Articles and Features

Art Movement: Op Art.
History and Famous Works

Bridget Riley, Blaze, 1964 © Bridget Riley 2018, Courtesy National Galleries Scotland.

By Adam Hencz

“Every form is a base for colour, every colour is the attribute of a form.”

Victor Vasarely

What is Op Art?

Op Art is an abbreviation of optical art, a form of geometric abstract art, that explores optical sensations through the use of visual effects such as recurring simple forms and rhythmic patterns, vibrating colour-combinations, moiré patterns and foreground-background confusion. Formally, all Op Art paintings and works employ tricks of visual perception like manipulating rules of perspective to give the illusion of three-dimensional space, mixing colours to create the impression of light and shadow.

Key period: late 1950s and 1960s
Key words: visual illusion, illusion of movement, repetitive forms, checkerboard patterns, tension, complementary colours
Key artists: Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Richard Anuskiewicz, François Morellet, Jesús Rafael Soto, Julio Le Parc, Gianni Colombo, Peter Kogler

Origins of the Op Art movement

The roots of Op Art, in terms of graphic and colour effects, can be traced back to Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Dada, but the movement perhaps more closely derives from the constructivist practices of the Bauhaus. The German school stressed the relationship of form and function within a framework of analysis and rationality, which led to mirroring the counterculture of the time in the embrace of graphic shapes and bright colours. At that time, artists like M.C. Escher, Victor Vasarely and Josef Albers experimented with what is now considered optical art. Albers works are studies in colour perception, while Escher’s work employs paradoxical placements, visual trickery as well as errors of perspective in forms and structures that seem plausible at first glance. The artist known as the grandfather of optical art is French-Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely, whose painting titled Zebras (1938) is by many art historians considered one of the earliest examples of Op Art.

Victor Vasarely, Zebras
Victor Vasarely, Zebras, 1938.

A decisive event in the history and development of the kinetic arts, the 1955 group exhibition Le Mouvement, shown at the Galerie Denise René in Paris, also proved to be one of the first shows to promote works that used optical illusions and visual trickery. The pinnacle of the Op Art movement’s success was 1965, when the Museum of Modern Art embraced the style with the exhibition The Responsive Eye, which showcased paintings and sculptures by artists such as Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Josef Albers. Op Art profoundly influenced advertising, fashion, and interior design as well, before fading in the early 1970s.

Focusing isn’t just an optical activity, it is also a mental one.

Bridget Riley

Famous Op Art artists and iconic Op Art artworks

Victor Vasarely

Victor Vasarely is considered to be one the most important representatives of optical painting. He took inspiration and orientation from theories of the Bauhaus, Suprematism, and geometric abstraction. He was born in Pécs, Hungary in 1906 and grew up in Piestany and Budapest, where he became acquainted with the basics of traditional academic painting as well as with the Bauhaus movement. Much of Vasarely’s life and work was about the Op Art style. His paintings aimed at forcing people out of their visual comfort zone with the pleasant tension created by apparently moving images that steer their minds towards doubt and new ideas. He wanted to bring life into everyday life with the play of colors and shapes, immersing himself in the world of optical art experiments.

Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley is one of the best-known Op Art painters, famous for her striking murals composed of multiple stripes which create optical illusions for the viewer. Her black and white geometric patterns explore the dynamism of sight and produce a disorienting effect on the eye, creating an illusion of movement and colour. Born in 1931 in London, Riley studied at Goldsmith’s College and the Royal Academy of Art. Riley is known in the public consciousness for her iconic black and white geometric works, as well as for her temporary public murals in major institutions such as the Tate gallery in London and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. She currently lives and works in both the United Kingdom and France.

Richard Anuskiewicz

Richard Anuskiewicz, Plus Reversed
Richard Anuskiewicz, Plus Reversed, 1960. Photograph: Museum of Art, University of Austin, Texas

He was one of the founders and foremost exponents of Op Art during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1964, Life magazine ran a feature on him in which they called him “one of the new wizards of Op Art”. Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Anuskiewicz went to the Cleveland Institution of Art where he found and became interested in Op Art. He graduated and went to Yale and, interestingly enough, was taught by Josef Albers for some time. Anuszkiewicz is still actively painting today.

François Morellet

Born in 1926 in Cholet, a small town in the Loire Valley, François Morellet was a painter, graphic artist and sculptor. He was one of the founders of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) along with the Argentines, Julio Le Parc and Francisco Sobrino. The experimental work done by François Morellet was parallel to artists like Frank Stella, Sol LeWitt or Dan Flavin. Morellet continually explored a wide range of practices and incorporated diverse materials into his work such as steel, iron, adhesive tape, wire mesh and wood. He was convinced that painting was the discipline of the past, so he advocated the use of new materials like neon, that eventuallz became the main element of his aesthetic language. Many of his works, that bear inexplicable titles, rely on the interaction of the observer due to electrical systems that turn them on and off.

The legacy of the Op Art movement

Artists today enhance the scope and range of the Op Art movement and continue to draw on earlier investigations while continuing to expand it into three-dimensional space. Austrian artist Peter Kogler is one of these artists, who operate at the forefront of technology while contributing greatly to the Op Art movement. Over the past 20 years, Kogler has worked towards a radical transformation of the exhibition space, making it an integral part of his work. Moreover, his unique patterns have taken a wide variety of formats including prints, sculpture, furniture, wallpaper, lighting fixtures, collages, and room-sized Op Art influenced labyrinths.

Installation view of Peter Kogler's solo exhibition of Galerie Mitterrand
Installation view of Peter Kogler’s solo exhibition of Galerie Mitterrand.

Relevant sources to learn more

The Most Famous Art Movements and Styles
The Drive to Classify Art Movements

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