Responding to “The Responsive Eye”: A Santa Fe Gallery Showcases Op Art’s Thriving Legacy

It’s hard to imagine now—with op art’s place so firmly established in the canon of 20th-century avant-garde movements—that when the first major museum survey of the style opened, an editor from the New York Times wrote a letter denouncing the paper’s own glowing review of the movement. But that’s just what happened when the exhibition “The Responsive Eye” opened at MoMA in 1965.

Now, 50 years later, that era-defining exhibition is the starting point for a series of shows at Santa Fe’s David Richard Gallery, the first of which, “Post-Op: ‘The Responsive Eye’ Fifty Years After” brings together more than 34 objects by 17 artists dealing with issues at the heart of op.

The original exhibition was so groundbreaking that it drew more than 180,000 onlookers to take in this curious new style, where images seemed to jump and move depending on how the viewer looked at them. The effect was so jarring that museum guards were given permission to wear sunglasses. New York Times critic John Canaday heralded the exhibition, which was organized by William C. Seitz and featured geometric abstractions from artists ranging from British artist Bridget Riley to former Josef Albers student Richard Anuszkiewicz, as “one of the most exciting artistic events in a decade.”

In response, Times staffer Lester Markel wrote his rebuttal in the paper and later spoke to television reporter Mike Wallace, criticizing the form: “It is fascinating as a technique, but it is not art at all.” While the show was divisive, one thing was certain: with its crisp, clean lines and high-tech appeal op was the perfect visual expression for the space age—and the style was quickly adopted by the worlds of fashion and advertising.

The new show at David Richard Gallery looks beyond the basic definition of op art to investigate the ways artists have explored visual perception over the past half century. The artists included in the gallery show were participants in the original “Responsive Eye” exhibition, including Hannes Beckmann, Tadasky and Anuszkiewicz, and the exhibition looks at works made right up to the present day that showcase these pioneers’ continuing interest in the relationship between art and optics. Throughout the year the gallery will expand the scope of its investigations into op, looking at other artists who embody the spirit of the movement today.

Heather Corcoran

Post-Op: ‘The Responsive Eye’ Fifty Years After” is on view at David Richard Gallery, Santa Fe, Feb. 24–Apr. 12, 2015.

Follow David Richard Gallery on Artsy.