New York

Victor Vasarely

Janis Gallery

Victor Vasarely, in his first showing since 1965 at the Sidney Janis Gallery, proves that he is the adroit and unrivaled master of a fashionable though largely superficial kind of “abstract trompe l’oeil” painting, which has been commonly called “optical art.” The exhibition is organized around two new series, the Ion and the Deuton panels, also including many other single experiments, some columnar sculptures, and three-dimensional plexiglass constructions. In the Ion suite, Vasarely fits together hexagonal segments which are trisected into parallelograms and painted in carefully graded values of brown, black and purple, or yellow, green and carmine, predominantly. These hexagons are shaded in such a way that they can be read either as a honeycomb of polyhedrons, or as a stepped progression of cubes, viewed in bird’s-eye perspective. The lighter centers of these fields are usually “framed” by darker hues (this is accentuated by deep, beveled shadow-box frames which are quite distracting), or else the reverse is true; or, as in lon-44, Vasarely splits this relationship down the middle. The Deuton group concentrates on more contradictory perspectives of interlocking boxes, also in step arrangements, its reversible planes reminiscent of Josef Albers’ isometric drawings on glass. The problem here, impressive as these paintings may seem, is that one only becomes more and more involved and fascinated by the very cleverness of all these surface illusions, rather than stimulated by any kind of really profound pictorial and spatial relations.

In a large oil on canvas (many works are done in tempera on board) called Proton MC (1967), Vasarely sets up a very irrational kind of illusionism, with fluorescent rhombuses superimposed onto the side faces of cubes. The coloration in this painting (the aggressive extreme of the show—it even glows in the dark) which combines blastingly bright purples, cadmiums, greens and pinks along with navy, black, and brown, is so garishly unappealing, and so seemingly indecisive in the disposition of these brilliant colors, that it is incoherent both optically and illusionistically, despite the systematic rigidity of its formal organization. Like too many of Vasarely’s works, this painting is decorative in the most trivial manner. It would be much more successful, one senses, on a greeting card than in a gallery pretending to be serious painting. Unfortunately, the slender wooden columns, painted with toned color circles, the molecular mirror cubes, or the sandwiched plexiglass constructions only extend this trivia into other forms and mediums.

A few small works from the past two years, such as Kezdi (medium size -1966), Vega MC, or Sende (both 1967), are quite elegant and refined in treatment, when compared to the larger current works, and are typical of the more subdued, detailed kinds of “lozenge” or “bulging surface” illusionism for which Vasarely has been known in the past. This year’s exhibition as a whole is certainly more startling and boldly aggressive, but perhaps the main criticism of the installation—in part a result of having so much gallery space to fill—is that too many different, and often conflicting works were included, and usually too closely together.

What one objects to in Vasarely’s work is the entirely predictable range of retinal effects which are always at the core of even his most eccentric organizations. These effects are really based on conventional figure-ground relationships or reversals, and since they aim only at the most elementary optical level of perception, they completely gloss over any kind of poetic evocation in depth—failing to inspire or to move one profoundly, in any sense, and yet too busy and bright to allow for contemplation even at an impersonal distance.

Emily Wasserman