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Movements Op Art

Op Art

Started: 1964

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

"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 Ideas

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.

Most Important Art

Blaze (1964)
Artist: Bridget Riley
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
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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.

Op art

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.

Concepts and Styles

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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.

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

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Op Art

Books
Websites
Articles
Videos
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s

By Joe Houston, Dave Hickey

Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s

By David Rubin

Optical Art: Theory and Practice

By Rene Parola

Victor Vasarely: 1906-1997; Pure Vision

By Magdalena Holzhey

Quantifying and Modeling the Strength of Motion Illusions Perceived in Static Patterns

By Johannes M. Zanker, Frouke Hermens, Robin Walker
Journal of Vision
February 16, 2010

The Return of Op

By David Rimanelli, Sara K. Rich
Artforum
May 2007

Engaging Dimensions Beyond the Visual in Optical Art

By Helen A. Harrison
The New York Times
October 18, 1981

Kinetic Art
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.
ArtStory: Kinetic Art
Museum of Modern 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.
ArtStory: Museum of Modern Art
Josef Albers
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.
ArtStory: Josef Albers
Pop Art
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.
ArtStory: Pop Art
Andy Warhol
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.
ArtStory: Andy Warhol
Donald Judd
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.
ArtStory: Donald Judd
Julian Stanczak
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.
Julian Stanczak
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Neo-impressionism
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.
Neo-impressionism
Georges Seurat
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.
ArtStory: Georges Seurat
Victor Vasarely
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.
Victor Vasarely
Bridget Riley
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.
Bridget Riley
Frank Stella
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.
ArtStory: Frank Stella
Carlos Cruz-Diez
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.
Carlos Cruz-Diez
Jesus Raphael Soto
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.
Jesus Raphael Soto
Clement Greenberg
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.
ArtStory: Clement Greenberg