The Long Reign of Julio Le Parc and the Comeback of Op Art at Art Basel

Last year, when the Palais de Tokyo mounted the largest exhibition of Julio Le Parc’s work since the 1980s, two truths became apparent: the Op and Kinetic Art pioneer (now 85 years old) had reasserted his relevance, and Op Art, his reigning genre of choice, had found its comeback in Paris. Coinciding with Le Parc’s one man show, the city’s Grand Palais held an Op and Kinetic Art exhibition, “Dynamo,” featuring Le Parc, and The Centre Pompidou opened an exhibition of works by Kinetic Art master Jesús Rafael Soto.

When Op Art fully emerged in the early 1960s, Le Parc was among the forerunners of the movement, including Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely, Carlos Cruz-Diez, and Josef Albers. The genre peaked in ’65 and had fully simmered by the mid-’70s, but enjoyed a moment of rebirth in the ’80s with artists like Philip Taaffe. As Op Art has ghosted in and out, Le Parc has remained—next week showing up at Art Basel in four locations, including a solo booth of historical works at Bugada & Cargnel—and his story, though well-worn, is worth telling:

In the late 1950s, the Argentine-born Le Parc moved to Paris and, inspired by the paintings of Victor Vasarely and Piet Mondrian, he began to produce work first in non-colors (white, black, and gray) and later in a spectrum of 14 colors. By 1960, he was a founding member of the optical-kinetic artist collective G.R.A.V. (in English, “the Visual Art Research Group”) and in 1966, opened his first one-man exhibition at New York City’s Howard Wise Gallery—the same year he represented Argentina at the Venice Biennale and took home the Grand Prize for Painting. In a matter of two years, Le Parc found himself banished from France during the uprisings of May 1968, after participating in demonstrations against institutions with the Atelier Populaire (though he was invited back in a matter of months).

The best part of his story, though, comes from a fateful coin toss in 1972. When Jacques Lassaigne, the director of the Museum of Modern Art of Paris, offered Le Parc a large retrospective of his work spanning 1959-72, the weary artist, mindful of his anti-institutional peers, could not cast the die. Deeming himself “incapable of making a decision,” Le Parc asked one of his sons to flip a coin in front of a crowd at the museum (heads he’d accept, tails he’d refuse). When the coin landed tails-side-up, the proposition was forsaken.

But today, over 40 years since his blasé “thanks but no thanks” to the art establishment, the Op Art pioneer and rabble-rouser Le Parc is getting the ovation he deserves during airtime at art fairs and French institutions—as if it were his destiny all along.

Julio Le Parc’s work is on view at Art Basel 2014 in the following locations: Galerie Bugada & Cargnel, Feature, Booth G12; Galerie Bugada & Cargnel, Unlimited, Booth UOO; The Mayor Gallery, Galleries, Booth A6; and Galerie Denise René, from June 19th–22nd, 2014.

 

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