February 27, 2015
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 working 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.”