English painter and printmaker. She studied in London at Goldsmiths College (1949–52) and the Royal College of Art (1952–5). From 1958 to 1959 she worked in an advertising agency while painting in a pointillist technique. She was encouraged in this by her teacher, the painter Maurice de Sausmarez (d 1970), who directed her to study the art of Seurat. Her interest lay in the energy and colour vibrations radiated by objects, seen in Pink Landscape (1960; London, priv. col., see 1978 exh. cat., no. 3), which depicts the violent colour vibrations given off by an Italian landscape in intense heat. She later conveyed a similar effect of heat on landscape, from shale on a French mountain, in Static 3 (1966; U. Sydney, Power Gal. Contemp. A.), composed of 625 tiny ovals.
After her experiments with pointillism Riley turned to colour field painting (1959–61), but she was more interested in the optical effects or ‘bleeps’ between the shapes than in the relationship of figure to ground itself. In paintings such as Movement in Squares (1961; AC Eng) Riley found a technique that produced bleeps more effectively. She used simple shapes, such as squares, triangles and circles, and distorted them in every conceivable way. An excellent example of this is Straight Curve (1963; London, Cork Investments; see 1978 exh. cat., no. 9), which comprises triangles of varying sizes and shapes, arranged in regular order to produce the effect of an undulating canvas. In Blaze 2 (1963; Belfast, A.C. N. Ireland; for illustration see Op Art) the spiralling black and white V-shapes give the viewer the impression that the tunnel that they form is revolving. By this time she had also taken to using a multitude of parallel but curved lines. These give a billowing effect, as though the canvas were being agitated by a strong wind, as in Current (1964; New York, MOMA).
From 1961 to 1965 Riley worked in black and white. The sharp contrast means that some pictures of this period, such as the Blaze, Twist and Disfigured Circle series, make an aggressive and violent assault on the eye. Riley admitted that she was working off some psychological pressures at the time. After 1964 her works became more serene. She reintroduced colour in modulations of grey tinged with red and blue. The variations of tone and the undulating shapes gradually gave way to juxtaposed lines of pure colour, at first two colours, then a variety. The result was contrast produced by the effect of one colour on its complementary, either heightening or dulling it. It was particularly expressive in Late Morning (1968; London, Tate), consisting of 11 colours: red, blue, green and 8 hues between blue and green. The overall effect is of the freshness yet gathering heat and golden light of a summer’s morning.
In the 1970s Riley adopted colour induction; mainly through the use of white she infiltrated one colour into another, either to form a third or to diminish the effect of the others. This increased the expressive range of her pictures. She also reintroduced black, which gave them a profundity, seen, for example, in Cantus Firmus (1972–3; London, Tate). She returned, however, to curvilinear paintings, although this time using colour.
Following a visit to Egypt in 1980–81 Riley produced works such as the Ka and Ra series, which capture the spirit of the country, ancient and modern, and reflect the colours of the Egyptian landscape. They also make clear that her works are not psychological experiments in colour relationships or designs for sophisticated interior decoration, but penetrating visual presentations about the world and human experience. Like Vasarely she employed assistants to complete her paintings, recognizing that to achieve the effects of colour and surface that she wanted acrylics were preferable to oil paints, and that there would be no question of the ‘painter’s signature’. She maintained complete control, however, not only through her supervision of the work but by means of sketches and full-scale colour studies on paper.
D. C. Barrett
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press