PRINT April 1965

Beyond Vertigo: Optical Art at the Modern

IN AN OMNIBUS EXHIBITION called “The Responsive Eye,” the Museum of Modern Art has housed together in one amorphous (and hence relatively meaningless) category examples of nearly every kind of non-painterly painting done in the West since the war. (Also included were some glass, plastic and metal objects, descendants of Constructivist and neo-Plastic sculpture.) Within this category, which, I take it, was meant to be comprehensive but ultimately was only confusing, were: 1) works by the various European visual research groups (the Spanish Equipo 57, the German Group Zero, the French Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel, etc.); 2) purist painting, both American and European, by the legitimate heirs of the Bauhaus tradition; 3) post-painterly abstraction by painters whose roots are specifically in Abstract Expressionism. Works in the last two categories are art, and in the case of geometric painters such as Albers, Reinhardt, and Kelly, and such colorists as Louis, Noland, and Poons, art of the highest order. In contrast with this high art, in which retinal response, although sometimes elicited, does not constitute the entire content of the work, purely “optical” art, based on textbooks and laboratory experiments, theory, equation, and proofs, is empty and spiritless, though it may jangle the nerves and assault the eyeballs.

Perhaps the ultimate criticism of optical art is the one we might make first: that the best of it was done by a scientist. The exhibition at the Howard Wise Gallery of moiré patterns silk-screened on plexiglass by Dr. Gerald Oster, the scientist whose studies have received popular attention since the optical hysteria took hold here, contained works that were technically sophisticated, handsome (imposing even) which produced exactly the retinal effects intended because the author is in fact a scientist who knows his business. Dr. Oster’s works were not without merit. They were entertaining and diverting, even if they were not elevating. And this appears enough to fill a current need for some kind of titillation (preferably violent) which diverts for a moment, as 3-D movies did some years back. “Op” art, in its strictest sense, has provided exactly the “nouveau frisson” necessary to engage the jaded sensibilities of today’s museum audiences. It is more immediate than the movies, more brutal than the TV, and takes less time and thought to experience than the theater, but, essentially, it satisfies the same appetites as these forms of popular entertainment. I think it is not unreasonable to predict that we will have popular art––Op, and whatever replaces it––that will appeal to large numbers o people. Our affluence, leisure, and rising literacy will call for more and more art of this kind, which should be colorful, decorative, and easily experienced. Op is especially gratifying in this respect because you know absolutely that you have gotten the message once nausea or vertigo set in. Both Pop and Op serve this function and have been enjoyed (and will continue, I think, to be enjoyed) by large numbers of people. So, though we will not have folk art in our mass society, we will surely have art low in content and high in technique, which appropriately enough to the terms of modern life deals with sensation and not with feeling.

Op art however, goes Pop art one better by being considerably more mindless. (I ought to make clear at this point that I think that some Pop art, such as Lichtenstein’s, though it may be assimilated on the level of imagery as easily as the cheapest Pop, is high art by virtue of its formal and expressive value.) And here is the crux of the matter: Op art has no expressive content. It is expressively neutral, having to do with sensation alone.

Perhaps the simplest way to illustrate the difference between optical art and important painting is to take an artist like Larry Poons, whose intense color contrasts do indeed stimulate an optical response in which after-images are prominent, and to show how his work differs from hard-core optical art. To begin with, Poons’ large (here one might note that optical art is often cabinet painting) high-color fields derive directly from Pollock’s all-over paintings, Newman’s chromatic abstractions, and Mondrian’s late grid paintings. Thus they are, in the first place, art made from art. Their optical effect is secondary and incidental rather than central to their total meaning.

One of the reasons I am not going to discuss many individual works in the “Responsive Eye” is because the purely optical paintings looked to me more or less alike. Optical art is by and large monotonous, unfortunately by default and not by intent. This is not true of Poons’ work. What I was most struck by in his recent show at the Green Gallery was the degree of variety in his work. Though the five paintings in the show were composed of the same coin-sized dots and ellipses sprinkled on a flat, rectangular field, differences in tone, in mood, in density and openness were significant enough to make each a distinct experience, difficult to qualify, except to say that it was unique. In one painting, for example, an orange ground turned cold by virtue of the yet hotter hue of the ellipses on it. In another, secondary and tertiary patterns of dots and ellipses crowding in and pressing one another created a texture so rich and an atmosphere so dense and luxurious as to remind one of Monet’s water lilies. And like Olitski and Noland, Poons seems able to use color to suggest not only movement, but weight and buoyancy. It is as if these painters had discovered a whole new range of properties which color can convey. If, in trying to gain a wider range of expressive possibilities for color, or in trying to keep the raw ground or colored field alive and vibrant, their works should set up optical vibrations (as Rothko’s and Newman’s works do, to an extent, as well), then these are a means and not an end. The end is still the same as Matisse’s: the communication of felt emotion primarily through the vehicle of color, though the means may include the use of high color contrasts and other optical effects in order to provoke the most direct and immediate response. Optical art, on the other hand, has these effects as ends in themselves.

In his exhibition catalog, Curator William Seitz, who selected and organized “The Responsive Eye,” provides a scholarly genealogy for optical art, tracing back to the neo-Impressionists the artist’s concern for scientifically deduced laws of vision. But this quest to understand the mechanics of perception was, of course, only part of the search begun by Seurat and his friends and followers. Interested not only in how the eye responded physically to specific stimuli, Seurat was equally as interested in codifying a set of laws of expression as he was in systematizing the laws of perception. Not just the physical, but the emotional impact of colors and forms was singled out to be studied and defined. Seurat’s concern with the expressive potential of specific colors and forms was only the prelude to the elaborate theories of expression proposed by Klee and Kandinsky and to Matisse’s synaesthetic equations. Thus, science began to stimulate artists not only toward an awareness of what had been ascertained by experiment about the optical experience of an art work, it encouraged them to develop an empirical attitude toward what was ineffable and transcendental. By the time Kandinsky became acquainted with neo-Impressionism, he found the quest for the immaterial and the spiritual more engaging than the study of scientific optics. And this is still true of the best artists working today. Beyond Op Art, there is still spiritual art made by artists whose goals are the same as Kandinsky’s and Matisse’s. To be precise about the limits of Op, we might say that the fork in the road comes at the point at which Vasarely veers off from the Bauhaus tradition to experiment with tricking the eye. Though Vasarely made some interesting pictures this way, I don’t see that this road led anywhere for those who came after him. The main problem, which Albers attacks but Vasarely doesn’t, is that of uniting the two main currents of 20th-century art: the liberation of color begun by the Fauvists with the coherent structure evolved by the Cubists.

So much for what Op Art lacks. The best works in the show, along with those by the artists I’ve already mentioned, also included good paintings by Paul Brach, Alexander Liberman, Paul Feeley, and Gene Davis (although the Davis here was nowhere up to his latest works in which thin ribbons of brilliant color dance with greater energy). Especially fine paintings by Leon Smith and Robert Irwin ought to be singled out for praise as well. Working in the exhibition’s favor were the number of good paintings shown, as well as the installation, which was particularly ingenious, making even the Museum’s sordid new exhibition quarters glow and sparkle. Hard-to-light works such as Brach’s, Reinhardt’s and Irwin’s nearly monochromatic compositions never looked better as far as I was concerned. But the inclusion of these and other works in which “optical” effects were minimal or secondary seemed either a concession to local taste, or else made one think that optical art was chosen as a context in order to satisfy the Museum’s commitment to an international policy. In many ways the European art seemed like a showcase for the American work which by contrast shone like so many diamonds in a field of synthetic brilliants. Thus, the three logical ways of organizing this show––either as a historical survey of “optical art,” or of neo-Plasticism and its impact, or as an exhibition of post-painterly abstraction––were shunned in favor of presenting illusionistic art, purist art, and chromatic abstraction as subcategories of a new International Style. This is wrong and confusing. It provides an occasion for journalistic art history, in which action painting is succeeded by Pop and Op.

It seems, however, almost beside the point to criticize this exhibition on the grounds that it gives space to a lot of mediocre art, particularly since Sidney Tillim (in his article “Optical Art: Pending or Ending”) has already done such an adequate job of demonstrating that optical art is the last wing on the Bauhaus: a coda on the Cubist score rather than a “da capo.” We might instead turn our attention to the “message” communicated implicitly by “The Responsive Eye.” Recent studies of communications reveal that information communicated implicitly may not be identical with the purported message. (Thus Marshall Macluhan holds that the medium plays a more important role than the message in conveying information, and studies of teaching methods show that spelling bees teach the values of a competitive society more successfully than they teach students to spell.) I have already said that one of the impressions “The Responsive Eye” gives is that purist art, optical art, and post-painterly abstraction are sub-categories of a new International Style. Another idea a show of this nature puts across is the equally false one that science and art have something to do with one-another. The reconciliation of art to science is (from the amount of to-do “The Responsive Eye” has elicited) a particularly attractive rationale to a science-oriented technological society. Thus, if it was the task of the Renaissance to reconcile Plato with Christ, it is ours, one might argue, to reconcile Orpheus with Einstein, and optical art is hailed as the offspring of that blissful union. This is the pseudo-humanism of the Two Cultures, and equally nonsensical. If the “Responsive Eye” proved anything, it is that science applied to art results in applied art, not fine art. For this reason alone, it was useful. We sense the contrast, not the homogeneity of the heterogeneous works in the show. And we are made even more aware of the real task before painting in our time: the reconciliation of color with structure, which the rigidity of synthetic Cubism and the chaos of an Expressionistic style did not permit. We can understand how the formulation of this new coherent (in terms of structure) and expressive (in terms of color) style is the major challenge facing the fine artist today.

Because museums are among the most powerful and influential value and idea-transmitting centers of authority we have, the consequences of “The Responsive Eye” go beyond the exhibition proper and need to be considered in any balanced evaluation. Though it is tempting to ignore these consequences, it is irresponsible. If the critic does not act as a check on the enormous power of opinion-making centers, this power is liable to become absolute. It would be blindness, for example, not to see a cause and effect relationship between the “Responsive Eye” exhibition and the amount of Op Art currently filling the galleries. (This is not to hold the Museum of Modern Art responsible for the fickleness of the art market, but merely to point out its unbridled power in trend-setting and taste-making.) One is delighted, of course, for those artists who sat out several art vogues, quietly working in geometric styles, who now have a moment in the limelight they hardly expected but surely deserve. On the other hand, it is depressing to learn that mature and valuable artists are talking of themselves as the “underground” and are unable to sell their work.

For the critic, the public and the museum itself, this ought to provide a moment of soul-searching. In the course of fulfilling the historic and vital function of collecting and transmitting to the emergent American avant-garde the European vanguard tradition, the Museum of Modern Art also found itself in a position of oppressive and undoubtedly unwanted authority. More and more, its attempts to clarify or point up the trends and directions of immediately contemporary artists came to carry all the massive weight and authority of the traditions which it had itself so meticulously documented. What elsewhere might have been a casual, tentative or exploratory showing became, in the Museum of Modern Art, a definitive, authoritarian statement. In this context, the current exhibition, for example, becomes irresponsible and dangerous.

It would not be out of context for a Museum of Modern Art to re-define and even change its function periodically, and it is certainly plausible that, in the light of the extensive consequences of each of its contemporary exhibitions, surely undesired, the Museum decide to curtail its activities in this direction and instead concentrate on the series of historical exhibitions and surveys which it is now in a position to present in complete depth. Paradoxically enough, in a time of such constant flux and change in art, it is possible that the most “modern” thing the Museum of Modern Art could do would be to emphasize, with its historical program, the many traditions of modern art rather than attempt to reflect the hectic day-to-day situation in the art world. The list of important exhibitions of modern art that never reach New York is lengthy, and so is the list of historical exhibitions such as surveys of Orphic Cubism or Russian Constructivism, which would seem particularly apposite today. There is art that is steady and enduring, and there is art that is sensational, hip, swinging, kicks, far-out. But surely the former should be the art of the museums.

––Barbara Rose

All photos from “The Responsive Eye,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 25–April 25, 1965. Names of lenders appear in parentheses.