Op Art 50 years on

Pasatiempo - - RAMDOM ACTS -

When the term Op Art — an ab­bre­vi­a­tion of “op­ti­cal art” — first saw print in a 1964 Time mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle about Ju­lian Stanczak’s show Op­ti­cal Paint­ings at New York’s Martha Jack­son gallery, art his­to­rian and Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art cu­ra­tor Wil­liam C. Seitz was al­ready in the plan­ning stages of the first com­pre­hen­sive over­view of the move­ment, The Re­spon­sive Eye, which opened at MOMA in 1965. Many of the artists in­volved, in­clud­ing Stanczak, shunned the term that came to de­scribe art­work in­tended to pro­duce an il­lu­sory ef­fect. Op Art, though it of­ten in­cor­po­rated illusion, is based more on the phe­nom­e­non of per­cep­tion. Some of its as­so­ci­ated artists were part of col­lec­tives like the Anon­ima Group — founded in 1960 by Ed Mieczkowski, Frank He­witt, and Ernst Benkert — but Op Art as a style wasn’t nes­tled in the hands of a few pro­mot­ers, nor sit­u­ated in a spe­cific lo­cale. You could point to New York City, or, in the case of Anon­ima, to Cleve­land, to find artists work­ing in the vein. Seitz’s ex­hibit was broad in scope, drawing on per­cep­tual art from artists world­wide. He wasn’t look­ing for ma­gi­cians who could fool the eye but wanted to present a se­lec­tion of works born from spe­cific artis­tic con­cerns, taught in Amer­i­can schools by Euro­pean artists, that in­flu­enced a gen­er­a­tion of artists. “A lot of peo­ple were work­ing with per­cep­tion but were not Op Art artists per se,” art his­to­rian Peter Frank told Pasatiempo . “They weren’t work­ing with the ren­di­tion of illusion. They were work­ing with the cre­ation of per­cep­tual chal­lenges.” Frank co-cu­rated Post-Op: ‘The Re­spon­sive Eye’ Fifty Years Af­ter with David Eichholz of David Richard Gallery. The ex­hibit is two-fold. It fea­tures works from the 1960s by many of the same artists in­cluded in the orig­i­nal Re­spon­sive

Eye — Richard Anuszkiewicz, Karl Benjamin, Stanczak, and all three founders of Anon­ima — and a se­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary pieces by th­ese artists. Post-Op: ‘The Re­spon­sive Eye’ Fifty Years Af­ter is the first in a se­ries of ex­hibits David Richard Gallery plans in 2015 in honor of the orig­i­nal show’s an­niver­sary.

The gallery’s sec­ond ex­hi­bi­tion in the se­ries will fo­cus on artists ac­tive at the time of The Re­spon­sive Eye, but who were not in­cluded in the show. The third ex­hibit fea­tures con­tem­po­rary works that build on con­cerns sim­i­lar to those of Op Art, and the fourth ex­plores the in­flu­ence of Euro­pean and Latin Amer­i­can artists from the orig­i­nal ex­hibit. All four shows draw at­ten­tion to his­tor­i­cal con­texts and crit­i­cal ap­proaches to Op Art. “They em­pha­size artists who ef­fected the phe­nom­e­non of per­cep­tual illusion graph­i­cally,” Frank said. “They were posit­ing a gen­eral vis­ual im­agery to al­lude and trick as well as di­rectly ad­dress the eye.”

Op Art came into its own in the early ’60s. “The phe­nom­e­non main­streamed very quickly, which is not sur­pris­ing, given the fact that MOMA had given its ap­proval,” Frank said. Seitz’s ex­hibit fea­tured work from about 100 artists and more than a dozen na­tions. “It el­e­vated the in­ter­est, par­tic­u­larly in New York.” None of th­ese artists thought of them­selves as Op Art artists. One thing they share is a dis­re­gard for the pri­macy of com­po­si­tion. Com­po­si­tion gives way to al­most a min­i­mal­ized struc­ture that al­lows color in­ter­ac­tion and line to pre­dom­i­nate. They were in­volved more in pro­duc­tion than in re­cep­tion. They were con­cerned ide­o­log­i­cally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally with is­sues of per­cep­tion.” Op Art is of­ten char­ac­ter­ized as hav­ing re­duc­tive geo­met­ric forms and hard edges, and as be­ing lin­ear and ab­stract. The im­pres­sion of op­ti­cal illusion, when present in a work, is cre­ated by jux­ta­po­si­tions of color, line, and form. Artists drew on sci­en­tific re­search about how the hu­man eye per­ceives ob­jects. The peo­ple work-

ing with th­ese com­po­si­tional el­e­ments were trained as Color Field and hard-edge pain­ters, many of them taught by Euro­pean mod­ernists who em­i­grated to the United States, in­clud­ing Josef Al­bers, a Bauhaus pro­fes­sor who taught at Black Moun­tain Col­lege in North Carolina. “It’s a move­ment with its roots en­tirely in Europe,” Frank said. “There were other Bauhaus pro­fes­sors who moved here: Wal­ter Gropius was at Har­vard, [Lás­zló] Mo­holy-Nagy was in Chicago. The Color Field and hard-edge peo­ple emerge par­al­lel as you get into the more gen­er­al­ized Op Art ac­tiv­ity. The Op Art peo­ple like Anuszkiewicz and Stanczak are more or less in­flu­enced by Al­bers, who is com­ing right out of the Bauhaus.” The Re­spon­sive Eye also in­cluded work by Hannes Beck­mann, a con­tem­po­rary of Al­bers who came to the U.S. af­ter incarceration in a Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp, and taught color and de­sign at New York’s Cooper Union.

Oli Si­hvo­nen, who was ac­tive in Taos, was also a stu­dent of Al­bers. His early work 3 on Green, fea­tured in the David Richard show, is a rec­tan­gu­lar com­po­si­tion of three colored cir­cles with a space that sug­gests a miss­ing fourth. It deals with the con­trast of pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive space and, sub­tly, with illusion. The back­ground of the piece is a green field; if the color of the one miss­ing cir­cle matches that field, then it re­ally isn’t miss­ing at all — it is merely blended in. The hu­man eye seeks to im­pose an or­der on such paint­ings,

fill­ing in any miss­ing com­po­nents. Benjamin, Thomas Down­ing, and Alexander Liber­man — also in­cluded in the ex­hibit — like Si­hvo­nen, dealt with ba­sic geo­met­ric shapes and neg­a­tive space. They cre­ated paint­ings that chal­lenged the view­ers’ per­cep­tions with vis­ual un­cer­tainty. Anuszkiewicz’s Cross­road Red works sim­i­larly. The enam­eled steel sculp­ture is a pre­cise con­fig­u­ra­tion of lines that have the ap­pear­ance of three di­men­sions, although the sculp­ture it­self is flat. The de­sign is an in­ter­sec­tion of two lin­ear planes form­ing an X that is not com­pletely ren­dered. Lines are miss­ing, but enough vis­ual in­for­ma­tion is pre­sented for the viewer to fill in the rest of the com­po­si­tion, which the eye does au­to­mat­i­cally.

In Op Art, colors could pro­duce a ki­netic vis­ual ef­fect or illusion sim­ply by the way in which an artist placed two or more colors in prox­im­ity. The same can be done by over­lap­ping geo­met­ric forms or vary­ing line thick­nesses, as Benkert did with his Un­ti­tled work on pa­per from 1967. Color was not nec­es­sar­ily of im­me­di­ate con­cern. Many of the Op Art artists worked in black and white, as Benkert did. Or, like Stanczak does now, they moved back and forth be­tween black and white and color. Stanczak’s Tres­pass in the Dark (2010) com­prises a se­ries of tight par­al­lel lines that bend to cre­ate the ap­pear­ance of ridges or folds in the pic­ture plane. “He’s one of the mi­nor­ity of Op Art artists who is as in­ter­ested in what you don’t see as what you do see,” Frank said. Stanczak’s older piece Translu­cent

Or­ange has a sim­i­lar three-di­men­sional ef­fect but is done us­ing over­lap­ping colors ar­ranged in a grid. On the other hand, Mieczkowski’s

Adele , from 1963, seems to rely on both line and color for its ef­fects. The eye nav­i­gates the com­po­si­tion as if it were ter­rain, rov­ing over peaks and val­leys cre­ated by over­lap­ping planes and spheres. The illusion is one where or­der seems to van­ish, then reap­pear from out of the ab­strac­tion. “It’s nonob­jec­tive,” Frank said. “It’s pure form, but it’s il­lu­sory.”

Leroy Lamis (1925-2010): Con­struc­tion #209 , 1972, plex­i­glass,

© Leroy Lamis Es­tate

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