Bridget Riley and the difference between an Artist and a designer.

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

I recently watched a really insightful programme that featured a discussion between Bridgit Riley and Kirsty Wark (still available on iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000x3qb/kirsty-wark-meets-artist-bridget-riley).


While Riley’s work is now easy to accept to the point where it is now considered safe and mainstream there was a time where abstraction was considered dangerous yet also considered to be the true destiny of modern painting. In the 1960s she developed her approach to paint that was mixed in the eye rather than the canvas revealing colour and movement that were not painted.


The interesting aspect of her approach came from a one-liner in the discussion where she stated that she had to be distant from the implementation process to remain critical of the work so she employs assistants to help.


Many of these assistants are volunteers willing to help create something unique, some such Maria Timperi have worked with Riley for 26 years. The important issue to me is that the work is always unique and the vision and artistic intent is the prime driver.



Comos installed over 2 weeks by three assistants to ensure that the work was perfect.


As an Artist (with an architectural background) I am acutely aware how direct involvement in output limits just how much can be produced; there are only so many hours in a day. So, Architects have always worked with others to realise their creations, as do product designers, graphic designers, fabric designers, car designers, furniture makers and all accept the reality that that very assistance induces change to the original vision. Corporate/brand values impose limitations and staff have their own ideas.


So, the designer is a paid creative person with an ability to resolve problems. They are very good at this and have spent many years training, but to achieve these solutions, reliance on paid assistance becomes essential. This reliance immediately induces an employer/employee relationship that strains any artistic vision and yet Riley has managed to avoid the pitfalls that many other contemporary artists seem to have fallen into.


Artists such as Damian Hirst or Jeff Koons or Zhang Xiaogang have accepted that in order to satisfy demand, and this is a demand promoted by publicists and social media intent on enhancing value and market share, they engage a team of paid assistants; effectively creating a brand served by a factory. How many steel balloon dogs has Koons produced or Hirst produced of his spot paintings? The first few might be touched by the artist but Hirst has readily admitted that the others he left mainly to a coterie of assistants, who could make them ad infinitum. Rather than developing the mentor/student relationship common place since the renaissance, as utilised by Riley, reliance on paid assistants to produce art to meet demand modifies the intent to a point that the artist has fallen into the trap of becoming a designer and whilst being a good designer is a great thing in itself it is not art.


Many great artists have managed their creativity by accepting the physical and intellectual limitation of time; Picasso, Bacon, Constable, Freud and although masters like Rembrandt used studios to complete a work, a work by his hand is worth 20 times that of a piece by his studio, so, as long as assistance is accepted to produce work barely touched by the artist with the intent of making more of the same, accepting help while not settling is not possible.


Riley has successfully walked this precarious tightrope, that between art and design, precisely because assistance was given to specific and uniqque projects, undertaken without the pressures of time, cost or external influence and her works are ultimately unrepeatable.

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