Bridget Riley was born at Norwood, London, in 1931. Riley gained attention for her illusionary black and white paintings in the 1960s and was grouped under the category of ‘Op art’ (optical art). Riley’s works are abstract but intimate as they make us physically feel something, replicating subjective sensations much like that of memory.
Riley gained attention at the height of the feminist movement, and many art historians and critics attempted to define her work by its femininity. In an endeavor to remove herself from those who wished to classify her work by gender, she wrote an essay titled ‘The Hermaphrodite’.
The essay expressed her thoughts on the matter clearly: “Women’s liberation, when applied to artists, seems to me to be a naive concept… At this point in time, artists who happen to be women need this particular form of hysteria like they need a hole in the head.” Riley felt limited by classifications based on gender identity, she called it a “Red Herring”.
The artist also believed that the realm of art-making was gender neutral: “I have never been aware of my femininity as such, when in the studio. Nor do I believe that male artists are aware of an exclusive masculinity while they are at work.” She asserts her right as an artist regardless of gender and suggests “Women as artists, should focus on how to start, lead and sustain a creative life. It’s not a question of style or a break with tradition.”
In her refusal to align herself with feminism and the lack of understanding as to why she did this, she was left outside of the feminist canon and consequently art-historical discourse. This has changed and she is now a celebrated British artist.
Although Riley does not wish to be associated with feminism, she is an artist who has resisted traditional expectations of what women can and should do. Look out for her major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in October.