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Op art

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term used as an abbreviation of ‘optical art’ to refer to painting and sculpture that exploits the illusions or optical effects of perceptual processes. It was used for the first time by a writer in an unsigned article in Time magazine (23 Oct 1964) and entered common usage to designate, in particular, two-dimensional structures with strong psychophysiological effects. The exhibition, The Responsive Eye, held in 1965 at MOMA, New York, under the direction of William C. Seitz, showed side by side two types of visual solicitations already practised by artists for some time: perceptual ambiguity created by coloured surfaces, then at the fore in the USA, and the coercive suggestion of movement created by lines and patterns in black and white, used abundantly by European artists engaged in Kinetic art. The outstanding Op artists included Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Jesús Soto, Yaacov Agam, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Julio Le Parc and François Morellet.

The origins of Op art can be traced from both the art-historical tradition and from popular art, in particular from ornament, trompe l’oeil and anamorphosis. The antecedents of Op art in terms of graphic effects and coloured interaction may be found in the works of the Post-Impressionists, Futurists, Constructivists, Dadaists and above all in the artistic and didactic statements of the masters of the Bauhaus. Links with psychological research can also be established, in particular with Gestalt theory and with discoveries in psychophysiology. Op artists thus managed to exploit various phenomena: the after-image and consecutive movement; line interference; the effect of dazzle; ambiguous figures and reversible perspective; successive colour contrasts and chromatic vibration; and in three-dimensional works different viewpoints and the superimposition of elements in space.

Vasarely began working with graphic elements on the surface plane before superimposing them on transparent materials in order to obtain subtle visual effects. His binary structures (from 1952) were already at the centre of what was only later called ‘Op art’. It was, however, only the introduction of colour to his ‘plastic unities’ that revealed their inner relationships: another geometrical form in a different colour or hue is added to the basic element, generally a square acting as a background, giving an infinite number of possible combinations. These works, as well as the large-scale ‘algorithms’ of the Planetary Folklore series, were in Vasarely’s view not only to be considered as stepping-stones towards an application in architecture and town planning (discussed in Victor Vasarely Farbstadt/Polychrome City, Munich, 1977), but also as a structuralist programme for use in the area of cybernetics.

From 1961 Riley obtained strong black and white effects, for example in Blaze 2 (1963; Belfast, A.C. N. Ireland). Geometric units such as squares, triangles and circles were depicted in such ways that their distortions set up a definite rhythm. The optical spasms that result from this often allude to energy and to psychological phenomena, perhaps emanating from the unconscious. Later Riley moved away from the sharp contrasts of black and white, which created a fluctuating or ‘active’ space and strong light effects, towards tonal variation and eventually to colour contrast.

Soto’s research into optical vibrancy began in 1952 when he experimented with various chromatic and luminous elements distributed over the surface before he arrived at the moiré effect, which he favoured as a means of making solid objects such as wire structures appear to dissolve. The effect was often enhanced by mobile wooden or metal rods, often of different colours, suspended by string before a striped background. This evolution towards space and towards a cosmological approach was developed further in the late 1960s in the series of Penetrables, where he appealed to both the tactile and optical senses of the spectator or participant. These works, comprising spaces filled with suspended metallic strips or nylon strings through which the spectator walked, were intended to represent the totality of relations in the world.

Agam similarly constructed works that depended on the spectators’ participation. He used musical terminology such as ‘contrapuntal’ and ‘polyphonic’ when naming his works. In this way he was trying to reach beyond the time-scale implicit in traditional music, regarding mere duration as infinitely less rich than the dynamic, irreversible and unforeseen quality of time that is involved in his transformable paintings. Agam’s notion of time centred upon the concepts of irreversibility and the simultaneity of acts and events in nature in which he saw true ‘unity’, a word that testifies to his profound knowledge of Hebrew spirituality. With this principle in mind he set out to create an art that existed only in the realm of the possible—the virtual—which is one of the main characteristics of Op art.

In his Physichromies (from 1959) Cruz-Diez applied a theory of additive colours, combining a technique of regularly spaced card strips with earlier experiments with colour. He achieved a subtle interaction between the very intense reflections from the surfaces turned towards the spectator and the effects of expanding colour recorded upon the surfaces adjacent to the pigment. This allowed him in later environmental works to undertake an analysis of colour in confined spaces in order to induce successive situations that are themselves liable to give rise to chromatic events.

Through their roles in the Groupe de recherche d’art visuel, Le Parc and Morellet already had the development of a new visual situation as an ultimate objective; their interest lay exclusively in the object/eye relationship rather than in the object considered for its intrinsic plastic properties. Le Parc began his research in works that he called ‘surface-sequences’, in which he sought to obtain effects of progression and juxtaposition by decreasing the diameter of successive black and white circles, by using similar sequences with a range of 12 (later 14) colours, or by gradually inclining a line in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction. When traced by the spectator’s eye, these surface-sequences gave rise to new and surprising structures. The Grids of Morellet also gave the impression of curves although they were built up from a rigorous pattern of straight lines. Both Le Parc and Morellet subsequently undertook an impressive number of experiments with mobiles, light and environmental structures, often aiming at a total implication of the spectator in the aesthetic process, yet never abandoning their initial preoccupation with optical relationships.

In the USA the beginnings of Op art, in particular the chromatic element, were dominated by the work of Josef Albers. Although the picture surface in his Homage to the Square series is not disrupted, some perceptible changes of colour do occur. American artists such as Frank Stella, Larry Poons and Richard Anuskiewicz developed this research for a time by means of periodic structures, surface modulation and chromatic vibrations before evolving towards reductionism and Minimal art.

Although Op art must be considered in its entirety as an ephemeral art trend, it has nevertheless had some permanent effects on the perceptual qualities of the spectator, on the relationship between artists, architects and town planners and on the systematic application of optical phenomena in technologically highly-developed art forms.

Frank Popper
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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