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Richard Anuszkiewicz. Photo: Loretta Howard Gallery.

Richard Anuszkiewicz (1930–2020)

American painter Richard Anuszkiewicz, a leading proponent of Op art who experimented with perception through startling tonal harmonies, has died at age eighty-nine. After being mentoring by Josef Albers in the 1950s, Anuszkiewicz became known for nesting squares of vibratory, complementary hues in his paintings—formally sophisticated but playful compositions that mesmerize in their explorations of light, chroma, and line. Alongside his European counterparts Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely, Anuszkiewicz’s images suggest dimensions far beyond the two they occupied, in many ways treating the human retina as their canvas. The artist, who considered his work deeply spiritual, said once that “Color is my subject matter and its performance is my painting.”

Born on May 23, 1930, in Erie, Pennsylvania, to Polish immigrant parents, Anuszkiewicz attended the Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio before training with Albers, the former Bauhaus teacher and pioneering color theorist, at the Yale University School of Art, where he earned his master’s degree and abandoned all figuration in his art. He would go on to elaborate and extend Albers’s geometric abstraction, which paved the way to the Op art movement that developed in the 1960s and ’70s. After moving to New York in the late ’50s and designing for Tiffany, Anuszkiewicz began showing his work—unfashionably hard-edged amid the heyday of Abstract Expressionism—to dealers, eventually landing his first solo show at the Contemporaries Gallery in 1960. The display proved a success, with Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) director Alfred F. Barr Jr. buying a canvas right before the show closed. That year, Anuszkiewicz married Elizabeth Sally Feeney, with whom he would have three children.

By the mid-’60s, Anuszkiewicz had largely established himself through his inclusion in several MoMA shows—including the decisive “The Responsive Eye” survey in 1965—and through serial productions such as “Sol,” 1965, a quintet of radiating, concentric quadrilaterals clearly indebted to Albers’s “Homage to the Square,” 1950–76. Like Op art itself, the series—shown by Sidney Janis, the trendsetting dealer whose stable included many of that decade’s most prominent artists—polarized critics, who praised its beauty or saw the work as coldly calculated. In Bauhaus style, he was glad to take on commercial commissions, emblazoning his signature patterns on playing cards, utensils, and even a fur coat. He also forayed into cubic sculpture and printmaking, producing his first screenprints for MoMA in the form of Christmas cards. A major retrospective was held at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1966, and Anuszkiewicz was included in Kassel’s Documenta the next year; he would go on to exhibit in countless exhibitions worldwide, including the Venice and Florence Biennales and Marcia Tucker’s “The Structure of Color” (1971) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and his work resides in the permanent collections of numerous museums. One of his paintings was recently included in the Whitney’s “Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s” (2019).

Anuszkiewicz—who taught at Cooper Union, the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, and Kent State University—continued pursuing Op abstraction throughout his practice, which lasted up until his death, only a few days before his ninetieth birthday. His mid-’70s output includes his famous “Centered Square” series, and the ’80s saw a subtler concentration on luminosity and atmosphere, notably in his “Temple Series,” a decades-spanning group of images (and afterimages) whose shimmering columns were inspired by a trip to Egypt. He began to distance himself from the “Op art” label, considered by many during its prime to be a novelty and dismissed by major critics like Clement Greenberg and Donald Judd, who coined the term. “People thought that I always wanted to shock the eye,” he once told the New York Times. “I didn’t want to shock the eye. I wanted to use colors together that had never been used together before. I’m still doing what I was doing, but in greater depth.”

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