Op Art: Fooling The Eye
A guest curated exhibition by Kris Ghesquière, Manager at kunzt.gallery.
Op Art (or Optical Art) originated in the early sixties as a reaction to other art-movements like Action Painting and Tachisme. Unlike other non-geometric abstract art movements that developed in Europe in the 40s and 50s, characterized by spontaneous brushwork, drips and scribble-like marks, Op Art belongs to the family of constructivism, which has as its most important goal the creation of the illusion of movement by using lines, colors and shapes.
Op Art shares the field with Kinetic Art: Op Artists are drawn to virtual movement; Kinetic artists are attracted by the possibility of real motion. Both art movements attracted a wide international following with an exhibition in 1965: The Responsive Eye, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The term “Op Art” may first have been used by the artist Donald Judd in a review of an exhibition of “Optical Paintings.” Although the term was coined and the exhibition held in 1965, most agree that Victor Vasarely pioneered the movement with his 1938 painting Zebra.
For many, Op Art is the perfect style for an age defined by computing, television, fashion, media and aerospace. One begins to see Op Art showing up everywhere: in print and in television advertising, on LP album covers and as a fashion motif in clothing and interior decoration.
The effects created by Op Art range from the subtle to the disturbing and the disorienting. These effects often appear – to the human eye – to be moving or breathing due to their precise, mathematically-based compositions. Op paintings and sculptures use a framework of pure geometric forms as the basis for their effects and also draw on colour theory and the physiology and psychology of perception.
When watching Optical Art, your eye begins sending your brain the message that what it’s seeing has begun to oscillate, flicker, throb and any other verb one can employ to mean: am I dreaming, am I hallucinating, this thing is moving!
Art critics were never very supportive of Op Art, attacking its effects as gimmicks, and today it remains tainted by those dismissals. In my opinion however, Op Art represents a great deal of math, planning and technical skill, as none of it came freshly inked out of a computer peripheral. Original, hand-created Op Art deserves respect at the very least. Leading figures in Op Art include Jesus Rafael Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Julio Le Parc, Victor Vasarely, and Bridget Riley.
Jesús Rafael Soto
Soto’s profound study on the work and philosophy of Mondrian triggered his fascination with time, space and material. In his work, the relationship between these three elements is always central. He made his first works out of ordinary materials such as wood, wire and perspex.
He declared: “Mondrian must be brought in movement,” so his works evolved into kinetic statues, such as Vibration, art created with metal wires and thin metal plates. Around that time he also created Penetrables. A series of nylon threads hanging from the ceilings of various exhibition spaces, some inside and some outside. The spectator was free to walk through the artwork. Soto makes sensational works with simple means. His work often involves mobile elements and points to the close connection between kinetics and Op Art.
During a stay in Paris, Cruz-Diez was fascinated by color-theory, and his deep studies in the matter resulted in his famous relief-constructions. These optical objects have parallel, colored stripes that cross each other at certain points. This gives the impression of movement when the angle of viewing the artwork is changed.
To spread his ideas, he started his own school in Venezuela. He made several impressive public installations, like his Chromosaturation in Paris: an environment built within colored glass, in which the spectator can freely walk.
Julio Le Parc
From his early days, Le Parc was interested in avant-garde problems, and he was strongly influenced by Fontana.
With his ground-breaking mobiles and light-sculptures, powered by electricity, Le Parc wished to involve the spectator and let them participate in the artwork. It was a surprising new form of moving sculptures that led to other forms of Kinetic Art. Sometimes his work was influenced by the work of Duchamp and Tinguely.
In the early days of his artistic career, Vasarely was fascinated by the optical and the sensitive possibilities of graphical techniques and colors. He was a pioneer in graphical abstract and kinetic experiments. The surprising reactions that came out of his infinite, complicated color combinations are proof of his sharp intelligence. He was one of the originators of Op Art.
With her striped black and white paintings, Riley contributed significantly to the developing phase of the Op Art movement. Bit by bit, she added some color to her serious abstract compositions. When viewing her work, the spectator can get an intense feeling of dizziness. One can see a close relationship with Vasarely’s work in Riley’s, but her movements have a stronger illusionary effect.