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Richard Anuszkiewicz

American Painter, Printmaker, and Sculptor

Born: May 23, 1930 - Erie, Pennsylvania
Movements and Styles: Op Art, Kinetic Art
Richard Anuszkiewicz Timeline
I'm interested in making something romantic out of a very, very mechanistic geometry. Geometry and color represent to me an idealized, classical place that's very clear and very pure.
Richard Anuszkiewicz

Summary of Richard Anuszkiewicz

Richard Anuszkiewicz is one of the masters of color in modern American art. His oeuvre has developed and evolved over a sixty-year period, but at the root of his approach certain key principles remain, most vitally the capacity of the eye to 'mix' complementary colors presented separately on the canvas. After training with the great Bauhaus artist and teacher Josef Albers at Yale, Anuszkiewicz carried the legacies of geometrical abstraction and tonal harmony a step further than his mentor by experimenting with an unprecedented range of color contrasts. The works he was creating by the early 1960s seemed to bring pigment alive on the canvas, making it vibrate, hum, or float in front of the picture surface. Combining these qualities with the illusory, architectonic and trompe-l'oeil effects of Op Art - a movement Anuszkiewicz helped to define and which, in its suggestion of visual movement, was an offshoot of Kinetic Art - generated a body of work which at once sat within various traditions and had a warmth and spiritual energy entirely its own.

Key Ideas

  • Whereas many exponents of Op Art, most obviously Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely, became famous for black-and-white paintings in which color was a secondary concern to the optical dazzle generated by the construction process, the magic of Anuszkiewicz's Op Art paintings lies in the color itself. A prodigy of color theory, Anuszkiewicz's work has the capacity to bring color alive by placing it in contrast with another for example through his creation of so-called 'film color', whereby a sheen or haze of color seems to sit a few millimeters in front of the canvas.
  • As well as showing his mastery of color, Anuszkiewicz's oeuvre evidences his awareness of line as a compositional tool of surprising versatility. Through precisely striated bands of color, often varying in thickness, length, and spacing, he was able to create the impression of planes or structures tangential to the canvas, so that a set of lines appeared as a distinct form rising up towards the viewer, for example, or stretching away from them to form a recess. The crowning feature of these topographical or architectonic designs, however, and what links them to the effects of Op and Kinetic art, was their visual instability, often seeming to suddenly invert themselves upon viewing.
  • Perhaps reflecting his religious upbringing, Anuszkiewicz's work is notable for its allusions to classical and sacred architecture. He uses symmetrical composition and architectonic motifs to embed subtle allusions to century-old traditions of religious design and iconography in what are nonetheless works of pure, autonomous abstraction.
  • The development of Anuszkiewicz's oeuvre represents a striking thread of continuity from the first days of pure, geometrical abstraction at the Bauhaus to the present day. Inspired by Josef Albers, who learned from the Constructivists and fostered the emergence of Op Art as a teacher, the younger artist has carried the torch for the minimal, precise, and cerebral side of abstract art across the whole of the later-twentieth century and into the twenty first.

Biography of Richard Anuszkiewicz

Richard Anuszkiewicz Photo

Richard Anuszkiewicz was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, the only child of Polish immigrant parents - though his mother was already a widow with five children. Despite growing up in a family of modest means, Anuszkiewicz would later recall: "I really had a very happy childhood and never wanted anything ... I had companionship, affection, all the good things." He loved art as a child and drew every day, supported by his parents. His father, who operated a machine at a paper mill, encouraged him by bringing pads of paper home for him to use. His family was devoutly Catholic, and he attended Catholic grade schools, where he was given extra time to draw as a result of his excellent academic performance. In 1944 he transferred to Erie Technical High School, attending art classes for three hours every day. In these classes he learned about Impressionist color theory, the theory of complementary colors, and the spectrum prism. Even in high school his approach to painting was very disciplined. He would set himself the challenge of mixing a broad range of tones from a limited palette of three or four colors. His art teacher encouraged him to enter competitions, many of which he won, including a major prize in his senior year in the 1947 National Scholastic Art Awards and, ultimately, a full scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Important Art by Richard Anuszkiewicz

Fluorescent Complement (1960)

Fluorescent Complement is an imperfectly geometric work, formed from repeated warm green dots set against a cool background consisting of a blue central circle fading to a soft green. Early in his career, Anuszkiewicz became known for juxtaposing warm and cool colors in this way in order to play with visual perception, creating a sense of hum or vibration. Anuszkiewicz said of his early works: "[t]hese first paintings that I did were very interesting because of the vibrancy of the color and because of this strong complementary action that you got, fluorescent action and then the alter-image because you got a sort of movement, they actually seemed to move. I played that up by using a lot of small shapes...that would not sit still on the canvas."

Fluorescent Complement is one of the first paintings Anuszkiewicz created in the new abstract style he developed after graduating with his MFA from Yale in 1955 and moving back to Ohio. However, in his own conception of this phase of his career, it was important to move away from the direct influence of Albers as well as the realism of his very earliest paintings: "[t]he minute I was released from that restriction, things started to happen for me and I felt good. For the first time I started doing things. I really could not allow myself to fully use color as I wanted until I got rid of realistic subject matter. I started using just shape, and color became the subject." In a 1976 interview with Paul Cummings, Anuszkiewicz spoke about how the Impressionists and Cezanne influenced him by their placement of warm and cool hues next to one another to make both colors appear more lively: "[t]he colorful thing about Cezanne's work was the manipulation of the warm and cool colors. He was putting a warm shade next to a cool shade which sort of charges those colors up... Then I could also understand Albers's interaction, where a color changes another color."

Fluorescent Complement was the first painting Anuszkiewicz sold in New York City, which catapulted him to fame. It was included in his first solo show, at the Contemporaries Gallery. Near the end of the exhibition, with no sales made, Alfred F. Barr Jr., then director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, bought Fluorescent Complement, after which a slew of prominent collectors, such as Governor Nelson Rockefeller, snapped up paintings, almost selling out the show. Anuszkiewicz's mother was proud of her son's accomplishments, but, as Anuszkiewicz later recounted, when she learned of the success of the show, she told him "that if he had stuck to his earlier realistic style, he would have sold more" Barr exhibited Fluorescent Complement at the end of 1960 at MoMA, along with other newly-acquired work, including those of the 'father' of Op Art, the Hungarian-French artist Victor Vasarely. Anuszkiewicz was impressed with Vasarely's work and realized that there were similarities with his own. However, he said that "a major difference between their work was that Vasarely composed his paintings in patterns of light and dark, while his were planned arrangements of colors."

Fluorescent Complement, like Anuszkiewicz's Contemporaries show as a whole, signaled the early stirrings of the Op Art movement in North America. Anuszkiewicz's paintings stood in marked contrast to the emotional intensity of the Abstract Expressionism which still dominated the New York scene. The Contemporaries works placed contrasting colors within centralized geometric constructions to create a shimmering, shifting effect. Stuart Preston, reviewer for the New York Times, noted in retrospect of the exhibition that: "[s]cientific experimentation" generated "color relationships of the most startling character and with the most unexpected optical consequences...These early abstractions, though tightly controlled, have a sprawling energy that makes them a reasoned equivalence for the freewheeling dynamism of the so-called Action Painters."

Knowledge and Disappearance (1961)

Knowledge and Disappearance is a large square painting, approximately 50 by 50 inches, that pulls the viewer into a space that seems alive with movement. Rectangles of warm red and cool gray alternate between figure or ground somewhat in the style of Vasarely's contemporaneous work, seeming to recede into the distance of a central square through the use of linear perspective. The rectangles in the central square are much smaller near its edges, creating a sense of a convex, pulsating far surface, like the chamber of a heart. Anuszkiewicz's two-dimensional art often creates this sense of living physical presence, even causing visual discomfort or disturbance in the process.

Knowledge and Disappearance was one of five paintings of Anuszkiewicz's included in the MoMA exhibition The Americans in 1963, along with Fluorescent Complement. In the catalog for the show, Anuszkiewicz explained his art using scientific terminology in line with the rationalist, post-Constructivist principles of Op Art and Kinetic Art: "[m]y work is of an experimental nature and has centered on an investigation into the effects of complementary colors of full intensity when juxtaposed and the optical changes that occur as a result. Also, a study of the dynamic effect of the whole under changing conditions of light, and the effect of light on color." This motivation has, with subtle changes, continued to drive Anuszkiewicz throughout his career.

Knowledge and Disappearance attracted a mixed reception which suggests that Anuszkiewicz's work was having a significant cultural impact. TIME magazine featured a full-page reproduction of the work in its review of The Americans, describing the work in glowing terms: "stripes or threads of different colors run over a common background to form diamonds and squares that emerge not as solid forms but as ghostly shapes coming out of nowhere. Some have the misty delicacy of a rainbow; others glow like fluorescent light. There is about this kind of painting a somewhat mechanical quality, which Anuszkiewicz himself is fully aware of. But the majority of his paintings are so subtle and sensitive that they divulge their secrets only gradually as the viewer looks. And fortunately, the world of color is one of such limitless arrangements and combinations that each painting has, almost automatically, the freshness and excitement of discovery." The critic Sidney Tillim, by contrast, writing for Arts Magazine in September-October 1965, leveled a complaint often raised against Op Art, that Anuszkiewicz's work lacked emotive appeal or sociological value, representing an "intellectualized and incestuous...offshoot of geometric abstraction."

Sol I (1965)

The Sol series was the first of several sequences of works for which Anuszkiewicz became well-known during the 1960s-70s. This early series consists of five large compositions in acrylic paint, completed over three years, each orientated around a central square or diamond. In Sol I (1965) the inner green square is framed by fine lines of varied spacing set against a bright red background. The lines read like a topographical map and give the illusion of depth, whether one reads them as emanating from the center or streaming into it - or whether the green square appears as the peak or base of the structure. A cerulean blue line runs around the periphery of the painting. In particular, the contrasting lines of complementary colors - green and red - vibrate against each other and create the impression of a strong light source, using the phenomenon of simultaneous contrast, whereby contrasting colors placed next to one another make each color appear more intense.

Anuszkiewicz was fascinated with the compositional form of the square and its "hidden structure," a term used by the perceptual psychologist Rudolph Arnheim in his book Art and Visual Perception. The square was a very amenable form to Anuszkiewicz's explorations, facilitating mathematical precision of construction and a central point of focus. Anuszkiewicz's use of the square format, as in this piece, cultivates a subtle mysticism, because of the works' symmetry and prominent, glowing centers. Of such works he has stated: "I think any time you put something right in the middle of the canvas it gives people a sort of contemplative experience drawing in and coming out. I know I've heard comments about Albers' paintings being very religious and the same thing about mine. Really, it's not religious, it's spiritual... But we all interpret things in our own way anyhow." As this comment perhaps betrays, the influence of Albers seems to be writ large over the Sol series: the concentric square format is familiar from the Homage to the Square series, while the use of adjacent lines to create a topographical quality might remind us of Albers's Graphic Tectonics.

Sol I was one of the paintings exhibited in November 1986 as part of Anuszkiewicz's one-man show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, known for showing some of the most prominent artists in New York during the 1960s. The Sol paintings, and the Janis show generally, heralded the emergence of Anuszkiewicz's signature style, involving crisp edges, bright vibrating colors, and laser-like lines. Writing about such works, Brian O' Doherty of TIME magazine noted how Anuszkiewicz "plays with afterimages, or the way one color engenders the false sensation of its complement on the retina." The New York Times journalist John Canaday called the paintings in Anuszkiewicz's second show at The Janis Gallery in 1969 "dazzling" and "beautiful", despite being "created entirely by calculation" and "executed with mechanical precision" - an approach at odds with Canaday's general maxim that "no painting of real interest can be produced entirely by rule."

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Content compiled and written by Lisa Marder

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas

"Richard Anuszkiewicz Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Lisa Marder
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 15 Jan 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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