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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Op-Art, a basic description

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

Welcome to the sixties! The expression "Op Art "or "optical art "was adopted to bring together abstract artists working on visual effects and illusions. If Victor Vasarely, François Morellet, or Bridget Riley were not the first to take an interest in the art of movement and retinal phenomena, they considerably renewed this preoccupation born in the days of the first avant-gardes (around 1910). Objective art has become more fun, more sensory, and more luminous! On the intellectual level, it constitutes a frank break with the mimetic function of art, by detaching oneself completely from reality and by giving the spectator a new place: that of an actor.

History of movement

Op Art has two origins: on the one hand, it is the heir of artists' interest in the laws of optics and visual theories of the years 1910–20, especially in the context of the Bauhaus, where he taught Kandinsky. On the other hand, it is also associated with kinetic research. It is to say the expression of real movement in art, which can be produced by a motor as well as by a natural adjuvant (like the wind or the sun).

Alexander Calder offers a good example.

The beginnings of Op Art especially cultivated the duality between white and black. Subsequently, the works of these artists are characterized by games of very colorful and contrasting surfaces. We must remember that the perception by our eye of a color depends on its context. These theories of complementary colors have been known since medieval times. Still, they have mainly been developed by the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and scientist Michel Eugène Chevreul in the XIXth century and experienced by the neo-impressionist painters (Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross). In a few words, the proximity between two colors can lead to intensification effects.

Optical artworks, therefore, play on our visual perception. In the mid-1940s, a new generation of artists - led by Victor Vasarely - sought new possibilities for expression. The Hungarian will be followed by artists like Jesús-Rafael Soto, Yaacov Agam, François Morellet, Karl Gerstner, Julio Le Parc, Getulio Alviani or Ángel Duarte. Several American and English artists also embrace this aesthetic, in particular, Ellsworth Kelly and Bridget Riley.

In 1961 the GRAV group (Visual Art Research Group) was founded in Paris. One of its founders is the Argentinian artist Julio Le Parc. GRAV members - Horacio Garcia Rossi, Julio Le Parc, François Morellet, Francisco Sobrino, Joël Stein, and Jean-Pierre Vasarely, known as "Yvaral" - often use new materials from industrial society, such as Plexiglas or neon lights. Some artists have continued their research by creating real installations (like François Morellet).

The movement began to gain recognition in 1965, thanks to the holding of the exhibition "The Receiving Eye" at MoMa in New York. Very quickly, the aesthetics of Op Art were recovered by the world of advertising and design and became very popular. One could criticize him for being only a game of illusions, decorative, and lacking deep meaning. However, Op Art poses a real question: what is visual reality?



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