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The Significance of the Op Art Movement

October 18, 2015

Op Art movement has been raising some of the most important questions in contemporary art. Maybe this statement might sound as an exaggeration, but the fact is that Op Art movement deals with one of the most fundamental elements of art practice – the perception of the visual. Logically, the natures of perception, illusions and optical effects have been intriguing the artists and art enthusiasts for centuries. However, the developments within the fields of psychology, contemporary philosophy as well as the technological development in the 20th Century put these issues in the very center of many artists’ interests. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Op Art movement (or Optical art movement) was born in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Questioning the reality and the possibilities of visual perception – those issues have been central to the op art practice since its pioneers.

Op Art Movement is Sometimes Linked with Postmodernism, but There is No Clear Connection Between These Two Movements

op art
Heinz Mack

The Early History of Op Art Movement

There are many different interpretations of the origins of the Op Art movement. The antecedents of Op art, in terms of graphic and color effects, can be traced back to Neo-impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism and Dada. On the other hand, some experts argue that the style represented a kind of abstract Pop art. Hoverer, it was actually the Time Magazine that coined phrase Optical Art, or Op Art, back in 1964. The term referenced the fact that Op Art is comprised of illusion, and often appears – to the human eye – to be moving or breathing due to its precise, mathematically-based composition. Op Art actually emerged from the work of Victor Vasarely, who first explored unusual perceptual effects in some designs from the 1930s. Vasarely is perceived as a father of the Op Art movement, since his complex patterns actively engage the viewer’s eye, and convey a sense of kinetic energy across the two-dimensional surface. The pinnacle of the movement’s success was 1965, when the Museum of Modern Art embraced the style with the exhibition The Responsive Eye, which showcased 123 paintings and sculptures by artists such as Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesus-Rafael Soto, and Josef Albers.

Black and White Patterns, Videos and Kinetic Art Are Inherently Linked with Op Ar

op art
Victor Vasarely – Cube,1970; Biadan, 1959

Visual Illusions

Op Art movement is interested in exploring the variety of optical phenomena. Subjects do not matter; everything is about perception and behavior of the eye. The beginnings of the movement saw only black and white compositions in order to produce the greatest contrast in their designs, since this contrast causes the greatest confusion for the eye, which struggles to discern which element of the composition is in the foreground and which in the background. So, in a viewer’s eye, it usually appears that the composition is actually a moving image – the foreground is constantly changing, causing an illusion in a viewer’s perception.

Op Artists Playing with the Viewer’s Perceptions

op art
Jesús Rafael Soto

Notable Op Artists and Later Developments

Op Art movement should not be reduced to back and white compositions that make illusionist perceptions in a viewer’s eye. Other artists, such as Julian Stanczak and Richard Anuszkiewicz, were always interested in making color the primary focus of their work (for example, Anuszkiewicz’s Rainforest or Soft Yellow). The colorist work is dominated by the same concerns of figure-ground movement, but they have the added element of contrasting colors that produce different effects on the eye. For instance, in Anuszkiewicz’s “temple” paintings, the juxtaposition of two highly contrasting colors provokes a sense of depth in illusionistic three-dimensional space so that it appears as if the architectural shape is invading the viewer’s space. There are also many other great Op Artists, many of them using Kinetic art as well, in their practice. Some notable Op Artists are: Getulio Alviani, Heinz Mack, Marina Apollonio and many others.

Op Art Can Be Created in a Variety of Artistic Media

op art
Victor Vasarely – Zebra,1938

Is Op Art Still Popular?

Although Op Art has significantly lost on its popularity in the latest years, the artworks by Op Artists are still quite popular among collectors and art lovers. Many art critics argue that there are less Op Artists today because the products of this art movement have been commercialized – Op Art elements have been translated into posters, t-shirts and book illustrations. Also, some critics and audiences are denouncing Op Art as an art movement, stating that it is nothing more than tricks of the eye. However, Op Art movement and Op Artists are still very productive, and the artworks that challenge the visual perception of the human eye are still being very attractive to general public. Therefore, it is almost impossible to follow the latest developments in contemporary art, without having in mind the latest trends within the field of the Op Art movement.

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Featured Images:

Linda Besemer – Big Corner Bulge, 2008

Tauba Auerbach

All Images used for illustrative purposes only.