New York

Victor Vasarely, Phobos, 1979, acrylic on canvas, 63 × 63".

Victor Vasarely, Phobos, 1979, acrylic on canvas, 63 × 63".

Victor Vasarely

Davidson Gallery

Victor Vasarely, Phobos, 1979, acrylic on canvas, 63 × 63".

Victor Vasarely (1906–1997) has been accorded the historical distinction of being labeled the first Op artist, but he didn’t think of himself that way. In fact, the usual ideas about Vasarely—that he was a Systemic artist, to use Lawrence Alloway’s term, or a kind of graphic artist or designer (in 1928 and 1929 he studied both disciplines at a Bauhaus outpost in Budapest), or a serial artist specializing in what he called plastique cinétique—ignore the emotional depth and power of his works, and with that undermine their significance. Vasarely was a technical virtuoso, but his work is also deeply imaginative, seamlessly integrating two apparently distinct dimensions of modernist art—what Paul Valéry called “color patches” (Cézanne’s “color sensations” and Seurat’s “chromoluminarism” are exemplary), on the one hand, and Bauhaus Constructivism and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism, on the other: on the one side, what might be called secular modernism, with its emphasis on visual experience and conventional emotions; on the other side, spiritual modernism, with its focus on structure in and for itself but also as a signifier of pure spirit or the unconventional emotion of transcendence.

The exhibition was a sort of miniretrospective—the eighteen paintings and works on paper covered virtually every period in Vasarely’s development. The earliest, somewhat small work, Amu-Daria, 1948, belongs to his so-called Belle Isle period. It was while vacationing on this island off the western coast of France that Vasarely first recognized “the internal geometry of nature” in the “rhythmic coming and going of the waves.” The sense of the “rhythmic coming and going” of geometric forms, abstracted from nature and aestheticized by art, became a constant of such grand later works as the seemingly distended black-and-white Vega Argent, 1969, named for the brightest star in the constellation Lyra; and Phobos, 1979, with its juxtaposition of the colors of nature: sky blue, green, floral purple. The latter work’s geometry carves out delirium-inducing illusionistic space. We seem to be gazing downward at an elevator as it plunges into the depths. Vasarely is reaching for the infinite, as Infin, 1979–88, implies, and the infinite is terrifying, even as it is awe-inspiring. In Metagalaxie, 1959–61, he is reaching for the stars, trying to fathom the mystery of the universe. Terror and numinosity go together, and Vasarely, that great voyager in infinite space, seems to be a mystic in search of lost gods. Quasar-Kek, 1971, another masterpiece, suggests as much. A quasar is a quasi-stellar radio source. Do the gods live in these mysterious celestial phenomena? Or are the gods defunct? Vasarely wants to know. Exploring the heavens, rhythmically coming and going via his visionary, cosmological art, he fathoms the unfathomable, his puzzling work bespeaking the puzzle of the beyond.

Donald Kuspit