Progression of Art
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."
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Knowledge and Disappearance
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."
Oil on canvas - Philadelphia Museum of Art
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."
Acrylic on canvas
Magenta Squared shows Anuszkiewicz's use of modular forms to emphasize and offset color relationships and is a prime example of his use of clean edges, all-over design, and saturated color. It also shows his ongoing interest in the form of the square, and its hidden structures and resonances. The painting consists of four squares of concentric lines whose interacting diagonals - illusory lines created by the arrangement of corners - generate the impression of a large diamond in the center of the canvas, enhanced by a subtle orange-magenta color contrast. This tilted quadrilateral seems to hover above the other four, contributing to a tension between impressions of flatness and depth that confounds the mind and eye.
This painting was conceived, according to Richard H. Axsom, "as a form of collage produced with Liquitex, the brand name for a high viscosity, heavy body, water-based acrylic with a consistency similar to oil paint" that had become available on the market in 1963. Anuszkiewicz and many of his contemporaries found this new medium very attractive for its special properties and fast drying time, enabling them to paint clean, crisp lines. In order to create this work, however, he actually turned to cut-and-paste techniques more generally associated with Dada bricolage than the precision of Op Art. As Axsom notes, Anuszkiewicz first created an underpainting of magenta, then added "a centered orange lozenge tangential to the framing edge." He then created four squares from pre-set Liquitex strips in yellow, light teal, light blue, and orange. A penknife was used cut out hollow squares of varying widths from each color, which were glued to the canvas. The contrasting, diagonally aligned areas of orange and magenta disguised beneath the strips are subtle yet noticeable, dividing each square into two slightly different colors, and causing the viewer to look closely in order to unpack the visual riddle.
Magenta Squared is symmetrical and balanced in structure, yet also succeeds in creating a sense of movement and energy through its use of color and line, as well as suggesting organic, natural forms such as peaks and valleys. As Axsom writes, "[i]n expressive terms Anuszkiewicz sets order and disorder into a single system: geometry and logical progression are amalgamated with oscillating light and retinal confusions. We catch ourselves attempting to resolve these visual dissonances, but to no avail. That we cannot leads to the heart of the matter: Anuszkiewicz's poetry of radiant indeterminacy."
Liquitex on canvas - Cranbrook Art Museum
Temple of Midnight Red
Temple of Midnight Red is part of Anuszkiewicz's Temple series, inspired by the vibrant colors and sacred geometries Anuszkiewicz encountered during a visit to Egypt in 1981, particularly in the Valley of the Kings. The works in the series range in size from about 18 by 24 inches to over six feet tall, with this one standing at 96 by 72 inches. The colors in each painting are stunning, and together as a series they create a breathtaking effect. For the Temple paintings, Anuszkiewicz eschews the form of the square in favor of the rectangle, based on his sense that the human eye responds differently to color interactions within vertical compositions. All of the Temple paintings are symmetrical and consist of vertically-oriented rectangles surrounded by lines in concentric order, giving the paintings a quality of topographical depth.
In this particular painting, three bright-red rectangles are framed by complementary striated lines of green in varying widths and hues, surrounded by an outer layer of red, and finally a framing square of deep midnight blue. The lines make the vertical rectangles appear as though flanked by fluted columns in the round. More generally, although the paintings partly showcase the abstract qualities of color within a geometric framework, they also suggest a physical structure and have a sense of monumentality, almost as if the viewer were standing in front of a physical temple. Splitting the difference between abstract and figurative interpretations, the Temple paintings have been seen as illustrating "tensegrity," the concept of balance between the forces of tension and integrity inherent in a physical structure, coined by the renowned architect Buckminster Fuller.
The symmetry of the works in the Temple series is perhaps partly responsible for the spiritual aura that they exude, evoking the symmetry of religious and ceremonial structures constructed by ancient cultures from Pharaonic Egypt to Mesopotamia. At the same time, much of the works' appeal has to do with the autonomous effects of color contrasts and the tricks played by illusory architectonic composition. The contrasting tones vibrate with inner luminosity, while the use of finely arranged lines to create a topographical effect means that the different sections fluctuate between appearing as figure and ground. One is not sure whether the red rectangles represent valleys, peaks, or apertures of light shining through the surface of the canvas, creating a sense of enigma and energy. New York Times art critic Holland Cutter has noted of Anuszkiewicz's work: "[t]he drama - and that feels like the right word - is in the subtle chemistry of complementary colors, which makes the geometry glow as if light were leaking out from behind it."
Acrylic on canvas - Canton Museum of Art Collection
Translumina Trinity II
Translumina Trinity II is a shaped painting composed in acrylic on fiberboard. Three vertical parallel rectangles - orange, a longer blue one in the middle, and pink to the left - spaced slightly apart, serve as the warp for the weft of a purple rectangle that runs across the middle from side to side. Each of the colored rectangles is fluted with thin lines which darken near the longer edges, giving the optical illusion of a curved surface like a rounded column, as in the Temple series. In Translumina Trinity Anuszkiewicz establishes a tension between painting and sculpture, evoking the illusion of solid three-dimensional overlapping shapes.
The paintings in the Translumina series, begun in the mid-1980s, are captivating and unique. Moving out of two dimensions into the three-dimensional world, the series incorporates textured and protruding geometrical motifs, including crosses, triangles, rainbows, and stars, all set in low relief on wood panels. Anuszkiewicz also plays with the ambiguity of spatial relationships, keeping viewers unsure of the implied physical and visual form of what they are observing - taking advantage of the tendency for the viewer's mind to finish the shape in their head. The paintings employ a vibrant warm-cool color contrast, generating a quality of inner luminosity, though the color combinations used, as compared to some of Anuszkiewicz's previous work, are restricted.
The Translumina series has been seen to signify the ongoing evolution of Anuszkiewicz's oeuvre late into his career. Writing in Art in America, the critic Barry Schwabsky notes that the Translumina paintings "are bolder, and from the standpoint of color, simpler than his paintings had been from the early sixties." Art historian John T. Spike, meanwhile, has asserted that the Translumina series evolved from a concern with three-dimensionality to evoking the dematerialized or 'film color' of Anuszkiewicz's earlier work: "[a]s the Translumina series developed, it became evident that these works are concerned with illusions of transparency rather than color transfer. Around 1989, the aggressive physicality of the relief paintings gave way to a remarkable involvement with the kind of dematerialization present in the work of the early 70s." About this artistic evolution, Anuszkiewicz himself has said: "[w]hen you consider where I started from, all this work progresses and slowly changes. And you move from one area to the next. It's more drastic when you can jump from, say, 1958-1968, to see one painting from each period. But if you were to see all of them together, it would be a natural progression."
Acrylic on fiberboard - Phillips through Private Collection
Translumina-Marriage of Silver and Gold
Marriage of Silver and Gold, one of the more monumental works from the Translumina series, consists of two interlocking squares - one blue, one orange - set in axonometric perspective in low relief. The piece challenges the viewer's spatial perception, making it difficult to tell which square is in front of the other. As Serge Lemonie writes of this work and others in the Translumina series, "[e]ach time a square is shown in axonometric perspective, one at the top, the other one on the bottom; the effect of the one and the other, is impossible to assemble visually, as each annuls the other." More than most of Anuszkiewicz's previous works, the later pieces in the Translumina series also show him moving into ACTUAL three-dimensional composition, the painting protruding from the gallery wall in low relief, as if to manifest more concretely something of the visual impossibility it evokes.
Lemonie's analysis continues with reference to the subtle classicism of Anuszkiewicz's work, noting that this piece "uses the theme of interlacing, a convention which was widely used on illuminated manuscripts during the High Middle Ages: two square-shaped 'rings' passing through one another." Lemonie adds that "Anuszkiewicz uses the means of the paradoxical perspective, well known in the Renaissance for its decorative design and which had also been widely used as the ornaments for pavement in Antiquity." In this sense, as in the Temple series, Anuszkiewicz interest in the abstract, autonomous qualities of color combination and striated lines belies the far-reaching cultural references encoded in his work, in particular to millennia-old histories of religious architecture and design. His exploration of the perceptual boundary between two-dimensional flatness and three-dimensional form itself has a precedent in the design and art of the Renaissance, specifically the trompe l'oeil techniques employed by artists such as Andrea Mantegna.
Anuszkiewicz's capacity in his later works to play with our sense of the boundary between painting and sculpture shows his ongoing commitment to extend his repertoire of effects and tricks while remaining true to a remarkable singularity of vision. That he remains active into his late eighties represents a remarkable thread of continuity from the first abstract experiments of the Bauhaus and Constructivist artists, via the Op and Kinetic Art movements of the mid-century, to art of the present day.
Enamel on wood construction - Loretta Howard Gallery