After studying at the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Bridget Riley enrolled at Goldsmith’s College of Art in London in 1949. In 1952 she entered the Royal College of Art, studying alongside Frank Auerbach, Peter Blake and Joe Tilson. Her independent work can be dated from 1961, with a series of paintings - in tones of black, white and grey - which were shown the following year in her first solo exhibition, at the Gallery One in London. In 1965 her work came to wider recognition when it was included in the exhibition The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while at the same time an exhibition of sixteen paintings at the Richard Feigen Gallery in New York was sold out before it opened. A second exhibition at Feigen the following year included a large number of drawings and working studies by the artist. In 1966 Riley joined the Robert Fraser Gallery in London, and began moving away from monochrome compositions towards an interest in pure colour. Two years later she was chosen, alongside the sculptor Phillip King, to represent Britain at the 34th Venice Biennale, where she won the International Prize for Painting. In 1970 a large retrospective exhibition of her work, organized by the Arts Council, travelled to cities in Germany, Switzerland and Italy before being shown at the Hayward Gallery in London, where it was seen by more than 40,000 visitors.
Riley has always used assistants to paint her finished paintings, based on her preparatory drawings and gouaches; a practice begun as early as 1961, before her first solo exhibition. Riley’s drawings have often been exhibited alongside her finished paintings, and for her they have been vital. As she has noted, ‘Because my work is based on enquiry, studies are my chief method of exploration and my way into paintings. That is to say, when I start I don’t have an aim or an image in mind for how the painting is going to look. I explore the potential of an element, and the gradually several elements. As I moved on, I introduced colours, different forms of structure and so on. When I started to do studies at the beginning of the 1960s, few other artists made preparatory works…But I felt that – I didn’t just feel, I knew from all the evidence of what was to be seen in museums – that drawing and preparatory work had always played a large part in an artist’s practice. So, I persevered in various ways with whatever elements I was then studying.’