In October of 1964, an article in Time Magazine
coined the phrase “Optical Art”. Op was recognized and popularized in
the United States, and spread to Europe specifically France and Italy where it
achieved critical acclaim (“Op art – Art Term”).
It emerged in the 1960s as an abstract style of art
that creates the illusion of movement through mathematical precision, contrast,
color and abstract shapes (“Op Art”).
Ops greatest success was in 1965, when the Museum
of Modern Art exhibited the style in The Responsive Eye show, which showcased
123 paintings and sculptures by various artists such as Victor Vasarely,
Bridget Riley, Jesus Rafael Soto, and Josef Albers (Op-Art.co.uk).
Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, and Jesus Rafael
Soto where key Op artists that dazzled museum attendees with their
incorporation art and science.
such as Clement Greenberg vehemently opposed the movement. The exhibition cast
doubt on the movement, since the artistic interests were so different from each
other; for example Albers was not an Op artist, but he was included for
incorporating illusion in his art. The Op label seemed too broad. (“Op
art – Art Term”).
Op was influenced by Bauhaus ideals of form follows
function. William Seitz, who documented Op Art in 1962 called it a generator of
perceptual responses. Op was designed to provoke sensations in the spectator by
tricking the human eye. Illusion is common to art, but Op exploited the
capability of the viewer to complete images in their mind by effecting the
normal perceptual process (trompe l’oeil). Op was influenced by Abstract
Expressionism to entice a feeling in the audience, but it left any kind of
representation behind to create an experience (Op-Art.co.uk).
It can be seen as descendant of Impressionism and
Post-Impressionism, for artists like Seurat rejected palette mixing. Seurat
used pure colors of dots next to each other, to allow the eye of the viewer to
mix them in their mind. Op would push this idea even further. Artists in the Op
movement made technique and subject matter inseparable (ThoughtCo).
Albers and Victor Vasarely, Hungarian-born French painter (1908-97) were huge
influences on Op art. Albers explored the expressive potential of color more
than any living artist. He demonstrated relativity of color in his painting
series “Homage to the Square”, and he embraced the deception of color to appear
similar and different in relation (“Op Art”).
Vasarely is an early pioneer of Op Art, in 1938
with his Zebras utilizing photographismes (black and white line drawings) that
caused illusionary effects on the eye. He created disorientation through
syncopated rhythms and geometric patterns (ThoughtCo).
He believed the experience of the work outweighed the meaning. This is
important to note while viewing Op art. He applied the term cinetic art not
kinetic art. Cinetic art referred to the illusion of movement. This was used by
JR Soto who created Op sculptures that moved based on the viewers interaction
with object. Vasarely sought to create art that captured the modern times. But,
color is where the full power of Op art was realized. Color contrasts in
geometric shapes caused retinal vibrations within the spectator (ThoughtCo).
Op Art fools the eye. Op compositions create visual tension. It is flat,
static, and two-dimensional, but the human eye tells the brain that the object
Op Art is
not reality. Op Art is abstract.
Artists do not attempt to depict anything we know in real life.
Op Art is not chance. The elements picked for maximum effect in each
color, line, and shape in the overall composition. It takes a great deal of thought
to successfully create artwork in the Op style. Consider most of it was hand
done, at large scales.
Op Art has specific techniques. They used perspective and juxtaposition of color
to achieve effective optical illusions. The color may be chromatic (hues) or
achromatic (black, white, or gray), or bold, complementary and high-contrast
for a full visual experience for the viewer. .
Op Art does not blend colors. The lines and shapes are defined. Artists do not
use shading. Two high-contrast colors placed next to each other to trick the
eye into seeing movement.
Op Art uses negative space. The positive and negative spaces in a composition make
the illusion plausible. Op artists used negative space as they do the positive.
There are three major classes of the interaction of
color: simultaneous contrast, successive contrast, and reverse contrast (or
Simultaneous contrast may take place when one area
of color is surrounded by another area of a different color. Successive
contrast, one color is viewed and then another. This may be achieved either by
fixing the eye steadily on one color and then quickly replacing that color with
another. Reverse contrast (assimilation) the lightness of white or the darkness
of black may seem to spread into neighboring regions.
Op artists were concerned with the behavior of the
eye. They developed abstract compositions that caused after-images, moire (wavy
patterns) effects, dazzling, and all kinds’ effects resulted from the eye’s
struggle to read an image (ThoughtCo).
Op art had no ideology, and the range of interests made the Op label very
uncomfortable. It was more of a technique that the artists that used it gave
their reasoning. Therefore, its origin and end blurs with other movements like
Op artists used black and white to produce the
greatest contrast in their designs, since this caused the greatest struggle to
the eye to discern which element of the composition is in the foreground and
which is in the background (ThoughtCo).
Bridget Riley created black and white undulating
striped paintings through a systematic process to etcetera, trick the eye to
see something that does not exist (“Op
antecedents of Op can be traced back to Neo-impressionism, Cubism, Futurism,
Constructivism and Dada. Its complex perceptual effects created by Op artists
were embraced by the general public, but art critics considered it a gimmick.
success led to the decline of the movement, since artists discovered that their
designs were borrowed by American clothing manufacturers.
elements were made into posters, t-shirts and book illustrations. Audiences who
embraced the movement would reject it as eye trickery. The Op movement in a lifespan
of around three years lost popularity by 1968, but its exploration of
systematic optical effects are still incorporated in visual art and
architecture. The artists sought to create a unique experience through intense
sensuality not intellectual content (ThoughtCo).
Structural Constellation (1913)
Artist: Josef Albers
Albers experiments with the perception
of space by arranging simple lines to create an indistinct sense of depth.
The black rectangular shapes
intersect in various angles to disorient the viewer’s perception of space.
The piece is 2D and not
stylistically rendered, but the viewer interprets unstable dimensions.
rejected the label “Op art,” and his Bauhaus background inclined him
to be interested in a very rational investigation of color, yet he embraced the
usefulness of tricking the eye (The Museum of Modern Art).
In the Museum of Modern Art, New
Duo- 2 (1967)
Artist: Victor Vasarely
The warm and cool shades of color
create the illusion of three-dimensional structures. The concave, or convex
shapes blur the lines of reality, but one needs to remember it is a painted
image, despite its volumetric assembly.
Vasarely used black and white to
deliver his more memorable Op images like Zebras Color interested many Op
The scientific study of color was
central to teaching at the Bauhaus, and Vasarely benefited from his education
at the “Budapest Bauhaus.”
Bauhaus teachers such as Albers
encouraged students to think beyond the symbolism of colors, which was very
important in art, but the effects that color had on the eye was worth more
exploration (Masterworks Fine Art).
Gouache and acrylic on board –
Artist: Bridget Riley (b. 1931)
Zigzag black and white lines in create
the perception of a circular attire. The image tricks the brain that the
pattern shifts back and forth. Her work would wave before the audience, and
critics found something feminine about her abstract work (“Op art – Art Term”).
The interlocking lines add depth
to the form as it rhythmically curves around.
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.” (ThoughtCo)
She disliked the
commercialization of her work, probably due to her early career as a graphic
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.” (ThoughtCo)
Screen print on paper – The
Institute of Contemporary Prints
Houston Penetrable 2004-2014 (IdeelArt)
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Artist: Jesus Rafael Soto
The artist investigates light,
movement and space. He initially spoke of them as “enveloping works”—art that
would give people a sense of the shape and density of space (IdeelArt).
The space was a field that had to
be experienced with the eyes, the entire body, and the senses. French art
critic Jean Clay was the first to call them Penetrables (meaning, in French and
Spanish, “to get into” or “to walk through”), a term that Soto then adopted (IdeelArt).
Soto used art to make people see
the world differently, to make them experience moving through it. Spectators
entering a Penetrable redefine their relationship to the space, and they must
reconfigure their sense of height and width.
The Houston Penetrable was
Soto’s most ambitious work. It uses clear tubes with a huge yellow ellipse at
its center. The design and immense scale made the piece extremely difficult to produce.
After more than five years, the Museum helped Soto in Paris to construct what his
final project (IdeelArt)