Riley swung the 60s with her reality-shifting creations. Now, in a new show to mark her 90th birthday, you can see them in all their glory
Bridget Riley gave abstract art the neurological impact of a mind-altering substance six decades ago when she started painting black-and-white spirals, waves and folds that confuse perception. A new exhibition to mark her 90th birthday earlier this year is called Pleasures of Sight, but the happiness she provokes in us is really in our brains. The delight of Riley’s art comes from the way she can make the mind see mountains and valleys, vertigo-inducing swoops and sudden movements that are not there.
She is the only British painter to change the history of abstract art. In the 1950s, the most exciting art in the world came from New York. Jackson Pollock, whose work made a huge impression on Riley when she saw his famous show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1958, made painting feel like a living “action” instead of a framed picture: he and the other American action painters created art on an embracing scale, one that you could fall into. Riley felt its power yet changed its nature. Since the start of the 60s she has painted on that same big, open, potentially limitless scale yet with a scientific realism. Instead of relying on woozy romantic feeling, she aims for quantifiable, physical results.