PRINT May 2007

Sarah K. Rich

FOR A LONG TIME OP ART has occupied a position similar to that of the bouffant hairdo. Briefly fashion-forward, it quickly became an embarrassment. Almost as soon as Op debuted, it degenerated into one of the most visibly dated features of the ’60s. Fleeting reappearances in subsequent decades took place through appropriations—both cynical and affectionate—by younger figures for whom its retro quality was the salient feature. So, with a few exceptions, paintings associated with the Op moment have languished in museum storerooms, and the various jigsaw puzzles, pot holders, and lunch boxes that had been adorned with moiré patterns wore out their welcome in family rooms around the country and sold for pennies at garage sales. Now, with the New York Times announcing the return of Op to industrial design, and with several exhibiting institutions currently showcasing objects by the likes of Victor Vasarely and Marina Apollonio, Op is back, though the character of its return is still open to debate.

“Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s,” organized by Joe Houston at the Columbus Museum of Art (through June 17) in Columbus, Ohio, doesn’t begin with painting, as one might expect, or even with sculpture, but with footage from the 1965 CBS broadcast Eye on New York. Mike Wallace, our host, walks on-screen and prepares to discuss the Op objects then on view at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Responsive Eye,” the blockbuster show typically credited with exposing a broad public to Op art. His tie skinny, his pomade glistening, Wallace gestures over an anatomical model of the human eye, explaining the complex interactions among the retina, the optic nerve, and the occipital lobe of the brain, through which Op canvases will work their assault. The camera then cuts to a Gestalt puzzle that resembles a stairway. With a tone of mild amusement and skepticism, Wallace asks, “But are the steps right side up?” We hear a marimba’s glissando from low to high. “Or are they . . . upside down?” Marimba notes trip downward. The segment ends with the camera slowly zooming in on Wolfgang Ludwig’s dizzying Pittura cinematica (Cinematic Painting), 1964—a diptych in which the alternating black and white radii of a pair of circles buzz as they narrow toward the center. Wallace’s calculated smirk insinuates, Be sure to bring Dramamine, folks.

This engagement between wacky art and the squares who struggle to comprehend it is charming if familiar, and Houston’s placement of the television show at the beginning of the Columbus exhibition primes the visitor to think of the entire show as a campy re-creation. Rather than attempting to argue for the endurance of Op idioms, in other words, the show’s installation encourages us to appreciate “optical art” from across a historical divide. We revel in its adorable obsolescence. Visitors linger over vitrines crammed with 1965 issues of Time, Life, and other popular magazines—issues that document the speed with which Bridget Riley’s and Vasarely’s compositional styles were absorbed by the fashion industry. Audience members sit in mod chairs by the likes of Philippe Starck and Verner Panton to watch Brian De Palma’s 1965 documentary about the New Yorkers who alternately swooned and scoffed at the opening reception of “The Responsive Eye.” Displays of novelty items like naughty cartoons with Op motifs encourage us to giggle at Op’s more lowbrow moments: The cover of one comic presents a rendition of Ludwig’s Cinematic Painting that reads OP YOURS! and bears the caption, SO, THIS IS WHAT THE BACK END OF A ZEBRA LOOKS LIKE!

The show also re-creates some of the critical confusion that surrounded the definition of Op in the mid-’60s. Houston has included nearly all of the ninety-some artists whom MoMA curator William C. Seitz selected for “The Responsive Eye,” and, as a consequence, he has reproduced some of the “mistakes” made by Seitz back in 1965. Like his predecessor, Houston has juxtaposed canvases by Riley, Vasarely, Apollonio, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Julian Stanczak with those by artists not typically considered Op, such as Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, and Paul Feeley. This is not to say that the latter group’s inclusion is entirely unwelcome. Among all these manic and mincing canvases, in which centimeter-wide shifts in line or shape create dizzying visual effects, Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Green Red of 1964 stands broad and elegant. In rooms full of acrylic paintings that all have the dull, rubbery look of worn vinyl, Karl Benjamin’s juicy colored stripes of oil paint are luscious. And including artists as different as Martin, Feeley, Kelly, and Benjamin in a show about Op art may be historically accurate in a sense—we have an opportunity here to see what the MoMA installation, in all its eclecticism, might have been like. But it does little to help us understand the stakes of the Modern’s show. When artists like Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella are called “Op painters” in the exhibition catalogue, viewers are encouraged to lump all the works in the show together, despite the fact that many of the artists represented occupied opposing positions in the debates raging around abstract painting in the ’60s.

In 1965, after all, the term optical was being defined by artists and theorists in radically different ways. The same year that Seitz staged his hodgepodge at MoMA, critic Michael Fried would argue for a more exclusive model of visual experience with his “Three American Painters” exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Fried’s catalogue essay described the work of the artists featured in his show—Noland, Stella, and Jules Olitski—in terms of its “opticality,” a construct derived from Clement Greenberg’s 1960 essay “Modernist Painting.” Arguing that modern painting succeeded only to the extent that it reflected upon its own properties as a medium, Greenberg stipulated that painting’s most essential properties were flatness, the limitation of flatness, and the appeal to a purely optical experience. Greenberg cautioned that “the flatness towards which Modernist painting orients itself can never be an absolute flatness. The heightened sensitivity of the picture plane may no longer permit sculptural illusion, or trompe l’oeil, but it does and must permit optical illusion [. . .] a strictly pictorial, optical third dimension. The . . . illusion created by the Modernist painter can only be seen into; can be traveled through, literally or figuratively, only with the eye.” Greenberg prefaced these remarks with some fast and loose summaries of Kant’s Critique of Judgement, in part to ensure that this strictly “optical third dimension” would not be misunderstood. Optical painting, in Greenberg’s and Fried’s terms, was to be enjoyed by a safely disinterested viewer whose relationship to the work was one of pure aesthetic detachment.

Op art, of course, precluded the very possibility of such disinterested, passive viewing. The slight modulations to grid structures in Vasarely’s canvases, for example—modulations that typically allude to traditions of chiaroscuro—can make a canvas seem to bubble or pucker with convincing illusionism. And Riley claimed in her 1965 statement “Perception Is the Medium” that the flickering, effervescent surfaces of her canvases provoked a visceral experience. “I want the disturbance or ‘event’ to arise naturally,” she wrote, “in visual terms out of the inherent energies and characteristics which I use. I also want it to have a quality of inevitability.”

These different characterizations of optical painting confused plenty of people. Attempting to clarify the situation, Rosalind Krauss’s June 1965 review of the MoMA show in Art International quotes Fried’s catalogue essay for backup, and protests that “Op Art . . . really operates from behind a single basic concept: the trompe l’oeil. Further, it must be seen that in mining their single vein of retinal excitement Op artists have nothing to do with opticality as it has emerged in the most important modernist painting of our time. The conceptual groundwork for Op Art and that of optical painting are in fact very far apart.” Not everyone will appreciate Krauss’s dismissive tone (if anything, this season’s exhibitions prove that Op wasn’t quite the one-note samba Krauss made it out to be), but there is no denying that she was, in her core argument, right. Her point can be grasped with a quick comparison between Noland’s Split Spectrum, 1961, and Anuszkiewicz’s Complementary Fission, 1964, both in the Columbus show. Noland’s painting exploits none of the psychophysiological gamesmanship by which an Op painting typically achieves its effects. In Noland’s painting, white canvas buffers each of the five concentric circles, so there is no simultaneous contrast, and the scale of the compositional elements is such that the eye has no trouble comprehending their placement and hue. While there might be hints at space (the blue outer ring is darker than the somewhat smaller yellow ring, so it seems to recede a bit), those spatial cues do not finally fool the mind’s eye into perceiving three-dimensional space; rather, spatial cues are contradicted by compositional arrangement (the blue circle is bigger and closer to the periphery of the painting; thus, according to traditions of perspective, the blue circle must be in front of the yellow). Anuszkiewicz’s panel, on the other hand, deploys red and green contrasts, on a minute scale, precisely as a means of tricking the eye into perceiving illusory optical effects, and green orthogonal lines that converge at vanishing points pull the viewer dramatically into zones of recession and projection. Though it appeals to the eye, Op does so using illusions that invite—indeed compel—tactile bodily experience.

What Krauss’s article did not mention was the distinguishing criterion by which Greenberg and Fried would favor post-painterly abstraction over and above all other contemporary trends: taste. Noland’s painting beckons, according to the Greenbergian paradigm, a disinterested aesthetic experience. The viewer is encouraged to appreciate the operations of “optical” space without bodily involvement, which is, according to the Kantian terms that Greenberg developed, a good thing. Op paintings, like those made by Anuszkiewicz, stimulate a set of visual reflex reactions in which detachment is hardly possible. The viewer’s taste never enters into it. And taste is of lesser concern on the level of production as well: Noland’s canvas suggests that the artist had been hard at work choosing just the right shades of color and carefully settling compositional matters—how wide each colored ring should be, how much white should separate them, and so on—according to purely aesthetic concerns. Op, by contrast, typically sets up a formulaic system of relationships that generate a composition. The algorithm is played out to its conclusion on the canvas without aesthetic transformation. This “tastelessness,” in which detachment and disinterest as well as artistic choice were enthusiastically jettisoned, was confirmed for formalist critics when Op was gleefully embraced by the culture industry. So if Greenberg and Fried developed their “opticality” as a means of ensuring the medium-specific autonomy of painting, Op’s appearance on bikinis and record players evidenced the opposite condition by which modern painting was thoroughly immersed in kitsch. Op, if anything, was the bad dream of opticality.

The vulgarity of Op is, of course, one of the things that makes it such an interesting episode in the history of abstraction, though the full implications of the movement remain underexplored. Unfortunately, art-historical takes on Op’s connection to popular culture tend to focus on the ways in which artists’ motifs were applied to commodities after the fact. Artists like Anuszkiewicz delighted in the development and were happy to decorate household utensils, home furnishings, and fur coats with their signature patterns. Riley, on the other hand, is often characterized as an unwilling participant in the world of commodities. The oft-recounted tale of her encounter with clothing manufacturer Larry Aldrich (who plagiarized her paintings for textile designs) stages Riley as the virtuous artist ravaged by popular culture. But it is important to remember that many of the very devices on which Op artists would come to depend had originally been identified, analyzed, atomized, and promulgated with the marketplace firmly in mind. Michel-Eugène Chevreul’s 1839 Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and Their Applications to the Arts, a seminal text for the Impressionists (it famously explored the simultaneous contrast of complementary colors such as red and green as well as other visual phenomena), was written by an industrial chemist eager to apply science to the sales pitch. Yes, his theories helped tapestry makers produce more brilliant pieces, but his analyses of visual experience were also developed to help workers on the showroom floor. Chevreul advised, “If there is presented to a buyer, one after another, fourteen pieces of red stuff, he will consider the last six or seven less beautiful than those first seen, although the pieces be identically the same. . . . In order that the merchant may not be the sufferer by this fatigue of the eyes of his customer, he must take care, after having shown the latter seven pieces of red [cloth], to present to him some pieces of green stuff.” It is always a challenge to hold customers’ attention when one shows them lots and lots of merchandise, Chevreul warns. The recruitment of simultaneous contrast and other perceptual phenomena in the sales pitch was a deliberate bid to slap buyers’ senses around and wake them up for more buying. Even Marcel Duchamp’s optic rotary disks (or Rotoreliefs), to which Apollonio’s spinning spirals are in debt, were created with the market in mind. Famously stationing himself and his disks in a booth at a Parisian merchandise fair in 1935, Duchamp kept them rotating on record players in order to seduce potential buyers. These techniques of simultaneous contrast, these vortices, were tools developed expressly for hawking wares and conquering consumer interest. The appeal of moiré stockings, scarves, and LP cases (objects that the Columbus art museum does a winning job of putting on display) was hardly accidental.

Op paintings may also be seen as mimicking the passive-aggressive dynamic of consumer culture. On the one hand, Op canvases seem to indulge viewer desire. Emblazoned across the wall of the first room in “Optic Nerve” is a quotation by Julian Stanczak: “I am not important—the viewer is.” Indeed, his canvases, as well as those of his colleagues, often surrendered artistic invention and expression in obsequious deferral to the perceptual apparatus of the onlooker. Viewer gratification seems paramount. At the same time, however, Op was, as perceptual psychologist and visual theorist Rudolf Arnheim put it in De Palma’s film, all about the “surrender of the human privilege” within the viewer. In other words, compositions worked because of stimulus-response systems that circumvented the will of the onlooker. So Op’s illusions did not give one the sense of possessing what was pictured (as was often the case in, say, Renaissance illusionism), so much as they possessed one through the picture. In the process, Op reproduces the deep structure of the consumer experience. Like any good sales pitch, it commands even as it panders. It claims to be all about your needs, your experiences, but its techniques ultimately rely upon mechanisms of control.

IF “OPTIC NERVE” emphasizes painting, with occasional forays into sculptural, kinetic, and environmental work, “Op Art,” a nearly concurrent show at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt (through May 20), explores Op’s tendency toward a total immersive experience. Indeed, one of the things that is so thrilling and disturbing about the Frankfurt exhibition (organized by Martina Weinhart) is the efficacy with which it stages the commanding power of Op installations, though their connection to consumer culture is suppressed. Marina Apollonio’s Spazio ad attivazione cinetica (Space of Kinetic Activation), 1967–71, provides the total Op experience par excellence. Her long-standing plan to construct a giant rotating spiral has now been realized for the first time, to magnificent effect, in the rotunda of the Kunsthalle. As visitors to Apollonio’s disorienting update on the Rotoreliefs stagger and fall, the work becomes a stage upon which the public performs, for one another, the spectacle of dislocated viewing. This performative viewing is characteristic of Op in general, and it is one of its most important features: It is a key element of De Palma’s documentary, in which museumgoers crane their necks, lean against walls, and otherwise legibly embody their viewing experience. These shots—along with a multitude of satirical cartoons from 1965 that pictured everyday folk buffeted, tripped up, or sucked into the vortices of Op—suggest that this art’s allure was the opportunity it provided viewers to spectacularize the trauma of modernity before witnesses.

The performative function of viewing has a long history, of course. In the late eighteenth century, for example, as Ewa Lajer-Burcharth and other scholars have discussed, Jacques-Louis David placed a mirror at the back of the room when displaying his Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1799, as a means of allowing people to see themselves—and to watch other people seeing themselves—participate bodily in that tableau’s narrative of reconciliation. If David’s installation was all about establishing a reunified, postrevolutionary body, however, the larger, all-encompassing Op works installed in Frankfurt occasion the performance of the modern subject in distress. Whether visitors smiling at and tripping into one another across the expanse of Apollonio’s enormous spiral, or those waving to a companion’s reflections in Davide Boriani’s re-created hall of mirrors (Ambiente stroboscopico 4, 1967/2007) or in Christian Megert’s mirrored mise en abyme (Spiegelraum [Mirror Room], 1968/2007), or the ones peering at one another through Carlos Cruz-Diez’s 1965/2007 Chromosaturation environment—everyone shows off the trauma of modernism’s dislocation. All share gleefully in the swoon.

Thus Weinhart, too, interprets Op broadly and adventurously. Paintings are outweighed by installations and sculptural constructions, though all works attempt, as she says, a “radicalization of the eye.” “Radicalization” would best be read expansively here, to indicate a political ambition as well as a fundamental challenge to traditional modes of perception. A large number of works in Frankfurt (and in Columbus, to a more limited extent) were produced by artist collectives like Gruppo N in Padua and GRAV (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel) in Paris, for whom Op, kinetic works, and installations expressed progressive agendas. Submerging individual personalities beneath larger group identities and producing works in which mechanical systems would determine or change compositions, these artists sought to challenge bourgeois modes of authorial authenticity. And the rotational features of many works—the spinning disks and sculptures pivoting on vertical axes—were meant to be politically revolutionary as well. Compositional instability allegorized social flux. As objects changed and moved, viewers were coaxed into envisioning a society likewise capable of transformation.

In bringing this aspect of Op to light, these shows perform a tremendous additional service—presenting a number of kinetic objects that have not been on display for decades because their mechanical features were in disrepair. Many such works in the ’60s were made without archival components. (Weinhart discovered, for instance, that a hair dryer supplied the draft of air that set a grid spinning against a light source to cast lacy shadows in Alberto Biasi’s Proiezione di luce e ombra [Projection of Light and Shadow], 1961.) The gathering of kinetic pieces in Frankfurt allows for a more nuanced appreciation of that work in general. It makes it possible, for example, to test the potential of speed as a compositional element. Photographs of kinetic works in motion tend to produce a generic blur effect, thereby creating the impression that all these pieces move at the same frenzied rate. One might be surprised, then, to see the almost leisurely rotations of the yin-yang disks on Biasi’s Strutturazione dinamica (Dynamic Structure), 1964, as it is on display in Frankfurt. Were the disks to move more rapidly, the effect would be that of Maxwell disks, in which a circle of two colors is spun to achieve an optical mixture of white—high speed, in that instance, is tantamount to illusionism. Quite to the contrary, the disks of Biasi’s work move slowly enough that one can barely catch the ways in which color combinations shift. This slowness operates on the horizon of literality, in other words. It offers real movement at a rate just below that at which illusion would begin. Other works slow things down even more, to produce a sort of opiate lethargy in which swimming circles or lights induce a languid trance.

Many of the kinetic and light works on display in Frankfurt foreshadow recent installation practices. Because the Kunsthalle offers none of the contextual bric-a-brac available at the Columbus Museum of Art, there is, admittedly, a loss of historical context, but the objects have room to breathe and can argue for their continuing relevance. Otto Piene’s Lichtballet (Light Ballet), 1959, and Scheibenprojektor II (Disk Projector II), 1961—works in which subtly golden lights pass gently over white surfaces with a periodicity similar to that of a lighthouse—are intimate in scale but celestial in their effects. Their introduction of the lyrical into the mechanical bears a strong family resemblance to work being made today by, say, Olafur Eliasson. Further, many of the pieces in the show develop techniques of dislocation that would later be transformed and politicized in the work of artists like Mona Hatoum, for whom the dissolution of subjectivity through installation and light projection would be connected to diasporic experiences.

There are a few pieces in Frankfurt that don’t quite fit in, even according to the curator’s own terms. François Morellet’s Reflets dans l’eau déformés par le spectateur (labyrinthe 2) (Reflections in the Water Disturbed by the Viewer [Labyrinth 2]), 1964, is a case in point. The piece adopts a grid motif from a painting Morellet made in 1953, recasts it in neon, and raises it to a horizontal position against the ceiling of a black room. A square pool of water on the floor reflects the neon grid, and by pulling and releasing a lever the viewer can set the water in motion. As the currents bounce up against the sides of the basin, perpendicular lines of waves form a grid in the water that disrupts the reflected grid of light. There isn’t much here that “radicalizes sight.” Rather, the work offers a poetic meditation on different modes of authorial erasure—the anonymity of the grid versus the disruptive maneuvering of the viewer and the liquid indeterminacy of water. The piece also deploys “reflection” in metaphorical terms, as it comments on the difficulty of historical retrospection. The catalogue prints Morellet’s remarks upon his conversion of the piece from painting to installation in 1964: “The positive emptiness of 1953 had transformed into a nihilist chaos! Thus I play with the art historians (perhaps a bit too egotistical!).” Time thus operates in the work both as the measure of the water’s movement and as the measure of artistic chronology: The work of art changes according to the viewer’s intervention and the artist’s reinterpretation over the course of his career. Memory and history, like water, reflect darkly. But if Morellet’s piece doesn’t quite belong under the banner of Op, it stands for the larger historical challenge these exhibitions face—the challenge of reviving work that seemed doomed, irredeemably consigned to the past. If the Columbus exhibition ended up preserving the pastness of Op, it did so exuberantly, presenting the movement in all its rich array. The Frankfurt exhibition, by contrast, attempted a more ambitious resuscitation—by suggesting that these works just might, in fact, catch a second wind.

Sarah K. Rich is associate professor of art history at Pennsylvania State University.