Bridget Riley (1931 – )


221.9 X 222.9 CM
Accession number


Made in the run-up to the XXXIV Venice Biennale (1968), where she was the first British artist (and first woman) to win the International Prize for Painting, the ‘Cataract’ series marked a defining moment in Bridget Riley’s career. ‘Colour presented a crisis for me,’ she admitted. ‘If you think of a square, a circle, or a triangle, no matter what size it may be, you know exactly what form you can expect to see.’(1) After six monochrome years, epiphany: ‘I saw that the basis of colour was its instability.’(2)

Although Riley had in fact been making colour studies since 1961, these didn’t make it to final pieces until grey emerged as a conduit for colour into the black and white situation. ‘Instability’ was accommodated by a departure from distinctive geometric shapes and a significant increase in scale. In Cataract 3, a pair of coloured stripes unfurl like ribbons across the white canvas, broadening and thinning in shallow curvilinear sequences – stripes, edge-rich, maximise chromatic interaction. Although on a minute level these colours can be identified as vermilion and turquoise (warm and cold extremes), the painting revels in its lack of fixity. The curves undulate diagonally, as if a gentle south-west wind were blowing across a silk sheet, but on another level light crackles at different speeds and in ungovernable directions. Pigment is transformed into an active condition, in which true engagement with the painting is to see ‘a luminous disembodied light, variously coloured’.(3)M/p>

Cataract 3 is a multi-focal revelation, in inverse proportion to the disabling effects of an ophthalmological cataract – the clouding of the eye’s lens. Nevertheless, towards the centre of the painting the chromatic contrast heightens, leaving an impression of a radiant swathe between the upper and lower reaches, which are increasingly grey. The eye is guided, then tripped up; it should feel many things, Riley hopes, ‘caressed and soothed, experienc[ing] frictions and ruptures, glide and drift’.(4) Rhythms and counter-rhythms enact the title’s other meaning, a furious rush of water that foams white through the force of its own impact. Indeed the entire field is saturated with movement, and such immersion recognises a pedigree of influences, including Monet’s Water Lilies (1916)(5) and Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (1902–04).(6)

Riley has been at pains to spell out that ‘nature is not a starting point somewhere outside my work which then leads me into doing it’.(7) Somewhat misleading, perhaps, in a celebrated essay, ‘The Pleasures of Sight’, she describes formative memories from a Cornwall childhood, notably the ‘narrow dark streaks of ruffled water – violets, blues and many shades of grey – as a sudden squall swept over the sea’.(8) Although this image bears a striking resemblance to the present piece, it did not serve as source material. Instead it serves to highlight the vital quality of visual experience: ‘surprise’. Riley’s method is to concentrate on small studies at the preparatory stage – the decision-making – and leave final execution to assistants. Consequently, the finish ofCataract 3 is smooth and understated, in order that, as Robert Kudielka suggests, ‘the literal surface recedes behind the foreground of perception’.(9) This may be diagrammatically tidy, but it is not a scientific analysis. Maurice de Sausmarez identifies the dialectic: ‘On the one hand in her work the means are ordered, precise and controlled to the maximum, while on the other, the end is free, vibrating and dynamic.’10 Light is allowed to play the chameleon.


1. Riley in interview with Michael Craig-Martin, in Bridget Riley: Selected Paintings 1961–1999, exh. cat. (Düsseldorf: Hatje Cantz, 2000), 68.
2. Riley in dialogue with Michael Craig-Martin, in Robert Kudielka (ed.), Bridget Riley: Dialogues on Art (London: Zwemmer, 1995), 56.
3. Riley in conversation with Robert Kudielka (1972), in Paul Moorhouse (ed.), Bridget Riley, exh. cat. (London: Tate, 2003), 209.
4. Bridget Riley, ‘The Pleasures of Sight’ (1984), in Moorhouse (ed.), 213–14.
5. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
6. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
7. Riley in conversation with Isabel Carlisle, Bridget Riley: Works 1961–1998, exh. cat. (Kendal: Abbot Hall Art Gallery, 1998), 7.
8. Riley, ‘The Pleasures of Sight’, 213–14.
9. Robert Kudielka, Bridget Riley: Works 1959–78, exh. cat. (London: British Council, 1978), 3. 10. Maurice de Sausmarez, Bridget Riley (London: Studio Vista, 1970), 90. Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009