Optical Allusions

How the Op Art movement is again making waves (continued)

New Op Art images: previous >


Tofer Chin

Tofer Chin, new American abstract Op art

Young, LA-based artist Tofer Chin is proving a favourite with urban art afficionados.

Tofer Chin contemporary abstract Art
images © Tofer Chin

Manil Gupta

Manil Gupta, contemporary Indian artists
images © Manil Gupta

Born in 1978, a recent series by Delhi-based Gupta fully adopts the Op Art aesthetic.


Kerstin Brätsch

Kerstin Braetsch new abstract Art
images © Kerstin Brätsch

While New York-based Brätsch's painting is highly varied, there's a subtle Op influence to many of her works.


The rise, fall and rise of the Op Art wave

Bridget Riley, Responsive Eye cover image
Bridget Riley's 1964 'Current', used for the catalogue cover
of 'The Responsive Eye'

It's hard to believe, perhaps, but Op Art as a movement is almost half a century old. Older still, if you give credit to Josef Albers' claim to be the "father of Op"; or regard late '50s experiments by painters such as Victor Vaserely as part of Op's lineage; or even (as some have suggested) extend its heritage back to the 19th century and the optically enhanced practice of the Pointillists.

What's indisputable, however, is that Op - and the works with which it is now typically associated - first hit the headlines in February 1965, when New York's MOMA debuted a showcase of what its curator, William C. Seitz, termed "the new abstraction".

The Responsive Eye, as the exhibition was called, quickly proved a sensation. Attracting thousands of visitors, and many more column inches, the show became something art had never been: a blockbuster event, one of the most widely influential of the modern era and a landmark that unwittingly prefigured today's efforts to concoct 'unmissable' art extravaganzas.

Commerce, quick to note a major craze, leapt aboard the bandwagon. Within months of The Responsive Eye's opening, Op Art was not only 'in', it was everywhere, from fashion to furnishings, ad campaigns to ashtrays. An onslaught, in fact, that inevitably hastened Op's speedy demise.


Passing fads

Yet Op Art was by no means the first of the 20th century's whirlwind aesthetic crazes.

In the early '20s, the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb ignited a frenzy for all things ancient Egyptian which briefly, though thoroughly, dominated the applied arts.

The 1957 launch of the first Soviet sputnik likewise inspired a slew of knobbly, galactic décor that came to define a specifically '50s look.

Op Art, however, didn't just inspire; it was appropriated wholesale, its graphic qualities and repeat patterning perfectly adapted to virtually any commercial use.

Ludwig Willing, Op Art: one of the original 'The Responsive Eye' artists Indian artists
Ludwig Willing, whose work was featured
in 'The Responsive Eye'

The uncontrolled reduction of Op's aesthetic to consumer kitsch eventually led one of its most important practitioners, Bridget Riley, to distance herself from the movement entirely. Within a year of making it big, over-conspicuous Op was already on its way out.

But just how much was commodification really to blame for the movement's rapid demise?

With hindsight, it's clear that art can survive - even possibly benefit from - commercial exploitation, as Warhol's endlessly appropriated works seem to indicate.

And although the trend for Op was especially sudden and intense - a sure sign, in most cases, of correspondingly rapid consumer fatigue - the question has to be asked whether the art itself was really good enough to endure.

Op Art and the contemporary Op revival - continued >

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