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Bridget Riley wins the Sikkens Prize for her work in colour

Dutch prize recognizes the monochrome painter’s more colourful achievements.

Bridget Riley, one of Britain’s most acclaimed modern painters, was this week awarded the 2012 Sikkens Prize, an award recognizing special contributions to the Sikkens Foundation’s aim “of stimulating those cultural and scientific developments in society in which color plays a specific role.”  

The gesture is a delightfull surprise, as most will know Riley best for her iconic experimentations in monochromatic hues. Riley’s black and white paintings of the early Sixties were meticulous, dizzying geometric canvases that often played optical tricks on the viewer. Following a breakthrough exhibition, The Responsive Eye at New York City’s MOMA in 1965, her trompe l’oeil creations were dubbed Op-Art – a riff on the concurrent Pop-Art movement – and propelled Riley to international fame.

Riley’s introduction of colour to her work in 1967 was said to have been “cautious” – its inherent subjectivity clashed with the stability of black and white. However, her work as a colourist soon flourished. Since the 1970s she has retained the abstract forms of her early work while incorporating bold, lavish hues. Highlights in her career include mural paintings for the Royal Liverpool Hospital, set designs for the ballet “Colour Moves”, and a retrospective at the Royal Academy last May.

Previous winners of the prestigious prize include Theo van Doesburg, Donald Judd and architect Gerrit Rietveld, who was the first to take the award in 1960. The Foundation enthusiastically endorses an expansive definition of visual art and “sees color, which is after all a universal phenomenon, in a very broad context.” Hence, recipients of the award have also included – rather wonderfully - “Hippies” in 1970 “for the exuberant use of color as a playful aspect in human society, making a real contribution to the integration of color and space”, and "the cleaning department of the city of Paris" in 1995 “for the consistent use of the color green in materials and clothing, which led to an awareness of the problems of waste and the environment in the population of Paris, and to an identity with more dignity for the people working in the department.”

Riley is the first women to claim the award.

In an official statement from Sikkens, 81 year-old Riley earned the prize …

For the way in which she has enriched her work with colour. The purity, subtlety and precision of her use of colour have led to a sensational oeuvre from which a new generation of artists is drawing inspiration.

In addition, the Gemeente Museum in The Hague will host an exhibition of her work to mark the occasion. On the use of colour in her own work, Riley wrote this in The Pleasure of Sight (1984):

Colour is the proper means for what I want to do because it is prone to inflections and inductions existing only through relationship; malleable, yet tough and resilient.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.