A New Exhibit Showcases the Mind-Bending Art of Bridget Riley

Six decades after she arrived on the scene, the British artist still makes waves

a colorful painting of twisted curves
Red, Green, and Blue Twisted Curves, 1979. The “spectator who looks at my work is part of the work itself,” Riley has said. Collection of the artist. ©Bridget Riley 2022. All rights reserved

A central figure in the Op Art movement in the 1960s and ’70s, Bridget Riley is known for pictures that can provoke uncanny feelings in anyone who stares at them long enough. “No painter, dead or alive, has ever made us more aware of our eyes,” the art critic Robert Melville wrote in 1971, describing works that seemed to shift, vibrate or shimmer as they “release hitherto unknown energies from simple forms and flat color.” Today, the 91-year-old British painter is on a short list of top-selling living women artists, with one canvas commanding $5.2 million at auction earlier this year. The visual—and perhaps visceral—experience elicited by the at times dizzying effect of Riley’s imagery remains as potent as ever, says Jay Clarke, co-curator of a new solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago that brings together 90 works from Riley’s personal collection, dating from the 1940s to today. The Art Institute deliberately included few explanatory labels, Clarke says, noting that Riley’s images require viewers’ full attention for their effect to emerge. “She’s not one of those artists where you just glance at the work and move on. The pictures do move, but it takes time, and the longer you look, the more will come out.”   

a painting of a landscape
Blue Landscape by Bridget Riley,1959. © Bridget Riley 2022. All rights reserved.
a colorful drawing of a man having a picnic in a garden setting
Man in Garden (Lincolnshire) by Bridget Riley,1952-55. © Bridget Riley 2022. All rights reserved.
a colorful painting of curved lines
New Curves—January 2 ’99 by Bridget Riley, 1999. © Bridget Riley 2022. All rights reserved.
a charcoal drawing
Self-Portrait by Bridget Riley,1956. 
  Collection of the artist. ©Bridget Riley 2022. All rights reserved
black and whiter squares creating an illusion
Study for Movement in Squares by Bridget Riley, 1961. Collection of the artist. ©Bridget Riley 2022. All rights reserved
a geometric circle checkered pattern
Untitled by Bridget Riley,1960. 
  © Bridget Riley 2022. All rights reserved.

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This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian magazine