Op Art

victor vasarely

Op art is a style of visual art that makes use of optical illusions. ‘Optical art is a method of painting concerning the interaction between illusion and picture plane, between understanding and seeing.’ Op art works are abstract, with many of the better known pieces made in only black and white. When the viewer looks at them, the impression is given of movement, hidden images, flashing and vibration, patterns, or alternatively, of swelling or warping.

Op art is derived from the constructivist practices of the Bauhaus, a German design school, founded by Walter Gropius, which stressed the relationship of form and function within a framework of analysis and rationality. Students were taught to focus on the overall design, or entire composition, in order to present unified works. When the Bauhaus was forced to close in 1933, many of its instructors fled to the US where the movement took root in Chicago and eventually at the Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, where Anni and Josef Albers would come to teach.

The term first appeared in print in ‘Time’ magazine in 1964 in response to Julian Stanczak’s ‘Optical Paintings,’ though works which might now be described as ‘op art’ had been produced for several years previously. For instance, Victor Vasarely’s painting, ‘Zebras’ (1938), is made up entirely of curvilinear black and white stripes that are not contained by contour lines. Consequently, the stripes appear to both meld into and burst forth from the surrounding background of the composition. Also the early black and white ‘Dazzle’ panels of John McHale installed at the ‘This Is Tomorrow’ exhibit in 1956 and his ‘Pandora’ series at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1962 demonstrate proto-op tendencies. In the 1960s Arnold Alfred Schmid had several solo exhibitions of his large, black and white shaped optical paintings exhibited at the Terrain Gallery in New York. The term ‘Op’ irritated many of the artists labeled under it, specifically including Albers and Stanczak. They had discussed upon the birth of the term a better label, namely ‘perceptual art.’

In 1965, an exhibition called ‘The Responsive Eye,’ created by William C. Seitz was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The works shown were wide ranging, encompassing the minimalism of Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, the smooth plasticity of Alexander Liberman, the collaborative efforts of the Anonima group, alongside the well-known Victor Vasarely, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Bridget Riley. The exhibition focused on the perceptual aspects of art, which result both from the illusion of movement and the interaction of color relationships. The exhibition was enormously popular with the general public, though less so with the critics, who dismissed op art as portraying nothing more than trompe l’oeil, or tricks that fool the eye. Regardless, op art’s popularity with the public increased, and op art images were used in a number of commercial contexts. Bridget Riley tried to sue an American company, without success, for using one of her paintings as the basis of a fabric design.

Op art is a perceptual experience related to how vision functions. It is a dynamic visual art, stemming from a discordant figure-ground relationship that causes the two planes to be in a tense and contradictory juxtaposition. Op art is created in two primary ways. The first, and best known method, is the creation of effects through the use of pattern and line. Often these paintings are black and white, or otherwise grisaille (monochrome), as in Bridget Riley’s famous painting, ‘Current’ (1964), which was on the cover of ‘The Responsive Eye.’ Black and white wavy lines are placed close to one another on the canvas surface, creating such a volatile figure-ground relationship that one’s eyes begin to hurt. Getulio Alviani chose aluminium surfaces, treated in order to create patterns of light which change as the watcher moves (vibrating texture surfaces). Another reaction that occurs is that the lines create after- images of certain colors due to how the retina receives and processes light. As German artist and author Goethe demonstrates in his treatise ‘Theory of Colours’ (1810), at the edge where light and dark meet, color arises because lightness and darkness are the two central properties in the creation of color.

Beginning in 1966 Bridget Riley began to produce color-based op art, however, other artists, such as Julian Stanczak and Richard Anuszkiewicz, were always interested in making color the primary focus of their work. Josef Albers taught these two primary practitioners of the ‘Color Function’ school at Yale in the 1950s. Often, colorist work is dominated by the same concerns of figure-ground movement, but they have the added element of contrasting colors which have different effects on the eye. For instance, in Anuszkiewicz’s ‘temple’ paintings, the juxtaposition of two highly contrasting colors provokes a sense of depth in illusionistic three-dimensional space so that it appears as if the architectural shape is invading the viewer’s space. His compositions tend to be the most complex of all of the color function practitioners.

Taking his cue from Albers and his influential book ‘Interaction of Color,’ Stanczak deeply investigates how color relationships work. ‘Stanczak created various spatial experiences with color and geometry; the latter is far easier to discuss. Color has no simple systematized equivalent. Indeed, there may be no way to describe it that is both meaningful and accurate. Descriptions of it (the color wheel or color solids, for example) are all necessary distortions. While color derives from the electromagnetic scale that corresponds to the magnitudes of energy expressed by musical pitch, in fact, the neurological occidentals by which we experience color make it seem multidimensional, while musical pitch (not timbre, volume, or duration) is experienced as a linear relationship…Stanczak’s ‘gift is for layering. He arranges transparent patterns upon patterns so that you see through them as gauziest screens, each one seeming to fold as if it moves.’

The Op Art movement got a new lease of life in the first decade of the twenty-first century as new forms started once again emerging. In 2005, Indian artist, Devajyoti Ray started a new genre of art called Pseudorealism. Though the concept and the name of the movement was brought from film, much of Pseudorealism depends on the intuitive use of colors and understanding the relationships between them.


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