The traffic-stopping bright colours of Op Art were a response to the emerging computer age of the 60s. And now these works are resonating with a new tech generation, says Gareth Harris
When Bridget Riley arrived in New York in early 1965 ahead of the epochal show The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, she recalls seeing the windows of Madison Avenue shops awash with dresses and displays emblazoned with her motifs. The world had gone crazy for her geometric forms, as the mania for Op Art – the abstract art movement that rose to prominence in the 1950s – took hold.
The Responsive Eye, a vast survey of 120 paintings and installations by 99 artists hailing from 15 countries, put Op Art on the art world map. The works at MoMA were so dazzling, museum guards were apparently given permission to wear sunglasses while patrolling the galleries. Crucially, this quirky ultra-contemporary art packed in the crowds, drawing around 180,000 visitors during its three-month run.
Guests at the private view, dressed in outfits inspired by Riley's black-and-white paintings, were keen to see her work Current (1964), along with eye-spinning pieces by other high-profile Op Art proponents such as Victor Vasarely, Yaacov Agam, and Richard Anuszkiewicz. Each of these artists feature in Bonhams Post-War & Contemporary Art sales in London and New York this spring, which put the focus back on Op Art. Highlights include Riley's 1976 masterpiece Light Rose, Blue and Green Small Twisted Curve and Anuszkiewicz's Soft Yellow with Dark Blue (1982), inspired by ancient Egyptian architecture.
Op Art became synonymous with the hedonistic spirit of the Swinging '60s. Fashion and graphic designers, admen and art editors in US and Europe embraced the art movement. Fashionistas lapped up beachwear by Rose Marie Reid inspired by the new art, while Vasarely's Vega motif was splashed across mass-market wallpapers.
Op Art foxes and fires up the eye, using geometric forms to create optical effects. Look for long enough at Vasarely's painting Alom-2 (1967), offered in Bonhams London sale in March, and you'll soon find your eye – and mind – playing tricks on you. Bauhaus-trained Vasarely makes the forms bend and merge, giving an illusion of depth. His Tridim-RR (1968) is just as inviting, its diamond forms unfurled like a splayed Rubik's cube.
Both works come from the Kansas-based Turner family, which ran one of the largest agricultural estates in the Midwest. The family worked with the Madison Avenue-based Galerie Chalette and the gallery's co-founder, Madeleine Chalette, who introduced the late H. Lee Turner to Fangor's works. They were "pictures that attack the eye" in Time's 1964 description of Op Art.
Not many collectors take their favourite painters and sculptors flying in a private plane, but H. Lee Turner gave Agam a new – aerial – perspective on Kansas. A major work by Agam will be offered in the London's March sale. Considered an Optical-Kinetic trailblazer, Image transparente (1972) is a piece made from Plexiglas that flickers on the retina.
Another pivotal Op artist, Wojciech Fangor, features in the Turner collection. Fangor's 1970 solo show at the Guggenheim in New York sent New York Times critic John Canaday into raptures: "As a colourist, he has extended the limits... of the simplest optical laws," he wrote. The Turner family forged close links with Fangor, acquiring two of his pieces: NJ15 (1964) and M5 (1970). The latter shows a sublime blue pool encircled by a hazy halo.
Bonhams' experts have been instrumental in redefining and rebooting the market. Late last year, Dane Jensen, the Los Angeles-based Director of Contemporary Art, put together a curated Op Art section in the Post-War and Contemporary auction in New York. Entitled Le Mouvement, it was named after the milestone 1955 exhibition held at Galerie Denise René in Paris, which included works by Agam and Vasarely, as well as famous avant-garde figures such as Marcel Duchamp, Jean Tinguely and Alexander Calder. The show also brought kinetic art, Op Art's motion-based bedfellow, to a much wider public.
In New York, Le Mouvement was a white-glove sale for Bonhams, with each of the 12 works offered having been sold. Fangor's painting of blurred rings, M35 (1970), leapt over estimate to fetch the stratospheric price of $319,500. "We saw intense interest in the Op Art section from collectors, particularly those who have previously acquired minimalist and colour field works," Jensen says.
During the past two years, Bonhams has seen prices rise as collectors and public institutions re-evaluate Op Art's place in art history, says Ralph Taylor, Bonhams Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art in London. "The pool of collectors and availability of wealth has grown exponentially, so there are now more international buyers, for instance in eastern Europe and South America, immersing themselves in the Op Art market."
"Op Art came to define the emerging computer age, and is a precursor to a world mediated by smartphone screens. It chimed with the emergence of abstraction in art, making us look at art and this new epoch through a different visual lens," Jensen says. Op Art was a painterly mirror to the increasingly high-tech mid-20th century era, when advances in computing and broadcasting made waves. But the critics were initially sniffy: the legendary essayist Clement Greenberg dismissed Op Art as a novelty.
Over the past decade, the movement has bounced back. Contemporary aesthetes such as the fashion designer Marc Jacobs have looked to Op Art: his spring 2013 collection was awash with sharp black-and-white lines and eye-zinging chequered patterns. Curators have also felt that the time is ripe to reappraise Op Art.
Last year, the critically acclaimed show The Illusive Eye at El Museo del Barrio in New York looked at Latin American contributions to the Op Art school by artists such as Jesús Rafael Soto and Julio Le Parc.
Meanwhile, curators at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, north of Copenhagen, mounted the show Eye Attack after observing the effects of Op Art on visitors. They had noticed that whenever works were hung in the museum's galleries and corridors, "the traffic artery became a bottleneck". The show included 100 works by 40 artists, including Riley, whose genre-defining Current was loaned to Louisiana by MoMA in New York.
The effect on those visitors to the gallery – who were literally stopped in their tracks – demonstrates the power of Op Art. "The way the spectator is immersed in these works is often overlooked," Jensen says. Certainly, it's hard not to fall headfirst into Marina Apollonio's mesmeric 1966 work Dinamica Circolare 8M, another work offered by Bonhams in March. The circular element spins from the centre, inducing a trance-like state in anyone who sees it. Our advice? Go on, dive in.
Gareth Harris is chief contributing editor at The Art Newspaper.
Sales: Post-War & Contemporary Art
Wednesday 8 March at 4pm
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Tuesday 16 May at 4pm
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