Op Art
History, Characteristics of Optical or Retinal Art.

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Op-Art (fl. 1965-70)

Op Art (a term coined in 1964 by Time magazine) is a form of abstract art (specifically non-objective art) which relies on optical illusions in order to fool the eye of the viewer. It is also called optical art or retinal art. A form of kinetic art, it relates to geometric designs that create feelings of movement or vibration. Op art works were first produced in black-and-white, later in vibrant colour. Historically, the Op-Art style may be said to have originated in the work of the kinetic artist Victor Vasarely (1908-97), and also from Abstract Expressionism. Another major Op artist is the British painter Bridget Riley (b.1931). Modern interest in the retinal art movement stems from 1965 when a major Op Art exhibition in New York, entitled "The Responsive Eye," caught public attention. As a consequence, the style began appearing in print graphics, advertising and album art, as well as fashion design and interior decorations. By the end of the 1960s the Op-Art movement had faded.

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What is Op-Art? - Characteristics

Op Art can be defined as a type of abstract or concrete art consisting of non-representational geometric shapes which create various types of optical illusion. For instance, when viewed, Op Art pictures may cause the eye to detect a sense of movement (eg. swelling, warping, flashing, vibration) on the surface of the painting. And the patterns, shapes and colours used in these pictures are typically selected for their illusional qualities, rather than for their substantive or emotional content. In addition, Op artists use both positive and negative spaces to create the desired illusions.

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Example Op Art Work

Movement In Squares (1961).
By Bridget Riley, one of Britain's
leading abstract painters.


How Op-Art Works

Op art exploits the functional relationship between the eye's retina (the organ that "sees" patterns) and the brain (the organ that interprets patterns). Certain patterns cause confusion between these two organs, resulting in the perception of irrational optical effects. These effects fall into two basic categories: first, movement caused by certain specific black and white geometric patterns, such as those in Bridget Riley's earlier works, or Getulio Alviani's aluminium surfaces, which can confuse the eye even to the point of inducing physical dizziness. (Note: Op art's association with the effects of movement is why it is regarded as a division of Kinetic art.) Second, after-images which appear after viewing pictures with certain colours, or colour-combinations. The interaction of differing colours in the painting - simultaneous contrast, successive contrast, and reverse contrast - may cause additional retinal effects. For example, in Richard Anuszkiewicz's "temple" paintings, the arrangement of two highly contrasting colours makes it appears as if the architectural shape is encroaching on the viewer's space.

Despite its strange, often nausea-inducing effects, Op-Art is perfectly in line with traditional canons of fine art. All traditional painting is based upon the "illusion" of depth and perspective: Op-Art merely broadens its inherently illusionary nature by interfering with the rules governing optical perception.


The origins of Op Art go back to pre-war painting theories, including the constructivist ideas of the 1920s Bauhaus design school in Germany, which stressed the importance of the overall formal design, in creating a specific visual effect. When the Bauhaus closed down in 1933, many of its lecturers (notably Josef Albers) moved to America and taught in Chicago and at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Josef Albers duly produced his famous "Homage to the Square" series of paintings which had Op-Art tendencies. Meantime, from the early 1930s, the Hungarian-born painter and graphic artist Victor Vasarely was experimenting with various visual tricks such as trompe-l'oeil and others, from certain types of poster art: see his Op-Art picture Zebras (1938). Later, he turned to painting, creating the geometric abstract pictures for which he is famous. During the 1950s, the Op-Art style also appeared in John McHale's black and white Dazzle panels at the "This Is Tomorrow" exhibition in 1956. Bridget Riley began to develop her distinctive style of black-and-white optical art around 1960.

Modern interest in Op Art dates from "The Responsive Eye" exhibition, curated by William C. Seitz, which was held in 1965 at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). A wide range of works were exhibited including those by the well-known Victor Vasarely and the contemporary Bridget Riley. Immensely popular, the show highlighted the illusion of movement and the interaction of colour relationships, neither of which found great favour from the critics.

Although the Op Art style became highly fashionable during the second half of the 1960s, it declined rapidly thereafter as a serious art form, despite periodic minor revivals. Notable exhibitions in recent times have included: "L'oeil Moteur, art optique et cinetique 1960-1975 (Musee D'Art Moderne et Contemporain, Strasbourg, France, 2005); "Op Art" (Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, Germany, 2007); "The Optical Edge" (The Pratt Institute of Art, New York, 2007); "Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s" (Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio, 2007). Works by famous Op-artists can be seen in several of the best art museums in Europe and America.

Famous Op Artists

The senior exponent, and pioneer of Op art effects even as early as the 1930s, is Victor Vasarely, Hungarian in origin, but working in France since 1930. He has taken a radically sceptical view of traditional ideas about art and artists: in the light of modern scientific advances and modern techniques, he claims that the value of art should lie not in the rarity of an individual work, but in the rarity and originality of its meaning - which should be reproducible. He began as a graphic artist; much of his work is in (easily reproducible) black and white, though he is capable of brilliant colour. His best work is expressed in geometric, even mechanistic terms, but integrated into a balance and counterpoint that is organic and intuitive. He claims that his work contains "an architectural, abstract art form, a sort of universal folklore". His mission is of "a new city - geometrical, sunny and full of colours", resplendent with an art "kinetic, multi-dimensional and communal. Abstract, of course, and closer to the sciences". Vasarely's work can sometimes dazzle the eye, but he does not aim to disturb the spectator's equilibrium.

The effect of the work of British artist Bridget Riley can be to produce such vertigo that the eye has to look away. Though carefully programmed, her patterns are intuitive and not strictly derived from scientific or mathematical calculations, and their geometrical structure is often disguised by the illusory effects (as Vasarely's structure never is). Riley refuses to distinguish between the physiological and psychological responses of the eye.

Peter Sedgley (born 1930), a Briton living mainly in Germany, became known about 1965 for his experiments with one of the recurrent images of late twentieth-century painting, the "target" of concentric rings of colour. The effect was intensified by changing lights of red, yellow and blue, electrically programmed. Later he developed "videorotors", stippled with brilliant fluorescent colour, rotating and still further animated by the play of ultraviolet and stroboscopic light upon them. His latest work has explored relationships between light and sound, with screens on which the noise and movement of spectators or passers-by are rejected in coloured light.

Other artists associated with Op-Art include: Yaacov Agam, Josef Albers, Richard Allen, Getulio Alviani, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Tony DeLap, Gunter Fruhtrunk, Julio Le Parc, John McHale, Youri Messen-Jaschin, Reginald H. Neal, Bridget Riley, Jesus Rafael Soto, Julian Stanczak, Günther Uecker, Ludwig Wilding, and Marian Zazeela.

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