The Genteel
February 28, 2021


Part of "Silvered 2" by Op Artist Bridget Riley. Source:
Josef Albers

A work from one of Op Art's founding fathers,
Josef Albers, from the series
"Homage To The Square".

Optical Art, widely known as Op Art, has been toying with its viewers since the mid-1950s. Op Art uses light, colour, space, and geometric shapes to play on visual perception, and illusions to boggle, shock, and sometimes please the human eye.

Branching off from abstract expressionism, Op Art gained momentum in early 1960s, and was honoured by New York City's prestigious Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1965 with "The Responsive Eye" exhibit. Although Op Art caught fire with the public, art critics dismissed it as being gimmicky, eventually sending Op Art into the shadows.

But, with a roster of contemporary artists in Europe, North America and Asia, Op Art has remerged in the last few years. With the recent exhibit DYNAMO (A Century of Light and Motion in Art, 1913-2013) at the Grand Palais in Paris, it has become apparent that Op Art is alive and well, and perhaps ready for another close-up.

In 1964, TIME Magazine described Op Art as "Pictures That Attack The Eye," noting that Op Art uses "all ingredients of an optometrist's nightmare." The critics' poor reception of Op Art has, to some degree, taken away from the importance of the art movement and its works.

However, illusions and tricks aside, Op Art's ancestors - Post-Impressionist painters Paul Cézanne and Georges-Pierre Seurat, as well as Impressionism founder Claude Monet - were artists of high esteem who embraced the idea of new perception and perspective in their works. And Constructivists "[Piet] Mondrian and [Kazimir] Malevich were the forebears of op art's dry, highly controlled use of colour, which sometimes...amounts to rejecting colour." 

Related: Impressionism's impression on Christian Dior.

Art historian and Director of The Art Genome Project at Artsy, Matthew Israel, explains to The Genteel that Op Art's history can also be associated with "Futurism, Constructivism, as well as the Bauhaus, [because artists in these precedent art movements] all created works experimenting with optical effects and illusions."

With the recent exhibit DYNAMO (A Century of Light and Motion in Art, 1913-2013) at the Grand Palais in Paris, it has become apparent that Op Art is alive and well, and perhaps ready for another close-up.

The art in Op Art lies in its precision and optical cleverness. By way of geometry and science, an Op Artist creates the initial idea, but it is through art that this idea manifests it into a visual experience. 

The credited founders of Op Art are French-Hungarian artist, Victor Vasarely, and Josef Albers, a German-American artist. The works of Vasarely and Albers played a key role in defining the Op Art movement and, most importantly, of creating a visual language that engaged viewers. Their influence at the time, as TIME Magazine pointed out in 1964, gave life to several artists around the world, "from Isreal's Yaacov Agam to remote Iceland's poet-painter Diter Rot."

Related: The house of Hermès pays homage to Josef Albers through a series of silk scarves.

It would be a sin, however, to not mention Op Artist Bridget Riley. An abstract painter, Riley's work naturally merged from the pointillist technique - a technique of painting or drawing by way of distinct dots of pure colour and intensity - to some of the most visually dynamic and stimulating Op Art of the 1960s. Riley has continued to produce work throughout the years; her latest work, a large mural composed of strategically layered circles entitled "Composition with Circles 9," was created in the year 2012.

But Riley is not alone. Despite the challenges presented by critics' poor reception, Op Art has carved out its own place in history and contemporary society. Op Artists are indeed among us, and the variety and breadth of Op Art is astounding. From the stimulating paintings of artist Alberto Gonzales Vivo, whose works' magnetism is credited to his strategic use of light, geometric shapes and colour - such as the painting Cuadrardos Opticos en Movimiento I, 2013 (available for US$3,700), to the elegant, yet bold sculptures of critically acclaimed Anish Kapoor (such as Blind, 2013 made with Alabaster mineral; similar sculptures have been sold for as high as US$1,565,000).

Related: Is public art a saviour of cities? Anish Kapoor's Orbit.

"Since the 1960s, and especially in recent years, many other artists have continued to make work inspired by, or related to, the experiments of Op [Art]. Among others, one thinks of the subtle, light and space altering installations of Robert Irwin, James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson, as well as the sculptures of Dan Flavin and Anish Kapoor," explains Israel.

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama. 

As the Grand Palais exhibit DYNAMO demonstrated, Op Art has grown extensively due to the advancement and adoption of technology. In addition to Op Art inspired paintings and sculptures, visitors were able to experience Op Art through such instillations as Light Corner by Belgian artist Carsten Höller.

The work of Yayoi Kusama - a Japanese artist who credits her art's originality to the hallucinations caused by mental illness - has continued to prevail with a strong focus on "Dots Obsession" paintings and installations. The SKUM Sørlandets Kunstmuseum in Norway is honouring her work with a multimedia exhibit entitled Dots Obsession - Love Transformed into Dots, that runs until September 2013.

Related: Don't call it a comeback, Yayoi Kusama has been here for years.

The recent celebration and recognition of Op Art signifies the movement's strength and importance throughout history. But most importantly, Op Art's re-emergence suggests that now - more than ever, due to technological advancements and digital embrace - we're slowly moving away from an image-saturated culture and into an experiential culture. A culture where looking just won't do - we want to be shocked, moved, and shaken-up a bit.



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.