Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on February 8, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the Nassau County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Op Art

by Franklin Hill Perrell


For artists anywhere in the world, coming into the 50's and 60's involved digesting the legacy of innovation in modern art that was in most recent years embodied by the gesture painting of abstract expressionism. Arising from a study of these prior artists was the premise of formalism, whereby new forms in art were expected to emerge from an innovative use of materials and the consequent need to formulate new technical methods of art making.

Op Arts invention of new abstract designs was inspired by the desire to create an art that was as much about the act of seeing and physical perception as it was the creation of new types of abstraction. To this end, each of the major Op Artists developed distinct methods to manifest the style, in a sense reversing the formalist manner. Artists developed individual approaches for each of its salient aspects. The most common need was to create hard crisp edges. Paint is for the most part, seemingly uninflected, with little evidence of the artists hand or gesture. Color (or black and white) is pure, strident, and unambiguous in the singularity of its tint or hue. Hence, an artist may or may not use a tape to mask off the edges of lines or form, and a different look is achieved whether the paint is applied with a brush, spray, or layered.

Consideration of the painting as object also becomes an aspect of this obsession with technique and perfectionism. In the painting of Richard Anuzkiewicz, sharp ridges, arise at the border of certain colors or stripes creating a sculptural pattern because of the thick paint that is mysteriously even. Tadasky achieves a mysterious resonance in his concentric stripes because his lines are all hand done, without tape, despite their seeming sameness. It is tiny, imperceivable, variations in width that lend the paintings qualities of color vibration otherwise unavailable. Designs within the rectangle, like those of Mielchevsky, begin to suggest the shaped canvas, and in the case of Raymond Neal, the use of clear plexiglass makes the painting become a type of transparent box, achieving a distinctive, seemingly unpainted high tech, industrial look, with reference to Mohly Nagy.

Op Art derives its name from the premise of creating a design whose abstract patterns produce an optical perception of fluctuating spatial depth and expansiveness, along with the potential for retinal after images. Op Art paintings, like a fun house mirror, imbalance the viewer by introducing uncertainties of space or perceived depth. Shifting motifs, often stripes, checks, repeated curves, or concentric circles, vie for dominance. Following some sort of psychic inner mandate for visual equilibrium, the viewer struggles to resolve their unpredictable undulations and rhythms, only to discover unexpected complexity. Op Art never seems to fully settle down.

Op Art was the next big news in the art world immediately after the arrival of Pop Art. In the later 60's and early 70's, these two movements were rivals, embodying an aesthetic argument, two sides of that convergence of social and stylistic tendencies that defined the cultural mainstream of that period. In the art world, a degree of elitism was accorded to those approaches most closely related to abstract expressionism, color field painting being the most obvious example. Similarly, Op Art, could be accorded a provenance to earlier 20th century abstraction, as it quoted elements of futurism, constructivism, and the Bauhaus. Pop, on the other hand, seemed to do none of this, with its use of blatant vernacular imagery as its biggest offence, it aroused special anger and skepticism from prevailing art world insiders. When the Museum of Modern art staged its 1967 exhibition of Op, its advocates saw the newest canonical modern movement anointed. To its detractors, however, Ops' frisson of intellectual hip mixing science with the psychedelic seemed to limit it as a period piece.

For the following several decades, Pop gained on its Op cousin. By 2000, however, the episodic shifts in art world taste prompted the inevitable re-evaluation by a new audience. Following a recurrent pattern of rediscovering schools or movements that had seemingly been passed over, these new fans were spurred by the recognition that this optical manner in art had never quite died out. This was being concurrently demonstrated by contemporary artists, and fashion and interior designers, who uncovered those earlier styles as influences worthy of imitation. Op's cool visual qualities, with clearly delineated forms and contours that seemed brash, or uncomfortably hypnotic at first, suddenly appeared classic and endowed with a nostalgic elegance. What distanced Op from Pop, its disdain for recognizable images, and its evocation of the an idealized, if fictional space, provided then, as now, a relief from the bombardment of charged images of a materialistic consumer culture.

Tadasky, the Japanese born artist, one of the most important surviving Op painters, in a recent conversation with the writer, explained how his art was utterly free of ideology, an attitude that arose from his experience of learning overnight, when World War II ended, that absolutely everything he had been told suddenly had become completely wrong. For Tadasky, the Dada tabula rasa, starting from nothing, a slate scraped clean, became real.

The mood of Op paintings is one largely of self reference: they do not seem to portray an outside world but an inner one which is largely the coincidence of normal ocular faculties of perception, with the mental assumptions arising out of the image. As forms are linear or geometric, there is no room for reference to particulars of the normally observed tangible universe. The paintings evoke worlds of their own, and the viewers experience is to become absorbed in a mental dialogue with the spaces, shapes, forms, and colors of the painting. The experience is highly sensate, and though seemingly rational, the responses are intuitive and largely automatic. The art seems pure, idealized, and removed from day to day experience. This is an honest, unambiguous art, portraying an array of visual facts, none of which afford the possibilities of challenge or comparison. There is no room for social comment, or any of the possible associations arising from normal images used in pictorial description. Largely, this is a happy art, which seems deliberate in turning away from ordinary concerns.


About the author:

Franklin Hill Perrell is chief curator at the Nassau County Museum of Art.


Editor's note:

This essay was authored in conjunction with the exhibition Pop and Op, opening on February 17 and remaining on view through May 4, 2008 at the Nassau County Museum of Art. The exhibition is curated by Constance Schwartz and Franklin Hill Perrell. For further texts concerning the exhibition please click here.

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