“One of her earliest efforts was a picture depicting the explosion of an atomic bomb,” Moorhouse writes, but she also drew buildings, gardens, still lifes, and portraits. Riley went on to complete her secondary-school education, reluctantly, at another boarding school, where she sometimes got into trouble and was punished. However, she also found encouragement in the teaching of a young art instructor, Colin Hayes, who had attended the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford and was a protégé of Kenneth Clark, a former director of the National Gallery in London.
Riley learned a lot from Hayes, who admired the work of Rembrandt, Renoir, Bonnard, and Matisse. About his teaching method, Moorhouse writes — in an observation that sounds quaint in the face of today’s still-persistent, if worn-out, postmodernist “appropriationist” gestures and dogged rejection of technical proficiency — that “[c]entral to his approach was the principle that in order to fully comprehend a subject it was necessary to draw it.”
Although Riley’s parents were concerned about her material security as a woman in society, they accepted her decision to try to enter an art school and were suitably supportive when she landed a place at Goldsmiths’ College, where she began studying in 1949. She was 18 years old. However shy and immature she felt at first there, she also felt at home. Moorhouse writes, “The prospect of embarking on a life with art as its focus felt positive and celebratory, almost a luxury. Later she recalled, ‘I wanted joy.’”
At Goldsmiths’, she had hoped “to develop the means of responding to visual experience in pictorial terms,” but she was disappointed by the character of the instruction she received. Years later, as Moorhouse notes, in the catalogue of an exhibition of her early portrait drawings at the National Portrait Gallery in London, in 2010, Riley herself recalled that she had felt “unable to get to grips with some of the real problems of painting,” such as, for example, how to get started in the first place.
Moorhouse goes on to recount how Riley fell in with art-school cool kids and learned about the bohemian lifestyle, steeped herself in modernism’s developments, and tried her hand at various genres. She also became romantically involved with one of her former teachers and traveled with him to Europe to view, in person, masterpieces in some of the continent’s most venerable museums.
Still, Riley continued to slog through an agonizing, almost immobilizing struggle — even during later studies at the Royal Academy of Art — to make art she could genuinely call her own. Her goal: to create work that would capture the soul-stirring sensory exhilaration that had long marked her engagement with the world.
Her breakthrough came, as such discoveries often do, unexpectedly, at the beginning of the 1960s, as some drawing experiments with simple shapes in black and white, repeated and methodically manipulated, yielded stunning patterns. They were sensuous and teased the eye.
Moorhouse writes that Riley already had been taken by the notion “that something as rudimentary as a line contained within itself seeds that could evolve into sophisticated and subtle arrangements.” In time, he notes, looking itself became her subject. The conceptually simple, carefully crafted paintings she produced eventually became known as Op Art, a label she disliked. They represented, Moorhouse writes, “a new way of working characterised by absolute clarity, total purity of form and, in terms of its making, an objective, disciplined empiricism.”
In the autumn of 1961, Riley literally stumbled into the poet and art dealer Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One in London, an encounter that led to her first solo exhibition there and the launch of a career in which her razzle-dazzle creations seized the attention of enthusiastic collectors — she had to hire assistants to produce her paintings, since she could not make them fast enough herself to satisfy demand — and, ultimately, of the art world across the Atlantic, too. Her rising stature was cemented by the prominent inclusion of her work in The Responsive Eye, an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1965 showcasing new art forms that explored optical sensations.
The British critic David Sylvester pretty much nailed what Riley was up to when he wrote about her debut solo show at Musgrave’s in 1961. Her work’s “proposing and disposing of order” appeared to be “no mere game with optical effects,” he observed, but rather a dramatic “interplay of feelings of composure and anxiety.”
American critics were less appreciative. Some dismissed Riley’s paintings as all surface play, without thematic depth, but some of her fellow artists from the MoMA exhibition, including Josef Albers and Ad Reinhardt, savored her innovative achievements.
For better or worse, Op Art became another emblem of the swinging Sixties, even if Riley’s star faded (in those lean years, “I was eating paper” she told Moorhouse), only to shine again some two decades later, thanks largely to the promotional efforts of the recently deceased London art dealer Karsten Schubert, who recognized its uniqueness and hipness factor.
Moorhouse’s book traces Riley’s creative journey through the period of the 1965 MoMA show; he is now working on a sequel that will cover the later decades of her career. Right now, through September 22, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh is presenting Bridget Riley, a retrospective featuring signature examples of the artist’s Op Art paintings, along with rarely seen earlier works and later canvases, in which she explored color and pattern.
“Riley created a way of working that she almost exclusively occupies,” Moorhouse told me, adding, “She made art of her time that is highly idiosyncratic and, historically, she holds a highly individualistic position. She created a language to which she has remained steadfastly faithful.”
Bridget Riley: A Very Very Person (2019) by Paul Moorhouse is published by Ridinghouse.