Op Art Movement and Chronology

"There was a time when meanings were focused and reality could be fixed; when that sort of belief disappeared, things became uncertain and open to interpretation."

Synopsis

Artists have been intrigued by the nature of perception and by optical effects and illusions for many centuries. They have often been a central concern of art, just as much as themes drawn from history or literature. But in the 1950s these preoccupations, allied to new interests in technology and psychology, blossomed into a movement. Op, or Optical, art typically employs abstract patterns composed with a stark contrast of foreground and background - often in black and white for maximum contrast - to produce effects that confuse and excite the eye. Initially, Op shared the field with Kinetic art - Op artists being drawn to virtual movement, Kinetic artists attracted by the possibility of real motion. Both styles were launched with Le Mouvement, a group exhibition at Galerie Denise Rene in 1955. It attracted a wide international following, and after it was celebrated with a survey exhibition in 1965, The Responsive Eye, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it caught the public's imagination and led to a craze for Op designs in fashion and the media. To many, it seemed the perfect style for an age defined by the onward march of science, by advances in computing, aerospace, and television. But art critics were never so supportive of it, attacking its effects as gimmicks, and today it remains tainted by those dismissals.

Key Points

The Op art movement was driven by artists who were interested in investigating various perceptual effects. Some did so out of sheer enthusiasm for research and experiment, some with the distant hope that the effects they mastered might find a wide public and hence integrate modern art into society in new ways. Rather like the geometric art from which it had sprung, Op art seemed to supply a style that was highly appropriate to modern society.
Although Op can be seen as the successor to geometric abstraction, its stress on illusion and perception suggests that it might also have older ancestors. It may descend from effects that were once popular with Old Masters, such as trompe l'oeil (French: "deceive the eye"). Or indeed from anamorphosis, the effect by which images are contorted so that objects are only fully recognizable when viewed from an oblique angle. Or, equally, Op may simply be a child of modern decoration.
During its years of greatest success in the mid-1960s, the movement was sometimes said to encompass a wide range of artists whose interests in abstraction had little to do with perception. Some, such as Joseph Albers, who were often labeled as Op artists, dismissed it. Yet the fact that the label could seem to apply to so many artists demonstrates how important the nuances of vision have been throughout modern art.
Long after Op art's demise, its reputation continues to hang in the balance. Some critics continue to characterize its designs as "retinal titillations." But others have recently argued that the style represented a kind of abstract Pop art, one which emulated the dazzle of consumer society but which refused, unlike Pop artists like Andy Warhol, to celebrate its icons.
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MOST IMPORTANT ART

TITLE: Structural Constellation (1913)
Structural Constellation(1913)
Artist: Josef Albers
Artwork Description & Analysis: In this optical illusion, Albers experiments with the perception of space by depicting how an arrangement of simple lines can create an ambiguous sense of spatial depth. The black rectangular shapes intersect each other from various angles to disorient the viewer's perception of what is in front and what is behind. Even though the forms are not stylistically rendered, the viewer interprets the image as having unstable dimensions. Albers rejected the label "Op art," and his background in the Bauhaus inclined him to be interested in a very rational investigation of the effects of color, yet he never ruled out the usefulness and interest of tricking the eye.

Machine-engraved vinylite mounted on wood - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

  • Structural Constellation(1913)
  • Blaze(1964)
  • Duo- 2(1967)
  • Physichromie No. 965(1977)
  • Four Self-Distorting Grids(1965)
  • Sphere bleue de Paris(2000)
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Op Art Beginnings

The term "Op art" may have been first used by artist and writer Donald Judd, in a review of an exhibition of "Optical Paintings" by Julian Stanczak. But it was made popular by its use in a 1964 Time magazine article, and its origins date back many years. One could see its roots in 19th century art and color theory, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's writings on color, and particularly in the Neo-impressionist paintings of Georges Seurat.

However, the style we now know as Op emerged from the work of Victor Vasarely, who first explored unusual perceptual effects in some designs from the 1930s. It was given a further boost by the group show Le Mouvement at Galerie Denise Rene in Paris in 1955, and later by a series of international exhibitions exploring what was known for a time as the "New Tendency." Vasarely's work soon attracted followers across the world: Bridget Riley, who, like Vasarely, had worked in advertising, took up the style and soon achieved even more prominence than Vasarely, and many South American artists, mainly residing in Paris, also worked in an Op mode.

The pinnacle of the movement's success was 1965, when the Museum of Modern Art embraced the style with the exhibition The Responsive Eye, which showcased 123 paintings and sculptures by artists such as Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesus-Rafael Soto, and Josef Albers. Many museum attendees were intrigued by the collision of art and science, but critics such as Clement Greenberg were vehemently opposed to the movement. The breadth of exhibitions such as The Responsive Eye also cast doubt on the movement, since by including artists such as Frank Stella, whose interests were so different from those of Vasarely, the label seemed almost too broad to be useful or plausible.

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Concepts and Styles

Op artists were typically concerned with the behavior of the eye, and they developed abstract compositions to explore a variety of optical phenomena. After-images, moire effects, dazzling, and all kinds of other effects resulting from the eye's struggle to read an image were of interest to them. The movement never produced a coherent body of ideas, and the range and scope of its artists' interests made the Op art label seem very flexible. Yet the fact that the label could embrace them shows how important vision and its effects have been throughout modern art.

Typically, Op artists used only black and white in order to produce the greatest contrast in their designs, since this contrast causes the greatest confusion for the eye, which struggles to discern which element of the composition is in the foreground and which in the background. But color was also a focus of attention at times, as in Vasarely's Plastic Alphabet series (1960-1980). The ways in which color suggests space, and the ways colors contrast with one another, proved fertile areas for experiment.

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Later Developments

Although the highly complex perceptual effects created by Op artists were embraced by the general public, many art critics considered the phenomena to be a fleeting and somewhat gimmicky trend. Commercial success may have led to the decline of the movement, in particular after some artists discovered that their work designs were borrowed by American clothing manufacturers. Op art elements were also translated into posters, t-shirts and book illustrations. Audiences who initially embraced the movement later denounced it as nothing more than tricks of the eye. Although the movement lost popularity by 1968, the systematic optical effects continue to be explored in visual art and architecture.



Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
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QUOTES

"Every form is a base for color, every color is the attribute of a form."
- Victor Vasarely

"There was a time when meanings were focused and reality could be fixed; when that sort of belief disappeared, things became uncertain and open to interpretation."
- Bridget Riley

"Focusing isn't just an optical activity, it is also a mental one."
- Bridget Riley

"I have never sought to show reality caught at one precise moment, but, on the contrary, to reveal universal change, of which temporality and infinitude are the constituent values. The universe, I believe, is uncertain and settled. The same must be true of my work."
- Jesus Rafael Soto

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Kinetic Art
Kinetic Art
Kinetic art - art which depends on movement for its effects - has its origins in the Dada and Constructivist movements that emerged in the 1910s, but it flourished into a lively international avant-garde in the mid-1950s. Its adherents attempted to create new and more interactive relationships with the viewer, and new visual experiences, and its products often rejected the traditional, hand-crafted, static art object.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kinetic Art
Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum has become the home for some of the greatest works of avant-garde painting, sculpture, film and multi-media art in the world. While MoMA remains true to its roots as a place where new styles of art can circulate, its permanent collection is widely considered the most impressive and diverse assortment of Modern art to ever exist, ranging from late-nineteenth-century van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins to works produced in the present day.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Museum of Modern Art
Josef Albers
Josef Albers
Josef Albers was a German-born American painter and teacher. Celebrated as a geometric abstractionist and influential instructor at Black Mountain College, Albers directly influenced such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Ray Johnson.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Josef Albers
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Andy Warhol
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Donald Judd
Julian Stanczak
Julian Stanczak
Julian Stanczak is an American painter and printmaker. The Op Art movement was named for his first major show, Julian Stanczak: Optical Paintings. Stanczak uses repeating forms to create compositions that are manifestations of his visual experiences. His work is an art of experience, and is based upon structures of color.

Modern Art Information Julian Stanczak
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer during the late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth century. Originally a student of optics, Goethe was a major figure in German literature, humanism, philosophy, and a pioneer of German Romanticism. His best known work, the novella The Sorrows of Young Werther, was a key example of Sturm und Drang, a German literary movement that embraced subjectivity and intense emotion.

Modern Art Information Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Neo-impressionism
Neo-impressionism
Neo-Impressionism was an art movement founded by Georges Seurat in the 1880s. It brought a new and quasi-scientific approach to the Impressionists' interests in light and color, along with new approaches to the application of paint, sometimes in dots and dashes. Its followers were drawn to modern urban scenes as well as landscapes and seascapes.

Modern Art Information Neo-impressionism
Georges Seurat
Georges Seurat
Georges-Pierre Seurat was a French painter who gave rise to the Post- and Neo-Impressionist artistic styles of the late nineteenth century. Seurat's greatest contribution to modern art was his development of Pointillism, a style of painting in which small dots of paint were applied to create a cohesive image. Combining the science of optics with painterly emotion, Pointillism evoked a visual harmony never before seen in modern art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Georges Seurat
Victor Vasarely
Victor Vasarely
Victor Vasarely was a Hungarian-French Op artist. His work entitled Zebra, created in the 1930s, is considered by some to be one of the earliest examples of Optical art. Vasarely eventually went on to produce paintings and sculptures mainly focused around the area of optical illusion.

Modern Art Information Victor Vasarely
Bridget Riley
Bridget Riley
Bridget Riley is an English painter who is one of the foremost proponents of Op art. Riley developed her mature style during the 1960s. It was during this time that she began to paint the black and white works for which she is well known. They present a variety of geometric forms that produce sensations of movement or color.

Modern Art Information Bridget Riley
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Frank Stella
Carlos Cruz-Diez
Carlos Cruz-Diez
Carlos Cruz-Diez is a Venezuelan kinetic and op artist. Cruz-Diez has consistently worked through his career focusing solely on color, line and viewer perception. In many of his works, colors seem to change and present a sensation of movement, changing with the relative position of the viewer.

Modern Art Information Carlos Cruz-Diez
Jesus Raphael Soto
Jesus Raphael Soto
Jesus Rafael Soto was a Venezuelan Op and Kinetic artist, a sculptor and a painter. Soto has created penetrables - interactive sculptures which consist of square arrays of thin, dangling tubes through which observers can walk. He was associated with the Salon des Realités Nouvelles and the Galerie Denise René.

Modern Art Information Jesus Raphael Soto
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
Structural Constellation
Structural Constellation

Title: Structural Constellation (1913)

Artist: Josef Albers

Artwork Description & Analysis: In this optical illusion, Albers experiments with the perception of space by depicting how an arrangement of simple lines can create an ambiguous sense of spatial depth. The black rectangular shapes intersect each other from various angles to disorient the viewer's perception of what is in front and what is behind. Even though the forms are not stylistically rendered, the viewer interprets the image as having unstable dimensions. Albers rejected the label "Op art," and his background in the Bauhaus inclined him to be interested in a very rational investigation of the effects of color, yet he never ruled out the usefulness and interest of tricking the eye.


Machine-engraved vinylite mounted on wood - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Blaze
Blaze

Title: Blaze (1964)

Artist: Bridget Riley

Artwork Description & Analysis: The zigzag black and white lines in Blaze create the perception of a circular decent. As the brain interprets the image, the alternating pattern appears to shift back and forth. The interlocking lines add depth to the form as it rhythmically curves around the center of the page. The curator Joe Houston has argued that works such as Blaze "trigger in the viewer an experience equivalent to an atmospheric electric charge; not an illusion, but an "event." Riley herself has said, "My work has developed on the basis of empirical analyses and syntheses, and I have always believed that perception is the medium through which states of being are directly experienced."


Screen print on paper - The Institute of Contemporary Prints

Duo- 2
Duo- 2

Title: Duo- 2 (1967)

Artist: Victor Vasarely

Artwork Description & Analysis: The contrasting warm and cool shades here create the ambiguous illusion of three-dimensional structures. Are they concave, or convex? The illusion is so effective that we are almost led to forget that it is a painted image, and made to think it is a volumetric construction. Although black and white delivered perhaps the most memorable Op images, color also intrigued many Op artists. The scientific study of color had been central to teaching at the Bauhaus, and Vasarely certainly benefited from his education at what was often called the "Budapest Bauhaus." Bauhaus teachers such as Joseph Albers encouraged students to think not of the associations or symbolism of colors, which had so often been important in art, but simply of the effects they had on the eye.


Gouache and acrylic on board - Private Collection

Physichromie No. 965
Physichromie No. 965

Title: Physichromie No. 965 (1977)

Artist: Carlos Cruz-Diez

Artwork Description & Analysis: Carlos Cruz-Diez was one of a remarkable generation of South American artists, often resident in Paris, who had an important impact on Op art. He began to focus on the physical properties of color after viewing the work of Jesus-Rafael Soto. He created a technique called "additive color" that used evenly spaced colored card strips. Each strip was placed parallel to the next to create the impression of softly modulated tones, which changed according to the position of the viewer. Here Cruz-Diez examined Bauhaus teacher Joannes Itten's theory of the simultaneous perception of different colors through parallel line placement, linear shock, and the fusion of tonalities. The totality of effects creates the illusion of a moving image, exemplifying qualities of Op art and Kinetic art.


Mixed media - OAS Art Museum of the Americas, Washington, D.C.

Four Self-Distorting Grids
Four Self-Distorting Grids

Title: Four Self-Distorting Grids (1965)

Artist: Francois Morellet

Artwork Description & Analysis: Four Self-Distorting Grids exemplifies the influence of Kinetic art on Op. Movement was crucial to Op art, and while Op artists generally relied on virtual movement - the illusion of movement - some artists used real motion to create effects. In this piece, Morellet experimented with grid forms. He was fond of the way their pre-given character, their common-sense appearance, allowed him to escape traditional approaches to composition in which one part of a design is balanced against another part. This work demonstrates how he also liked to use them, paradoxically, to produce the effects of curves. He would begin by drawing several overlapping lines to create a bowing effect. Here, he puts the idea to work in a motorized sculpture. The four grids shift on an axis to create an abstracted wave of intersecting squares.


Aluminum grids, iron poles, and motors - Fundacion Museo de Arte Moderno Jesus Soto, Ciudad Bolívar

Sphere bleue de Paris
Sphere bleue de Paris

Title: Sphere bleue de Paris (2000)

Artist: Jesus-Rafael Soto

Artwork Description & Analysis: Soto, a Venezuelan who came to France in 1950, was another of the many South American artists who made such an important contribution to Op and Kinetic art. The globe-like form in Sphere bleue de Paris appears to defy gravity, suggesting an energetic power-source, a world or universe. It is created by thin strands of blue rubber tubing, evenly spaced, and moved with a gentle wind or slight touch. The tubing creates a segmented sphere that appears to dissolve into thin air as the viewer circles it. Soto began making such works in the mid-1960s, and although this piece was created many years after the Op art movement went into decline, it demonstrates the endurance of many of the movement's personalities and their ideas. An optical illusion is conjured in order to depict a motif that speaks softly and mystically of the possibilities of science.


Wood and paint construction with aluminum rods, lamps, and rubber tubing

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.