Bridget Rileys clean, graphic abstractions, bristling with the illusion of movement, made the British painter an instant art world darling in the 1960s and ’70s. By the 1980s, her catchy brand of Op art had fallen out of favor, but over the past decade tastes have changed once again, and the market for the 79-year-old’s work is making up for lost time.
Riley’s black-and-white paintings of the early 1960s, in which space seems to advance and buckle, thanks to her careful calibration of repeated shapes, placed the young artist in the vanguard of Op art. She catapulted to international art stardom in the mid 1960s when New York’s Museum of Modern Art included her alongside such talents as Josef Albers and Ellsworth Kelly in its 1965 exhibition "The Responsive Eye" and the fashion designer (and museum founder) Larry Aldrich printed knockoffs of her images on fabric for a popular dress collection. Later in the decade Riley shifted to nuanced color, and in 1968, with three monumental striped canvases that seem to radiate light, she was the first woman and first contemporary British artist to win the international painting prize at the Venice Biennale. In the 1970s she gained widespread respect with her studied approach to the perceptual relationships between colors.
Riley’s disciplined work lost ground to the untamed, assertive gestures of the Neo-Expressionists in the 1980s, but a 1999 show at London’s Serpentine Gallery of pictures from her heyday triggered a resurgence of interest in her optical experiments. In 2000 she was reintroduced to the New York art world with simultaneous exhibitions at the Dia Art Center and PaceWildenstein, and in 2003 the Tate Britain organized a major Riley retrospective.
"The art world has taken a second look at Bridget Riley and realized there was a reason she was so famous almost 50 years ago," says PaceWildenstein president Douglas Baxter, who sold pieces out of the gallery’s 2000 show to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in Kansas City, Missouri, and mounted exhibitions of her new work in 2004 and 2007. According to Baxter, the artist’s older paintings have risen steadily in value over the past decade, and demand is strong for her recent ones, which are characterized by curving bands of color and whose prices start in the mid six figures, depending on size.
It is the paintings from the ’60s and ’70s, though, that are the most coveted. Chant 2, 1967, part of the trio shown in the Venice Biennale, hit the block in 2008 at Sotheby’s London. The painting, a series of vertical red and blue lines subtly graduated in width, went to a private American collector for £2,561,250 ($5.1 million), almost double the record established at Christie’s London earlier that year by the artist’s dotted canvas Static 2, 1966, which brought £1,476,500 ($2.9 million), far exceeding its £900,000 ($1.8 million) high estimate.
"Without a doubt, what’s driving the high prices in recent years — as with many renaissance markets for certain artists — is the inspiration she’s providing to a younger generation," says Francis Outred, the head of postwar and contemporary art for Christie’s Europe. Artists who have acknowledged Riley’s influence include Ross Bleckner, Philip Taaffe, and Diana Thater. Not that Riley has been immune to larger economic trends: Three out of four of her canvases put up at auction in 2009, during an overall market decline, failed to sell. But Outred feels that her best and rarest paintings are nearly recession proof. Devotion among collectors is such that "if a major work like [Chant 2] came to auction now," he says, "it would make the same price it did at the peak of the market."
Born in London in 1931 and raised in Cornwall during the war, Riley studied life drawing at Goldsmiths College, continuing her training at the Royal College of Art information">Royal College of Art, from which she graduated in 1955. She went through a period of uncertainty, attracted to Abstract Expressionism, Futurism, and Georges Seurat before finding her own approach to abstraction in her breakthrough painting, Kiss, 1961, in which two large black shapes — one straight edged, one gently curved — almost meet, creating what the artist has called a "tiny visual flash." Her paintings from that decade, which became emblematic of the psychedelic movement, account for her top five auction records.
According to Karsten Schubert, of London, Riley’s primary dealer since 1990, the artist’s prices drop a little with each successive decade of her output. "But the paintings from the 1970s are even rarer than the ’60s ones," he says. The record for a ’70s canvas is £692,500 ($1.3 million), achieved by Entice 2, 1974, at Sotheby’s London in 2008. Schubert confirms the recent private sale of a ’70s painting for around £1 million ($1.5 million).
"The 1980s was a very difficult period for her," says the dealer. "Having gone from being a superstar to being forgotten and marginalized, she just retreated to her studio." Outred considers Riley’s striped paintings from the early ’80s the biggest potential growth area in her market. The highest auction price for one of these is £367,200 ($726,000), paid at Christie’s London in 2007 for the 1981 Early Light. Schubert notes, however, that the ’80s paintings vary in size, and larger ones have sold privately for more than £500,000 ($750,000). He is currently offering the 1989 Set Fair for £450,000 ($676,000).
Last fall Schubert partnered with the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London to exhibit Riley’s monumental wall paintings (first shown in Berlin in 2007, at Galerie Max Hetzler). Schubert also sells new gouaches for £25,000 ($37,000) and prints starting at £2,000 ($3,000). "The prints are a key aspect of her work and are undervalued," says Outred. "You can still find major ’60s prints for under $15,000." Untitled (based on Movement in Squares), 1962, holds the record for one of these works at auction: £21,600 ($42,400), paid at Christie’s in 2007.
Riley’s collector base is largely British and American, but she is attracting a growing number of Europeans, thanks to her 2008 retrospective at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Next year Hetzler is planning a 25-year survey of her oeuvre in Berlin. In the meantime, the National Gallery in London is working closely with Riley on a show slated for November. According to the exhibition’s curator, Colin Wiggins, beneath Riley’s shapes and colors lies a logic rooted in her analysis of Old Master painting. Riley has chosen a Raphael and an Andrea Mantegna from the collection to hang with several of her recent canvases — an unlikely context certain to shed new light on her abstraction.