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Optical Allusions

How the Op Art movement is again making waves

Op Art and the contemporary Op revival: previous >

Op Art revival: Julian Stanczak
Julian Stanczak

The '60s art establishment certainly didn't think so. Three months after the opening of The Responsive Eye, Artforum magazine felt compelled to acknowledge the resultant "optical hysteria", but dismissed the work itself as "expressively neutral, having to do with sensation alone."

Clement Greenberg, by far the most influential critic of the time, dismissed Op as a "novelty", and even painter Donald Judd was sniffy about its achievements: "... Optical effects are one thing, a narrow phenomenon, and color effects are another, a wide range."

Champions of post-painterly abstraction were clearly not to be swayed by mere 'trompe l'oeil' effects - even though The Responsive Eye also featured artists such as Josef Albers, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Irwin and Agnes Martin, none of whom, today, are usually associated with Op Art as it has come to be defined.

In fact, it's tempting to wonder if the scathing depth of high-brow aversion bore an inverse relation to the movement's massive popular appeal. After all, Op was an art that pointedly - and radically - defied scholarly interpretation, basing its appeal on something as fundamental as the workings of the human stimuli-response system. Democratic and un-pretentious, anyone could 'get' Op Art, sidelining critical voices whose self-proclaimed roles at least partly involved educating the public towards gradual acceptance of the avant-garde.

Indeed, it's telling that in contemporary TV coverage of The Responsive Eye, an enthusiastic CBS presenter resorts to an anatomical model of the eye to explain the nature of the artworks on view, while vintage footage of the show's opening (a documentary that was also Brian De Palma's directorial debut) enlists the aid of a perceptual psychologist and visual theorist to guide audiences through the Op phenomenon.

Under such circumstances, the sole riposte available to art establishment arbiters was the issue of taste; and tasteless is what they effectively pronounced Op Art to be, an edict soon substantiated by its slide into ignominious obscurity.


The decline of Op Art

Tadasuke Kuwayama (Tadasky)

Inevitably, the vast majority of The Responsive Eye's 'true' Op artists correspondingly dropped from the art world radar; Japanese-born Tadasky (left), held no solo shows in New York from 1969 until 2008, despite receiving some approbation from the reticent Donald Judd, and representation in MOMA with two circular Op Art paintings from 1964.

Julian Stanczak, arguably one of the show's more gifted exhibitors (page top), suffered a similar decline, and is only now receiving belated attention (though plenty of it).

Victor Vaserely maintained popularity into the '70s, but by this stage his increasingly colour-saturated paintings were beginning to look as tackily outmoded as Op itself was deemed to be.

Yet despite establishment neglect and the vagaries of fashion, popular fascination with the Op Art movement has stubbornly endured.

It's likely, for example, that its most iconic images are more familiar to the general public than other artwork from the 1960s (Pop Art excluded) and, indeed, most other eras.

And while this can easily be explained by the fact that Op Art's visual illusions are, quite simply, memorable and engaging to an unusual degree, such a judgement hardly detracts from its appealing, egalitarian merits.

But now, with fresh interest in the movement gaining momentum - and, crucially, a new generation of artists adopting its aesthetic - the question remains as to what, exactly, is fueling its new-found valency.


The revival of abstract art

A principal explanation lies in the fact that abstraction in general is again dominating the international art scene, with particular emphasis in Europe on early modernist movements such as Constructivism, de Stijl, and other forms of geometric abstraction.

Italian Futurism, Giacomo Balla
Early abstraction: Giacomo Balla, 1911

This emphasis on pattern and rigorous structure (such as in the work pictured left, by Italian Futurist painter Giacomo Balla) provides a strong visual link to Op Art, which, along with hard-edged post-painterly abstraction, seems increasingly voguish in current US art practice.

Ideologically too, the utopian ideals of early 20th century art are at least partly paralleled by Op Art's uniquely democratic aesthetic, an 'art for all' agenda that holds undoubted appeal for those weary of elitist tendencies and conceptual obfuscation.

On a more obvious note, it's in the nature of trendsetters to resurrect the neglected and outmoded, and Op certainly makes for an ideal candidate: sufficiently dated, sidelined and even maligned, its use once again seems new, daring and reactionary.


A contemporary experience

And there's another, more interesting possibility. In a contemporary world dominated by excesses of visual information, Op today gains a particular relevance, a focus that moves it beyond the decorative and into the realms of analogy and social commentary.

Information overload; sensory overkill; Op is all this, and more: a pre-programmed series of visual codes with a logical - though nonetheless destabilising - outcome that mirrors the over-complexities of the information age.

Its invasive effects are irresistible, and while intriguing, also highly disorientating (museum attendants at the original Responsive Eye show petitioned, not unreasonably, for the right to wear sunglasses).

The unsubtle subtleties of Op Art fully reflect the flickering, ever-changing semi-virtual world we inhabit, and which, of course, its latest advocates have grown up surrounded by.

Indeed, much of the Op-inspired art currently being produced in the States seems to reference this world directly, with works by Tauba Auerbach or Xylor Jane reminiscent of screenshots or fuzzily pixellated graphics.

There's more. However democratic the experience of Op Art may seem, it's an art that measures itself in terms of specific outcomes; a hypnotic, perception-bending invasion of the mind that reflects the psychological coercion at the centre of many 21st century societies.

From advertising designed to persuade us to buy, buy, buy, to spin geared towards altering perception of facts, Op's endeavour to control the mind unwittingly yet perfectly provides the perfect contemporary paradigm.

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