Op Art in Three Acts:

France, England and United States

Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley and Richard Anuszkiewicz

Victor Vasarely

Victor Vasarely (1906-1997) began his journey towards Op Art in 1929 when he enrolled in the Muhely Academy, in Budapest.

At the time the Academy was regarded as the centre of Bauhaus studies in Hungary, teaching the basic concept that all the arts and crafts and architecture should achieve a unity of purpose based on the cube, the rectangle and the circle.

Vasarely was strongly influenced by Auguste Herbin, Piet Mondrian and Le Corbusier, and decided to commit himself fully to abstract painting. His work evolved from representational images, to abstract works composed entirely of geometric shapes.

After an initial period of black and white he discovered colours, and developed a grid-based system which established modular relationship between forms and colours.

What Vasarely in effect created was an art programming language that allowed for endless permutations of forms and colours to create individual and unique works. Vasarely was immediately dubbed the father of Op Art.

In his latest paintings the feeling of movement and depth are created by Vasarelys use of lines of decreasing scale advancing towards the centre of the canvas – the further we look in to the centre, the further away the field appears to be from us. The use of changing colours across the field also serves to provide the viewer with the feeling of kinetic energy, depth and space.

One of Vasarely’s major series was the Gestalt Series, which crosses over into his fascination with the hexagon. The paintings in this series are characterised by solid, yet ethereal and seemingly impossible three-dimensional shapes composed of cubes and cellular like structures that confuse the viewer visually.

Vasarely makes full use of variations in colour to further the illusion of space, light, movement and structure.

Axo 99 is a combination of all the mediums and movements that Vasarely executes best: sculpture and vibrant colours; Op Art, Cubism and Surrealism.

Axo 99 is available here.

Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley was born in Norwood, South London in 1931.

The daughter of a painter, she studied at the Royal College of Art and immediately began a career as an artist. She created her first Op Art paintings in the 1960s, working only in black and white and using simple geometric shapes: squares, lines and ovals.

Although she investigated many areas of perception, her work, with its emphasis on optical effects was never intended to be an end in itself. It was instinctive, not based on theory but guided by what she saw with her own eyes.

Bridget Rileys paintings came to international notice when she exhibited along with Victor Vasarely and others in the Museum of Modern Art in New York at an exhibition called The Responsive Eye in 1965.

It was around this time that the term Op Artentered the public consciousness. Op Art captured the imagination of the public and became part of the swinging sixties.

The fashion, design and advertising industries fell in love with its graphic, sign-like patterns and decorative value. Op Art was cool, and Bridget Riley became Britains number one art celebrity.

From 1967 onwards Riley increasingly began to use colour. She also started to use more stabilised forms – often simple vertical straight or wavy lines.

It was the positioning of the colour itself that produced the feel of movement she wanted to convey. The colour groupings affected the spaces between them to produce fleeting glimpses of other colours and hence the illusion of movement.

Bridget Rileys paintings of the late 1960s and 70s focused on the visual and emotional response to colour, and she experimented with various palettes and forms during this period.

Her curve paintings are some of her most peaceful and emotional works, something that is reflected in their often poetic and musical titles.

Until 1978 Riley restricted herself to just three colours for each of her paintings. Her 1978 series  Song of Orpheusexpanded this to five.

 Further expansion took place following her visit to Egypt in 1981, where she was enchanted by the colours used by ancient Egyptian art: The colours are purer and more brilliant than any I had used before’ she wrote.

The Egyptian paintings mark the beginnings of free colour organisation, something that Riley uses to this day.

Since then her work has progressively moved away from a build-up of sensation giving rise to a perceptual response, and instead towards an art of pure visual sensation, treating form and colour as ultimate identities, as things in themselves.

Units of colour were arranged according to principles of relation and chromatic interaction, but increasingly were connected to the implication of rhythm, space and depth.

Richard Anuskiewicz

Richard Anuszkiewicz (1930-2020) was a contemporary American artist best-known for his mesmerizing Op Art paintings.

Anuszkiewicz's works are saturated with vibrant colour arranged in jarring geometric abstract compositions, formally exploring the phenomena of light, colour, and line and their effects on human perception.

He focused on the optical changes that occur when different high intensity colours are applied to the same geometric configuration.

Most of his work comprises visual investigations of formal structural and colour effects, many of them nested square forms similar to the work of his mentor Josef Albers.

Anuszkiewicz summarises his approach to paintings saying: ‘my work is an experimental nature and has centred on an investigation into the effects of complimentary colours of full intensity when juxtaposed and the optical changes that occur as a result, and a study of the dynamic effect of the whole under changing conditions of light, and the effect of light on colour’.

The Temple Series was inspired in part by the architecture of Egyptian and Greek temples, specifically the space in between the repetitious vertical columns.

Anuszkiewicz’s principle interest is to use the architectural framing of differing light and atmospheric conditions as the formalist structure for the paintings. Colour and light is explored mechanically, juxtaposing complimentary colours next to one another creating a visual sensation.

Each of his paintings consists of non-relational compositions of planes and lines of colour, which though visually agitated seek equilibrium within the frame of the canvas.

If these works were to be reproduced in black and white it would become apparent that Anuszkiewicz is a classicist: every variation is planned, there is nothing arbitrary, every non-essential detail has been excluded.

What remains are repetitive, equally spaced, vertically orientated rectangular modules, framed by a motif of concentric bands which alternately produce either an illusionistic shadow-box like space or seem to advance to create illusionary bas relief-like objects.

Untitled from the Temple Series is available at Shapero Modern, you can find the details here.