Hungarian-French Painter and Sculptor
Summary of Victor Vasarely
Victor Vasarely provided us with some of the most distinctive images and optical effects in 20th-century art. From his days as a commercial graphic designer in 1930s-40s Paris to his final decades developing and marketing what he hoped would become a new universal language for art and architectural design, Vasarely steered a unique course, combining virtuosic technical precision with a scientific awareness of optical and geometrical effects. He is best known for his grid-like paintings and sculptures of the 1960s onwards, which play with the reader's sense of visual form by creating illusory, flickering effects of depth, perspective, and motion. In making the act of looking one of their primary subjects, these works speak to a quintessentially modern concern with the difference between what we can see and what is really there.
- Vasarely was perhaps the first modern artist to realize that Kinetic Art did not have to move. Instead he created an extraordinary series of paintings and sculptures which used geometrical effects to suggest motion within static forms. From illusions of oscillation and vibration to Escher-like tricks whereby apparent indentations in the picture-surface suddenly seem to protrude from it, Vasarely's pioneering techniques not only influenced the Op Art movement of the 1960s, but helped to define the whole psychedelic mood of that decade.
- Like his predecessors in the Constructivist and Concrete Art movements, Vasarely wanted to create a universal visual vocabulary for modern art. By the 1960s, he had developed what he called an "Alphabet Plastique" of endlessly interchangeable compositional elements. These small, square units each consisted of a simple combination of figure and ground, whose color and shape could be changed in any number of ways, to be organized in any conceivable pattern. This aspect of Vasarely's work exemplifies a post-Second World War concern with using art to communicate across national and cultural boundaries, by stripping away all topical reference, and using visual effects so simple that they would mean the same thing to any viewer. In this way, Vasarely sought to create what he called a "Planetary Folklore".
- As a student of Constructivism, Vasarely believed that art should have a functional purpose within society, an aim he pursued partly by exploring the overlaps between art and architecture. As well as designing murals and other visual features specifically for architectural spaces, Vasarely believed that his visual vocabulary of interchangeable compositional elements could be used in urban planning, as a way of combining qualities of regularity and variety within domestic architecture, street design, and so on. While many artists from the 1910s onwards had considered how modern art and architecture might influence each other, few pursued that idea with such a singular and consistent vision as Vasarely.
The Life of Victor Vasarely
In 1947 while walking along a beach on holiday, Victor Vasarely said, “in the rocks, in the pieces of broken bottles, polished by the rhythmic coming and going of the waves, I am certain to recognize the internal geometry of nature.” Painting black and white abstractions, constructed of only geometric shapes, he created the optical illusion of movement that informed Op Art.
Progression of Art
In this early work, created while Vasarely was a graphic designer in Paris, two zebras twine around each other against a black background. Their limbs overlap, creating a subtle chequerboard pattern and suggesting spatial depth as well as generating a sense of intimacy, energy, and sexual play. There are no outlines to the two forms, which are instead defined by undulating black and white stripes, their curves suggesting the volumes of the animals' bodies. In its use of such optical trickery, Zebra is often considered one of the earliest works of Op Art.
This painting is typical of Vasarely's early work in using abstract visual effects in pictorial representation - zebras and tigers were common subject-matter for this reason, because of the abstract patterning on their bodes - and in recreating three-dimensional space in two dimensions without resorting to vanishing-point perspective. Despite his status as a commercial artist, Vasarely had been exposed to the avant-garde ideas of the Bauhaus at the Mühely art-school in Budapest in the late 1920s, and there is an obvious Constructivist influence on this work, with its reduction of representative elements to an absolute, iconic minimum. Indeed, in producing works like Zebra, Vasarely was following in the footpaths of pioneering Hungarian Constructivists and avant-gardists at the same time, we can sense the first stirrings of Vasarely's movement towards purely abstract, optically arresting effects. Vasarely returned to the Zebra as a visual motif throughout his career, notably creating a sculpture based on this early work in 1965.
Acrylic on canvas - Private Collection
Sophia consists of a grid-like pattern of black lines set against a white background, creating subtle various illusions of movement and three-dimensionality. This work was produced at the end of a period when Vasarely's art had made several decisive leaps forward, leading him from the figurative style of his first serious attempts at painting in the early 1940s towards a form of geometric, monochrome abstraction that still relied on subtle representational effects. A triptych version of Sophia was installed as a wall-mural at the University of Caracas, Venezuela, in 1954.
Across three vital phases of creative development during 1947-51 - sometimes referred to as the Denfert, Belle-Isle, and Gordes-Crystal periods - Vasarely gradually refined the techniques of abstraction and optical illusion that would define his mature work. He was initially inspired by the finely cracked white tiles at the Denfert-Rocherau station of the Paris Subway, producing various paintings which recreated the curious interplay of broken lines and planes on the concourse walls. Then, during a series of vacations in the south of France, in the Belle Isle and Gordes-Crystal regions, he became fascinated by the geometrical patterns of the French coastline, and by the cubistic structures of rural hill towns. Over the same period, Vasarely became more and more interested in the Concrete artist Josef Albers's studies of the psychological effects of color, and in the abstract visual forms of the Suprematist and Constructivist painter Kasimir Malevich, whose famous Black Square (1915) had reduced the picture plane to the simplest possible expression of figure and ground. These influences are channeled into works such as Sophia, which express both Vasarely's fascination with the black-and-white color-palette - which he took to express contemporary scientific concepts such as binary coding - and his increasing interest in creating optical suggestions of vibration and movement.
Like lots of Vasarely's late-1940s and early-1950s work, this piece can partly be interpreted as a celebration of nature, as the geometrical forms expressed by the lines allude to water droplets. At the same time, they might seem to depict the curves of a female body, perhaps that of the woman referred to in the title. In this sense, though works such as Sophia represent a breakthrough for Vasarely, they also indicate the scope of developments still to come, as they remain loosely reliant on representational suggestion. Indeed, in inviting and exploiting the viewer's tendency to find figurative forms in abstract shapes, Vasarely was partly expressing an interest in Gestalt psychology, which was particularly strong at this point.
Wall-mural - University of Caracas, Venezuela
Vega III features an early example of one of Vasarely's most iconic visual effects, with the distinctive chequerboard pattern distorted in certain areas to create illusions of concave and convex shapes within the picture surface. The suggestions of depth and movement generated by stretching a linear grid in this way represent a vital moment both in the development of Vasarely's style and in the story of late-20th-century art, establishing one of the key technical effects of Op Art.
In generating impressions of movement within a static, two-dimensional artwork, Vasarely was ingeniously advancing the principles of Kinetic Art as laid down by artists such as Alexander Calder and Naum Gabo. From Calder's rotating mobiles to Gabo's revolving or vibrating sculptures, Kinetic Art had generally involved the literal creation of motion, with the aim of using art to depict the element of time as well as the element of space. Creating a Kinetic work which didn't need to move at all was a clever development of these principles.
Vega III can also be seen as a visual enactment of the ideas outlined in Vasarely's Yellow Manifesto, published in 1955 to coincide with the influential Op Art exhibition Mouvement, held at the Gallery Denise René in Paris. Vasarely's manifesto called for a new "visual kinetics", an art inspired by Constructivism and the Bauhaus which would use optical illusions to focus the viewer's attention on the act of viewing itself. Since the Renaissance, the instinctive, physiological processes of visual perception had been exploited by painters, and the Yellow Manifesto called for a fresh recognition and utilization of the techniques used to achieve this.
Works such as Vega III turn the viewer from a passive spectator into an active agent in the creation of the artwork, contributing to the visual appearance of the painting by their movement around it. As the art historian József Sárkány, the viewer's movements "always give rise to new paintings". In making the act of visual engagement vital to the final realization of the artwork, Vasarely expressed a quintessential mid-20th-century concern with blurring the boundaries between observer and participant.
Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York
Alphabet VR consists of various simple, geometrical forms, altered by rotation or partial erasure and organized into a square grid. This is one of the earliest applications of Vasarely's so-called "Alphabet Plastique", the revolutionary visual compositional system which he began working with in the early 1960s. The aim of the "Alphabet Plastique", or "fine art alphabet", was that it would comprise a set of elementary visual building blocks which could be used in any number of combinations and arrangements by any artist or non-artist to create an infinite number of original visual compositions. In accordance with the idea of an alphabet, Vasarely initially devised 24 "plastic unities" - individual square units each consisting of a colored shape set against a differently-colored background, devised according to what he felt were intrinsic harmonies between certain shapes and certain colors. Although "each particular form made up a plastic whole" Vasarely explained, they were designed to be combined in limitless ways.
Vasarely's Alphabet Plastique is generally considered his most important contribution to twentieth-century art, perhaps because it was so exemplary of its era. In the wake of the Second World War, and in the context of ambient intellectual influences from Structuralist semiotics to the International Style of mid-century modernist architecture, various painters and sculptors, particularly those associated with Concrete Art, were interested in the idea of a global artistic vocabulary which might be used and interpreted by anyone in the same way, thus having a kind of indirectly socially harmonizing effect. Vasarely's alphabet is perhaps the most fully thought-through and extensively applied of these systems, but in attempting to devise such a compositional lexicon, he followed in the wake of various Constructivist artists, perhaps most significantly Kasimir Malevich. Unlike his avant-garde forebears, however, Vasarely connected his experiments in this area with contemporary concepts from Cybernetics, especially the idea that any piece of information could be presented in the form of a basic, binary code. Vasarely designed his plastic unities so that they could be recreated using industrial mass-production techniques, rendered on any scale, and used in almost any design context. Indeed, he was particularly keen for the visual vocabulary of his Alphabet to be taken up by architects and city planners.
Stripped of all specific representational effects, works such as Alphabet VR express Vasarely's desire that art should be available and coherent to all, regardless of their education, cultural background, and other contextual factors. He once claimed that "painting is but a medium, the ultimate goal is ... to integrate the plastic phenomenon into everyday life". Art Historian József Sárkány is more equivocal in his analysis of the Alphabet Plastique, noting that such experiments "finally break ... with the millennial tradition of mystifying the art object", instead offering a "cold, listless, scientific thesis".
Acrylic on Canvas
This painting features a large, spherical form which seems to be pushed out from the center of the canvas, composed from individual squares many of which are heavily distorted, picked out in varying intensities of color. Vega-Nor, like earlier works such as Alphabet VR, was composed using the grid-based system of the "Alphabet Plastique", but in this case the picture-surface created by the rows of squares is warped. The impression of surface tension - that sense that an object or force is being applied to the canvas from behind - is found in many of Vasarely's works from this period, and may be loosely inspired by natural phenomena such as water droplets, whose surfaces often appear as stretched, elastic membranes.
Vega-Nor exemplifies Vasarely's style during the 1960s, when he replaced his black-and-white, Malevich-inspired color palette with a more vibrant chromatic range, which generated further impressions of movement and vibration. The Vega series, begun in the late 1950s, is associated with a larger set of works referred to as the "Planetary Folklore" series. These pieces utilized elements of the Alphabet Plastique, along with other effects such as spherical distortion and incremental color variation, to define what Vasarely hoped would become a universal vocabulary for graphic art. In attempting to use particular colors and color contrasts to express particular qualities of depth and motion, Vasarely was indebted to the Bauhaus artist Josef Albers, who had written extensively on the symbolism of colors and their innate cognitive and optical effects.
Works such as Vega-Nor date from a period when Op Art was finally being defined and celebrated as a coherent movement. Indeed, Vasarely's work stands at the forefront of all experiments in this area from the 1960s onwards, when he was joined in his endeavors by artists such as Bridget Riley, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Jeffrey Steele.
Acrylic on canvas - Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo
This work sets a multicolored hexagon - which appears as a visually unstable set of interlocking cubes and cube-shaped spaces - against a bright blue background. One of a series of works collectively referred to as "Homage to the Hexagon" (a possible nod to Josef Albers's Homage to the Square series), it expresses Vasarely's fascination with the hexagon as a shape that could be transformed into "a perspectivally unstable Kepler's cube". "In this manner", Vasarely noted, "the structure becomes more dynamic, yet visually more labile". In Ambigu-B, that formal ambiguity is accentuated by color variations, with the aim of creating a "mobile" optical illusion whereby different parts of the picture-plane constantly seem to be advancing towards and receding from the viewer.
Works such as Ambigu-B partly express the more spiritual, cosmically-focused aspects of Vasarely's imagination, which offsets the scientific rigor of his compositional approach. Speaking about projects such as "Homage to the Hexagon", Vasarely noted that "[o]n one hand there is a direction leading to the world of cells, molecules and atoms, invisible to the eye, while the other direction points at the remote, huge, starry universe". In other words, the geometrical effects at work in such pieces partly express the formal similarities that unite the largest and smallest elements of the natural universe. Vasarely's attempt to bridge the worlds of macrocosm and microcosm in this way adds a further layer of imaginative significance to his oeuvre.
During late 1960s and early 1970s, Vasarely created a number of works which, like Ambigu-B, create the illusion of three-dimensional shapes escaping from flat picture-surfaces, including late editions to the Vega series such as Vega Tek (1968) and Vega 200 (1968). These are the bold expressions of an artist still at the peak of his creative powers.
Gouache and tempera on paper - Vasarely Museum, Pécs
This late, sculptural work consists of a vertical wooden structure adorned with hexagonal patterns which create the same "Kepler's cube" effect as two-dimensional works like Ambigu-B. Sculpture was an important part of Vasarely's later oeuvre, and, just as in his paintings, he applied his knowledge of color theory through his work in this medium to create illusory effects of depth, making it seem that two-dimensional structures both extended forwards and receded backwards in space. Kettes was created at a time when Vasarely was also experimenting with compositional materials such as Lucite and glass, to introduce the quality of transparency into his work.
This work expresses Vasarely's sense of the formal connections between the "macro" and "micro" elements of life, and his simultaneous interest in the spiritual and scientific dimensions of the human imagination. The piece might be interpreted as a totem pole-like structure used to generate a sense of cultural harmony by harnessing the power of otherworldly forces. At the same time, they allude to atomic and cellular structures. It is perhaps with such contrasting allusions in mind that Vasarely referred to his late works as "universal structures that expand and condense". Indeed, we might see these late works, crated under the aegis of a more romantic, imaginative spirit than the work of earlier decades, as windows to other worlds, "portals" that reintroduce man to the wider universe.
Hand-painted acrylic on wood - Park West Gallery Collection, Southfield, Michigan
Biography of Victor Vasarely
Victor Vasarely was born in the city of Pécs, Hungary, in 1906. Shortly afterwards, his family moved to Pieštany in Slovakia, where he spent his childhood years, though he also travelled extensively across Eastern Europe. Little is known of Vasarely's early life, except that he did not seem to express any artistic impulses, seeming more interested in science.
Education and Early Training
In 1925, after his family had moved to Budapest, Victor began a medical degree at Eötvös Loránd University, but after two years he abandoned his studies to become a painter. His training was initially conservative, but by 1929 he had enrolled at the private academy of Sándor Bortnyik, a respected avant-garde artist and advocate of the Bauhaus. Indeed, the Mühely - literally "workshop" - as Bortnyik's school was known, was sometimes considered the Hungarian equivalent of the German Bauhaus, focusing on principles of geometrical abstraction, and on applied rather than fine arts. Bortnyik held lectures in his apartment on Walter Gropius, Theo Van Doesburg, László Moholy-Nagy, Piet Mondrian, the De Stijl artists, and Constructivism. Though Vasarely was based at the Mühely for only two years, it had a profound influence on his artistic development.
Around this time, Vasarely met and married his fellow student Claire Spinner. They aimed to study together in Germany, but the uncertain political situation in the Weimar Republic put paid to this idea, and instead they left Budapest in 1930 to settle in Paris. Across the following two decades, Vasarely supported himself as a commercial artist, creating posters for advertising and news agencies and logos for pharmaceutical companies. His practical and theoretical training allowed him to experiment with geometrical principles and chromatic patterns, but the distinctive style of his later work had not yet materialized. In 1931, Victor and Claire had their first child, André. A second, Jean-Pierre, was born in 1934.
In contrast to the stereotypical image of the young, impoverished, bohemian artist, Vasarely's graphic design career was relatively successful, generating enough income for him to pursue his own creative projects privately, in relative isolation from the Parisian art world. He experimented with effects of perspective, shadow, and light in three-dimensional works, and studied the scientific principles of color and optics, as well as astrophysics, relativity, and quantum mechanics. Finding in physics the principles which would animate his creativity, Vasarely's compositional method was, as it would remain throughout his career, meticulous, objective, and rigorous. He perceived art, just like science, as a process of ongoing, rational experiment. Some of the pieces which he created during 1933-38, featuring black and white contrasts, and often depicting tigers and zebras - chosen for their naturally occurring abstract patterning - are considered by many the first works of Op Art.
After the Second World War, having spent the period of 1942-44 in Saint Céré in the Lot valley, Vasarely returned to Paris to take over a studio in the district of Arcueil, on the city's southern outskirts. This move marked the beginning of profound shift in his artistic style. During 1947-51, Vasarely came to realize that certain two-dimensional geometrical forms could generate sensory perceptions of space and depth, and even create the optical illusion of movement. He later credited this discovery to studies of light conducted during holidays in the South of France, in the Belle-Isle and Gordes-Crystal regions, stating that "Southern towns and villages devoured by an implacable sun [...] revealed to me a contradictory perspective". During the early 1940s, Vasarely had co-founded a gallery with the art dealer Denise René. The Galerie Denise René, as it was called, would become an important early center for the Op Art movement, with Vasarely himself exhibiting there from 1944 onwards.
By the early 1950s, Vasarely had abandoned the graphic, figurative style of his early work in favor of purely abstract paintings, and throughout the following decade, he focused on depicting movement in static forms, extending the principles of Kinetic Art developed by artists such as Naum Gabo earlier in the century. The theoretical groundwork for the Op Art movement was also laid down, most influentially in Vasarely's Manifeste Jaune (Yellow Manifesto) of 1955, which expressed his belief that "pure form and pure color can signify the world". This statement was published for the Kinetic Art exhibition Mouvement, held at the Galerie Denise René, which featured Vasarely's work alongside that of Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Jesus Rafael Sotó, Jean Tinguely, and others. Around the same time, Vasarely also designed a series of architectural murals, notably for the University of Caracas in Venezuela in 1954. These projects expressed his belief that art and architecture were mutually dependent.
By the start of the 1960s, Vasarely had developed his so-called "Alphabet Plastique", a potentially endless series of interchangeable compositional units which became the basic building blocks of much of his subsequent art. In the 1960s, the alphabet was used to create perhaps Vasarely's most influential series of works, the "Planetary Folklore" series, which aimed to generate visual effects so simple that any given viewer would engage with them in the same way. During 1966-70, Vasarely also worked on various architectural projects, including for the French Pavilion at the 1967 World Expo in Montreal. He had become a French citizen in 1959, and in 1961, Victor and Claire moved to Annet-sur-Marne, where Vasarely would remain until the end of his life.
Although the 1960s was a period of critical and popular success for Vasarely, as the Op Art movement took off, he was frequently disappointed that his artistic systems - particularly his "Alphabet Plastique" - had not been more widely taken up. As a humanist whose scientific rigor was complemented by spiritual beliefs, Vasarely genuinely believed that the universal artistic vocabularies he had devised could make the world a better place.
In 1969, Vasarely wrote that "man has become a self-conscious creature, thirsting for knowledge, materialist and social thought", a statement summing up his rational and humane outlook on art, science, and life. During the 1960s and after, he composed various texts explaining these principles at length. In 1970, Vasarely opened the Vasarely Foundation in Gordes, France, along with a large museum devoted to his work. Across the following years, his network of museums and foundations grew, with a Vasarely Museum opening in his childhood home of Pécs in 1976, and American, German, and Norwegian Vasarely Foundations launched during the 1980s. Vasarely used the headquarters of the foundation at Gordes to explore various architectural concepts - based on the idea that his Alphabet Plastique could also be used in urban planning - and created a range of educational and research programs. Still full of energy and invention, Vasarely became more convinced than ever that the concept underpinning an artwork was more significant than the realization of it. As such, he increasingly relied on assistants to complete his projects.
Art critic Roberta Smith writes that "[a]lthough Mr. Vasarely's visibility in the art world declined precipitously after 1970, he remained the center of his own small art empire". During the 1980s, the popularity of Op Art waned considerably, and he devoted more and more of his time to managing his network of museums and foundations. In 1990, Vasarely's wife died, and his creative output and health declined from this point onwards. In 1992, Jean-Pierre, his second child, also died, and in 1996, a few years later, Vasarely closed his first museum. Later that year, he became a professor emeritus at the Budapest Faculty of Visual Arts. In the mid-1990s, Vasarely was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and he spent the next two years undergoing various treatment. Victor Vasarely died in Paris on March 15, 1997, aged 90.
The Legacy of Victor Vasarely
Although Vasarely was experimenting with the principles of Op Art as far back as the 1930s, widespread recognition of his work in this area only came in 1965, with his inclusion in the hugely influential Op Art exhibition The Responsive Eye (1965), at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Indeed, the term "Op Art" had only been coined the previous year, in a Time magazine article. As well as influencing this newly defined genre, Vasarely's work filtered through into mainstream popular culture through its reproduction on prints, posters, and fabrics. As a believer in the democratization of art, Vasarely actively supported this mass circulation of his designs, and their hallucinatory effects became synonymous with the spirit of the sixties.
At the peak of his fame, Vasarely declared: "[t]he generation coming after me experiments with spatial-kinetic forms. New dimensions, light, energy and sound enter the competition". He had a strong sense of the influence that the Op Art movement would have on subsequent experiments with light, color, and motion in art, and various movements and collectives took up and developed his ideas from the 1960s onwards. In Paris, during that decade, the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel created interactive, immersive artistic environments based on Vasarely's principles; in California around the same time, the Light and Space Movement, including artists such as Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and Craig Kauffman, began exploring the perceptual effects of materials such as glass, and neon and fluorescent lights. The wider movement of Light Art, associated with Robert Irwin and James Turrell amongst others, has focused intensively on light as a compositional material. On this evidence, it seems that Victor Vasarely's artistic legacy remains very much alive.