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Hypnotizing, mesmerizing, fascinating, mind-boggling! Op Art, aka Optical Art, is all that and more. Artists had long been interested in the visual imagery that captivates and deceives the eye, yet it wasn’t until the 1960s that such interest flourished into a proper art movement of a popularity that goes beyond today. Whether they are strictly black and white or oozing with color, Op artworks can engage our attention like no others, thanks to their many historical roots and an evergreen vision. Don't miss our latest article about What Do We Mean by Fine Art?

But What Is Op Art? A Definition

Speaking in purely visual terms, Op Art or Optical Art is a style of the visual arts, specifically (geometric) abstract art, that deals with optical illusion. But unlike Kinetic Art, a field it is also a part of, it only evokes movement instead of actually endorsing it, in order to fool the eye and illicit a kind of reaction, sometimes even nausea. And so, to achieve it, Op artists opt to use abstract geometric shapes to play with perspective, and thick blocks of black, white, or usually vibrant colors to create irregular patterns and chromatic tensions - which are perceived by our retina as flashing, vibration, microscopic movement, warping

There are many characteristics that make Op Art images and paintings, which is the movement’s primary medium, stand out. These are quite non-representational, meaning that they depict the metaphysical rather than the “real”. They rely on negative space, strong contrasts, the figure-ground relationship between the foreground and the background, and precise mathematical calculations to reach their perceptual effect, at the same time creating an unmissable three-dimensional quality. At different scales, they were created by some of the most prominent modern and contemporary artists in history with legacies yet to cease inspiring.

 

Julian Stanczak, The Duel, 1963

 

Becoming The Op Art Movement

The history of Op Art is a rather exciting one. Although it is considered aa movement as modern as they come, having sprung during an eventful decade of the past century, its origins can perhaps be traced back years - to the studies of one French chemist, Michel-Eugène Chevreul and his studies of complementary colors in 1839 - or maybe even before that, to the era of the Old Masters and their “trompe l’oeil” technique, which had the same intention of, very literally, “deceiving the eye”. Of course, we cannot ignore the ideas behind Pointillism, and Georges Seurat’s iconic image-forming dotted brushwork.

But coming back to the 20th century, the time of the avant-garde styles that challenged the very essence of art at large, we could see that Op Art is related to a number of them: Orphism, built as the bridge between Cubism and Abstraction in 1912 with its explorations of color and planes; shortly after Constructivism, in close connection with the other two influences, Futurism and Bauhaus. While the Futurists and the Op artists alike admired movement and modernity, what Op Art has in common with the famous German school is the sense of the overall formal design. If you are interested in Futurism, read our article on Fortunato Depero.

It was in 1964 that the Polish-American painter and printmaker Julian Stanczak first used the term “op art”, in his review of the “Optical Paintings” exhibition held at the Martha Jackson Gallery (although some claim it was Donald Judd who had actually put the term in there). In a TIME Magazine article written as a response, “op art” was popularized to a greater extent. Many artworks that have to do with optical illusions however, now falling under the rules and aesthetics of the Op Art movement, had been made sometime before that year; some were exhibited in the 1955 “Le Mouvement” group show at Galerie Denise Rene in Paris, and some also belonged to the newly founded Kinetic Art, which saw the light of day in 1960, for instance.

 

Wen-Ying Tsai, Optical Painting, 1964

 

The Responsive Eye

If 1964 wasn’t the year of Op Art, 1965 definitely was. Between February 23 and April 25 of that year, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City showed “The Responsive Eye”, an exhibition created and curated by William C. Seitz. Like the Op Art movement itself, the show focused on the perceptual aspects of artworks, those that proposed an idea of movement through an “apparent” change of perspective helped by certain color combinations. “The Responsive Eye” featured a wide range of pieces, 123 paintings and sculptures to be precise, from important figures such as Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Liberman, Frank Stella, Victor Vasarely, Jesús Rafael Soto, Bridget Riley, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Getulio Alviani, Wen-Ying Tsai, Carlos Cruz-Diez and the Anonima group, among others.

The exhibition had also been featured at art venues in the USA, such as St. Louis, Seattle, Pasadena and Baltimore, yet it failed to impress the critics, who hurried to express the movement’s shallowness and an attempt to win through cheap visual tricks. The audience, on the other hand - all 180,000 people who visited the show - loved it, turning it into one of the most popular shows of the period.

As many Op Art artists worked in the field of advertising, it is no wonder that the movement’s aesthetics spread on to posters, book illustrations, interior design, tv, but also clothes, sometimes without the artists’ permission. This commercialization eventually led to a decrease in popularity, and by 1968 Op Art fell out of the art lovers’ favor. Nevertheless, the work of its artists are still among the most sought ones on the art market, they belong to prestigious public and private collections, and they continue to inspire generations of other art-makers in both visual arts and architecture.

 

The Most Notable Op Art Artists

Victor Vasarely

Testifying best to the unique vision that Victor Vasarely embodied in Op Art is his “Zebra”, a painting created almost 30 years before the movement’s “official” start. The two animals are entwined by shadows and light, thick and thin lines, announcing what the artist firmly believed in - that the originality of an artwork lies in its meaning, rather than its rarity. He once said:

“The celebrated transition from the representational to nonrepresentational art is only one of the stages of profound transformation taking place in the plastics arts. The term ‘abstract’ in painting refers not to an established fact, but to an irresistible trend towards plastic creation different from the kind we already know.”

It almost seems impossible that Vasarely’s meticulous works came as a result of a high technical skill, and not from a computer program.

 

Victor Vasarely, Zebra, 1937

 

Bridget Riley

The influence that Georges Seurat had on Bridget Riley is an apparent one in her early works, particularly after the artist saw “The Bridge at Courbevoie” painting which she then decided to copy. Although Riley went on to study complementary colors, her most notable work today remain those in black and white only, many of which are finished on canvas by her assistants, but based on her meticulous preparatory drawings. Some of her paintings are inspired by certain locations, such as Egypt (the “Ka” and “Ra” series, for example).

 

Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961

 

Richard Anuszkiewicz

Working in Op Art across the pond from Vasarely and Riley, Richard Anuszkiewicz focused his oeuvre on colors, especially ones of high intensity, and what they do when put in different geometric forms. He studied at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture alongside Josef Albers, whose paintings also partially fall under the Op Art category - but much less so than those of Anuszkiewicz, who was interested in the dynamic, the changes both in singular colors and the composition as a whole caused by the change of light.

 

Richard Anuszkiewicz, Radiant Green, 1965

 

 

Stay Tuned to Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

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