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 - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 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