Bridget Riley b. 1931


Robert Fraser Gallery, London

Richard Feigen Gallery, New York

Private Collection, UK


The present work is one of several studies for a larger painting of the same title and date, now in the permanent collection of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Netherlands. (Fig.1) The creative method on which Riley’s paintings are based often include various ‘phases’ and her drawings both form an important part of this process and exist as significant works in their own right. When interviewing Riley in 1967, Maurcie de Sausmarez has described this process as follows,

‘… if you could describe the phases through which an idea moves it might be something like this- initially you have a sort of ‘hunch’ about a configuration and the unit involved. Then you put the unit, or structural elements that have occurred to you, through a whole series of different situational responses, provoking them, so to speak, to vibrate against each other in several ways, in a set of structural variations. This goes down in a number of small physical notations and drawings. Often I suppose it is only necessary for you to work out a quite small fragment to see the potentialities in it.’ (1)

This is the case in Study for Breathe, 1966 in which one can see Riley working out the forms, which will eventually fill the whole picture plane in the final painting, as a fragment on the page. In her drawings Riley can be seen to be harnessing certain potential forces and playing them against each other to create new sensations. The effect of creating these relationships on a smaller, more condensed scale in this drawing is that the sensation of an intense energy is created, encouraging a faster visual frequency in the work. As de Suasmarez has suggested,

‘Breathe is a really slow painting...and yet the elements used to bring it about are quite powerful.’ (2)

The titles of Riley’s works often link her pictures with certain visual or physiological sensations and in Study for Breathe, the elongated triangles mimic the motions of taking in breathe quickly as they dramatically rise and fall down the page, alluding to feeling of the sharp intake of breath. Where In Study for Breathe, this sensation is centred with equal spacing between each triangle in the final painting, the triangles are built on an off- centre organization consisting of a short and speedy movement on the left and along slow one to the right. Yet, as Robert Kudielka explains,

‘…The grand, voluminous pulse, the ‘breath’ of the painting, is nevertheless puzzling, and it is with a mixture of surprise and delight that one realizes that it is through an ingenious distraction of our attention that this sensation is achieved. The pace of the progressions is dilated by moving in steps of two instead of one.’ (3)

Since the very beginning of her career and within her ‘black and white period’ (961- 1966) Riley sought to turn away from literal depiction, in order to create a new mode of painting, capable of stirring and containing visual sensation. The repetition of similar elements (e.g. lines, triangles, circles & curves) had the effect of overloading the viewer's eye with information creating an unsettling perceptual experience. The series of works relating to Breathe are some of Riley’s last from this period, which was marked a by intense work and which catapulted Riley to international recognition and led to the inclusion of her work in the ‘The Responsive Eye’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965.

1 In conversation with Maurice de Sausmarez’ Bridget Riley, Works 1960- 1966, exhibition catalogue, Hazlitt Holland Hibbert and Karsten Shubert, 2012, p84
2 Ibid, p85
3 Robert Kudielka, ‘Building Sensations, The Early Work of Bridget Riley’ Bridget Riley, Paintings from the 1960s and 70s, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, 18 June- 30 August 1999, p28