How Op Artists of the 1960s Created Their Hallucinatory Effects
According to ancient Greek legend, the artist Zeuxis, who lived around the 5th century B.C., rendered grapes so realistically that birds flew into his painting in attempts to eat the fruit. People have enjoyed such painterly illusions for millennia. Artists have manipulated color, shape, and form to trick viewers into seeing depth on a two-dimensional plane (the prominent artistic technique called trompe l’oeil literally means “trick the eye”). Such deception and perceptual games are the point of the modern
Around the 1960s, artists from around the world such as
In Riley’s Untitled (La Lune en Rodage – Carlo Belloli) (Schubert 6) (1965), for example, the artist renders a series of horizontally oriented, curved black lines so close together that they seem to vibrate. For Duo-2 (1967), Vasarely painted a series of linked squares in alternating bright (orange, chartreuse) and dark (navy, mauve) hues. The result: stacks of three-dimensional cubes that appear to advance and recede. Many Op artworks recall the drawings of
In 1965, curator William C. Seitz mounted “The Responsive Eye” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a group exhibition that gathered the day’s leading Op artists. Seitz posited that the movement’s origins lay in
By featuring artworks by American artists like Frank Stella, catalogue, “the establishment of abstract painting has made it permissible for color, tone, line, and shape to operate autonomously.” In other words, Op art developed from Impressionist ideas and abstract techniques.
Albers’s experiments and writings on color theory offered another source of inspiration for Op artists. The nested squares of varying hues featured in his own works propose that color is always relative: We perceive a color differently depending on the other colors and shapes that surround it.
In 2016, New York’s El Museo del Barrio offered a counterpoint to “The Responsive Eye,” highlighting Latin American artists’ roles in Op art. The exhibition, entitled “The Illusive Eye: An International Inquiry on Kinetic and Op Art,” included work by review of the show for the New York Times, Ken Johnson underscored how midcentury critics such as Clement Greenberg had dismissed Op art as gimmicky. El Museo del Barrio instead attempted to elevate the movement by linking it to mysticism and more erudite concepts.
This past July, Tate Liverpool opened “Op Art in Focus,” an exhibition spanning the 1960s to today (it’s on view through June 16, 2019). “To me,” said curator Darren Pih, “it is a movement that speaks to a more technologically connected world, when technology and art were being fused to create new ways of seeing.”
Indeed, questions about how we see and what tools can help us see better extended across disciplines. In 1960 alone, American scientist Theodore Maiman created the first laser, while Eleanor J. Gibson and R.D. Walk developed the “visual cliff” study, which tested how infants perceive visual depth.
In an exhibition of 26 works, Pih has included eight by Riley. They range from energetic, buzzing screen prints of zigzagging, black-and-white lines (Untitled [Fragment 1/7] and Untitled [Fragment 3/11], both 1965, for instance) to Late Morning (1967–68), a painting comprised of colorful, vertical lines on canvas. “Her work is immediately recognizable and somehow symptomatic of the technologically-enabled acceleration associated with the 1960s,” said Pih (indeed, Late Morning recalls the static of a television screen). “Yet her work is also rooted in art history and in early movements such as
Pih also connected Riley to
Yet Op art is very much a product of the 1960s. The bright, graphic colors and shapes recall the day’s mod fashion styles. And the movement’s concerns with perception interacted with the decade’s mind-altering drugs of choice: LSD and mescaline could literally change the way that people saw and experienced shapes and colors.
“Mescalin [sic] raises all colors to a higher power and makes the percipient aware of innumerable fine shades of difference, to which, at ordinary times, he is completely blind,” Aldous Huxley wrote in his influential 1954 book The Doors of Perception, in which he documented an acid trip. Huxley also noted “red surfaces swelling and expanding from bright nodes of energy that vibrated with a continuously changing, patterned life.” In many ways, Op art formalized such intense visual experiences.
Yet Op art has continued to influence contemporary painting and sculpture, as well. In the Tate Liverpool show, Pih included Aluminium 4 (2012) by Canadian artist
“Of course, Hirst isn’t usually understood in the context of Op Art,” Pih admitted. “But, formally, the ‘spot’ paintings have the dazzle effect.” While the title of the work refers to a pharmaceutical compound, the painting’s execution “takes the form of mechanical and unemotional microdosing,” or taking small amounts of LSD, is making a comeback). Artists’ perceptions of color, form, and the world around them have, perhaps, changed accordingly.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.