We're in the midst of cleaning out our studio and going through so much stuff. How did we accumulate this in just two, short years?? I was happy to see some of the catalogues from the shows I've curated and produced over the years. "The Responsive Mind" was an Op Art show, an homage to the MoMA's exhibit "The Responsive Eye" from 1963. It was an exciting show to work on and I got to meet Julian Stanczak and his lovely wife Barbara. His work is so precise and yet too lively to feel "mechanical", a word used regularly to describe the genre.
Here's the text I created to go with the show. It's fascinating to see where my "art brain" was at the time and a reminder that I could be producing material like this again.
"European Impressionism bloomed in the 1870s with flowery landscapes and rosy-cheeked sitters. But with all its pleasantries, many Americans considered it radical. Paint was applied directly to the canvas with little or no mixing of hues. Romantic and balanced canvases were replaced with imbalanced compositions and cropped objects. Layers of washes used to stabilize undertones and build weight had been thrown to the wayside for freeing brushstroke and brilliant palette. Viewers had to adhere to a new set of rules for looking at and discussing impressionism and over time, genteel scenes of teatime and poppies won over the masses.
French post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard may have said it best. "What I am after is the first impression - I want to show all one sees on first entering the room - what my eye takes in at first glance."
Similar to the introduction of Impressionism, optical art was not a quick read. While both employed dazzling use of color, optical works had no subject nor narrative. The consumption of the mathematical canvases required the viewer to relent to its elements of engaging and at times, repelling, compositions and color juxtapositions.
That is what this exhibit is about, the shock of the first glance, the precise mode we call "Op" art.
Op art is considered the direct descendent of the early 20th century German design movement, Bauhaus. Based on the ideologies of Walter Gropius, it originated in Weimer, Germany in 1919.1 While short lived and taking years to cultivate, the movement left indelible marks in areas of architecture, graphic and industrial design.2 Disregarding ornamentation and prioritizing the utility of object, the movement included elements of Constructivism.
Folding under the pressure of the Nazi regime, the Berlin Bauhaus closed in Spring of 1933 and artists dispersed internationally. Mies Van der Rohe settled in Chicago producing monumental buildings and iconic furniture. Josef Albers, along with his wife painter, Anni Albers, moved to North Carolina and taught at Black Mountain College; later at Harvard and Yale. Direct contributors to the flourish of its origins and continuation included artists Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and László Moholy-Nagy.
The culmination of Bauhaus and its peripheral movements were catalysts to the formation of Op Art through international perspectives. Because of this varied pot, the direction of the genre while calculative and mathematical, yielded extraordinary results in areas as vast as those of its contributors.
Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher's jovial lithograph Mosaic II (Image 1) is the earliest piece in this exhibit, a bridge between industrial design and early optical art elements. A grid of animals and biomorphic forms, each is created from the negative space of its stylized neighbor. Dependent on the stark void and presence of value, the viewer is forced to see the piece in multiple ways. As one tone protrudes, the other recedes. To view the entirety of the plane is a frenzied but pleasant task. Challenging the simple idea of tasselations and motif, Escher's use of grayscale and shading of figures showed early potential for viewing a two-dimensional plane as a three-dimensional one, an underlying element of trompe l'oeil.
In February 1965, Op art stepped gingerly on to the main stage only to be thrust into the limelight.3 Legitimized by the paramount of modern art institutions, the genre was as exciting and tumultuous as the times - socially, politically and technologically-speaking. The international collection of paintings, prints and art objects brought to the forefront an appreciation of mathematically precise qualities in art that had not been given high regard previously.
In a review of the first staged show on Op art, art critic, John Canaday of the New York Times reported, “‘The Responsive Eye’, the Optical art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is a brilliant show, with all the theatricallism typical of avant-garde art but with the most important sections it is a display of craftsmanship in the service of a new idea as to what art should be in this century.”
This was an ouevre that could be consumed by everyone, simplistic in nature but disarming to view. There were the dots of Larry Poons to gaze upon, seemingly floating orbs on complementary color fields. Grounded by faint gridlines, Untitled (Image 8) mimics the quarter notes on a page of sheet music. Poons's musical past4 translated into compositions of syncopated beats that gave the audience a reason to tap their toes.
Victor Vasarely's early grasp on typography and Bauhaus ideals were foundation to his creation of simple yet indispensable notions. Both mixed media piece Untitled (Image 5) and the painting Dudiom (Image 19), confuse the viewer by making typically defined fore and background images ambiguous through varied use of color and value.
Flat, pure color was pioneered by Hard-Edge painter Ellsworth Kelly. His paring down of form into elementary and abstracted geometric shape influenced a new generation of representation as seen in the lithograph Blue/Yellow/Red (Image 2). Also employing complex palettes was Chicago native, Karl Benjamin. In VS #10 (Image 15), the warm reds are punctuated with instances of cool blue, purple and green. His use of complementary colors encouraged the viewer to scan and "read" the horizontal canvas.
While notably scarce in this movement, women made profound discoveries in this mode. Trading in her traditional painting style, Japanese artist Rakuko Naito found ways to create perceptual reality in its barest form. With simply two colors and pristine craftsmanship, RN 1262-35 (Image 13) shows a circle in front of a square, both consisting of the same alternating stripes. Submerging yourself in the canvas, the circle seems to recede and float while your mind attempts to rectify the changed reality.
Classically trained in painting and a life-long teacher, Edna Andrade created straightforward paintings through highly mathematical practices. In Color Motion 2-64 (Image 6) four colors are organized on the diagonal, on top a marigold layer of dissecting strips acting as arrows. As the eyes attempt to reconcile which direction to follow, the under-laying colors push and pull away from one another. Because of the chromatic range of value, color is responsible for activating the work.
Known for utilizing a wide array of hues, Israeli-born Yaacov Agam's anamorphic works depended on the viewer's ability to physically move back and forth to uncover different perspectives. The inclusion of his large scale piece, Double Metamorphosis II in The Responsive Eye, stood 8' x 10" x 13' and secured his place as a major contributor to the movement, a role he has continued to this day. His Agamograph (Image 17), a term which he coined, is a print overlaid with a toothed plastic. As you glance from one side to the other, different surfaces arise to the foreground. Similar to his paintings, heavy use of line and geometric shapes exemplified his studies under Bauhaus-era instructors.
Black and white, the most extreme values on the grayscale were integral to the understanding and creation of successful images and many artists realized this. While simplified, the barebones method of void versus presence was a true test. What marks existed on a canvas was information, what did not became negative tension, allowing the brain to rest and resolve.5 5 5
Under the tutelage of Albers at Yale University, roommates Richard Anuszkiewicz and Julian Stanczak advanced his methodical approach to color, creating congruently mathematical masterpieces albeit from contrasting views. Anuszkiewicz's vibrating works generally radiated from the center and utilized vibrant hues. In Untitled (Image 12), each hand-painted square weaves a complementary canvas of pink and green with such precision it seems as though there is an infinity we can no longer see but exists.
Known for immaculately precise and complex compositions, Julian Stanczak's painting Sway in Warm Light (Image 16) consists of three panes. Straight vertical lines deviate into curved, interlacing waves taking on an organic air. Only the repetition of its neighboring canvases and popping color are reminders of the human and machine-like interplay occurring.
The appeal to the inexplicable effects of this type of art is deeply sensory, almost visceral. While there is no denying the eye is the threshold, there has long been debate as to whether the translation of color and shape was retinal or physiological.6 It is the brain's function to draw conclusions and fill gaps, (which may explain the success of early visual phenomena as flipbooks or the moving projections of a zoopraxiscope). While complementary colors may be disconcerting to stare at, suggestive dots continuing in a direction or insinuation of a line is reason enough to connect it. It is the language to describe the perception objectively which remains difficult. This unfortunate truth is part of the elusive mystery and triumph of Op art.
William C. Seitz, director of MoMA at the time wrote, "...a considerable flurry has been made about 6 a new "cool" abstract dada, related to pop art, which finds value in resignation, emptiness and meaningless."
Perhaps more importantly this new "dada" was the antithesis of just that. A backlash to expressionism, its calculated nature required more attention than a slashing brushstroke. Innumerable hours were spent, pored over rulers and masking tape and tools that may have looked more appropriate for an operating room than an artist’s studio. Starbursts of vibrating color were created. Laborious and patient canvases wooed us and made us look. And then look again."
1 The School of Bauhaus would move to Dessau and later Berlin under the direction of Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (from 1928-1930 and 1930-1933 respectively).
2 "I had been in the Bauhaus only nine years and my successors had been there altogether for five years. That was the whole Bauhaus. But in spite of that, in spite this uphill fight, I can state today that the idea of the Bauhaus has really spread, has penetrated through, not only in this country, but very much so in England, in Italy, in Japan and even other countries." Walter Gropius's interview with John Peter, The Oral History of Modern Architecture, John Peter, 1994, page 184.
3In October 23, 1964 issue of Time Magazine, the article Op Art: Pictures That Attack the Eye was released, presenting the genre to a widened audience.
4 Poons was a student at the New Englad Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1955. Joe Houston, The Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s, (New York: Merrell Publishers, 2007),
5 A visual object is the more unitary the more strictly similar its elements are in such factors as color, brightness, and speed and direction of movement. (Arnheim 1954)
6 To this day, Harry Asher wrote in 1961, it is not known for certain whether the process underlying the effect takes place in the eye or the brain. (Seitz 1965) The Responding Eye, Museum of Modern Art, By William C. Seitz, 1965, page 5