Op art, also called optical art, is an abstract art movement that came to prominence in the 1960’s. It achieves optical illusion through the use of manipulated shapes and colours to construct an image that when perceived by the human eye often provides the impression of movement, pulsation or warping. The production of OpArt has encountered various changes since its conception, with various different techniques and styles used to maximise illusion. We will be looking at the historical narrative of OpArt, contributors, exhibitions and critiques. 

Op Art Influences

It can be argued that the first origins of OpArt derive from various sources. Linear perspective has been used throughout history to create art pieces with the illusion of depth on a flat surface. From the fifteenth century the technique of Trompe-l’œil (“deceive the eye”) has been used to trick eyes into perceiving objects or paintings as three dimensional. Anamorphosis a perspective technique uses vantage points to distort images that can only be seen in its true form through certain devices or positions. However, these techniques and their relation to the modern art movement are debated, with critics devaluing the essence of Opart due to its relation to the aforementioned techniques characterising the movement as “retinal titillations”.

Ceiling of the Treasure Room of the Archaeological Museum of Ferrara - 1503–1506 (An example of Trompe-l'œil)
Anamorphic street art by Manfred Stader

The modern influences that led to the emergence of OpArt originated in 1839 with the French chemist, Michel-Eugene Chevreul. He experimented and studied complimentary colours relationships while working as the director of a dye company. He found that when black dyes were placed next to deep blue or purple dye, the black was perceived as weak or reddish. Chevreul named this term ‘simultaneous contrast’, which explored the idea in which the colors of two different objects affect each other, the effect is more noticeable when shared between objects of complementary color. 

This exploration of colour influenced George Seurat who pioneered pointillism. Seurat used contrasting dots or points of colour to create post impressionist paintings, which was a radical departure from the art styles that came before him. Realism seeked to portray the world as it was and imitate the real world as the artist perceived it, creating paintings that captured the tones and images that were observed in the real world.  Although early Impressionists violated the rules of this academic painting tradition through the use of visible ‘broken’ brush strokes and unmixed colours, Seurat was the first to use art to show how the brain processes what the eye beholds. 

Seurat theorised that he could produce more vibrant colours through pointillism and divisionism (separating colours into individual dots or patches which interacted optically requiring the viewer to combine the colors optically instead of physically mixing pigments). The theory caused vibrations of color to the viewer, where contrasting colors placed near each other would intensify the relationship between the colors while preserving their singular separate identity. The final results when viewed from the correct distance would result in shimmering, intense colour and would ‘blend’ in the eye. Seurat used the available scientific theories at the time to create luminosity and explored how virtual movement could be created on a flat plane, an idea that would be developed by artists like Bridget Riley during the prominence of Opart in the 1960’s.

Georges Suerat, c. 1889 - Circus Sideshow (Parade de Cirque)
Georges Seurat, c. 1884–86 - A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Influences of op art, in terms of graphic and color effects, can be traced back to many other artistic movements. Abandonment of academic painting based on perspective faded leading early 20th century artists to experiment, the artistic styles that resulted from this led the foundations for Op Art. Cubism developed by Picasso and Georges Braque questioned perspective through the use of time, drawing figures and shapes from various angles and different points in time. This style’s foundation was based on a fresh investigation upon how we perceive art and the world we live in, which directly relates to the questions Op Art seeks to achieve through illusion.

Pablo Picasso, 1909–10, Figure dans un Fauteuil (Seated Nude, Femme nue assise)

Dadaism emerged after the first world war and in total rejection of the state and traditions of the artists contemporary world. There are many different accounts of how the name “dada” came about, a common story is that the German artist Richard Huelsenbeck slid a letter-opener, at random into a dictionary, where it landed on “dada”. Artists rejected the reason and aesthetics of the modern capitalist society instead using the notion of irrational or nonsense processes behind their work. These radical left artists often challenged language, meaning, knowledge and truth. The artworks that have direct relation to OpArt are the experimental cinema or concentric circles that were used to challenge the relationship of seeing and knowing whether we can know and make sense of our sense of what we see. This exploration of kinetic culture captures the essence of Op Art, and was further expanded on by artists in the category of Optical Art.

Marcel Duchamp, c. 1925 Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics).
Francis Picabia, c. 1921–22, Optophone I, encre, aquarelle et mine de plomb sur papier.

The Bauhaus movement could be described as an antecedent to OpArt, with László Moholy-Nagy producing several pieces of photographic op art and teaching the effects within the Bauhaus school. Bauhaus brought together artists, architects, and designers that discussed the nature of art in the age of technology. The discipline began to change fundamental propositions around art, with students and teachers working together while focusing on the geometric shapes of the cube, the rectangle and the circle. The Bauhaus school determined that simplicity and geometric purity would promote the usage of form and function of the piece itself. In forming a new reasoning based on unity the composition of the artwork was integrated to create a specific visual effect. This can be seen through in artworks such as “Homage to the Square” by Josef Alburs who continued the Bauhaus ideas after its closing down to the Nazi’s in 1933. One of the most famous Op artists, Victor Vasarely, trained in the Budapest Bauhaus school and was directly influenced by its ideas. 

László Moholy-Nagy, c. 1926 - Photogram
Josef Albers, c. 1963 - Study for Homage to the Square

Op Art is indirectly related to such other 20th-century styles as Orphism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Fauvism and Futurism – particularly the latter because of its emphasis on pictorial movement and dynamism. The Op Art artists differ from these artstyle due to their purposeful manipulation of formal relationships in order to evoke perceptual illusions, ambiguities, and contradictions in the vision of the viewer. Whereas the art styles that predated Op Art used the geometric shapes or colours in a similar way, the reason for each styles use of these techniques often varies in the outcomes in which they are meant to achieve based on the historical and artistic context of the time. The specific use of graphic and color effects within Op Art is concerned with the behavior of the eye, developing abstract compositions to explore a variety of optical phenomena.

A Proun, c.1925. Commenting on Proun in 1921, Lissitzky stated, "We brought the canvas into circles . . . and while we turn, we raise ourselves into the space. - Suprematism
František Kupka, c. 1912-13Katedrála (The Cathedral) - Orphism
Gino Severini, c. 1912, Dynamic Hieroglyphic of the Bal Tabarin - Futurism

Op Art emerged concurrently with Kinetic Art – concerned with the creation of real or illusory movement approaches to the discipline were much more diverse. From Op Art paintings to mobile, mechanical sculptures Kinetic art encompasses a wide variety of overlapping techniques and styles. Many Op Art artworks especially the early works are considered Kinetic Art as the themes that both art movements were trying to uncover were shared. However Kinetic art is primarily focused upon moving objects and sculpture while Op Art questioned how to create this movement on a 2D surface.

Jean Tinguely, c. 1959 - Cyclograveur

The Emergence of Op Art

Works now described as “Op Art” had been produced for several years before the Time’s coinage of the term in 1964. For instance, Victor Vasarely’s painting Zebras (1938) is made up entirely of curvilinear black and white stripes not contained by contour lines. In 1955, Victor Vasarely and Pontus Hulten promoted in their “Yellow manifesto” which promoted some new kinetic expressions based on optical and luminous phenomena as well as painting illusionism. This was part of the ‘Mouvements exhibition Denise René gallery in Paris.

Victor Vasarely, c. 1938 - Zebras

The early black and white “dazzle” panels that John McHale installed at the This Is Tomorrow exhibit in 1956 and his Pandora series at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1962 demonstrate proto-op art tendencies. From 1961 to 1968, the French group GRAV – Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (“Group for Research in the Visual Arts”) made large-scale sculptures that employed light and motors, as well as sculptural materials, to create the illusion of movement in space that is fundamental to all Op Art.  According to its 1963 manifesto, GRAV appealed to the direct participation of the public with an influence on its behavior, notably through the use of interactive labyrinths.

Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel

The term “Optical Art” was coined in Time Magazine coined in 1964, a year later a major exhibition entitled “The Responsive Eye” was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A wide range of works were exhibited including 123 paintings and sculptures from 100 artists of 15 nations. This  wide array of works included a wide range of different styles including minimalism, collaborative efforts, sculpture and varying forms of Op Art all intended to evoke perceptual ambiguities, and contradictions in the vision of the viewer. The exhibition contained works from Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Jeffrey Steele, Josef Alburs, Almir Mavignier and many other notable Optical Artists.

A documentary was made about the exhibition by Brian de Palma (director of Scarface) and was one of his earliest works. 

Immensely popular, the show highlighted the illusion of movement and the interaction of colour relationships, neither of which found great favour from the critics. It caught the public’s imagination and led to a craze for Op designs in popular culture. As a result,  Op Art began to emerge everywhere: in print and television advertising, as LP album art, and as a fashion motif in clothing and interior design. To many, it seemed the perfect style for an age defined by the onward march of science, by advances in computing, aerospace, and television. But art critics were never so supportive of it, attacking its effects as gimmicks, and today those critiques remain the main dismissals of the art genre.

Bridget Riley
Victor Vasarely
Jeffrey Steele

Although the highly complex perceptual effects created by Op artists were embraced by the general public, many art critics considered the phenomena to be a fleeting trend. Commercial success may have led to the decline of the movement, in particular after some artists discovered that their work designs were borrowed by American clothing manufacturers. The capitalisation of Op Art meant pieces were sold as posters, t-shirts and book illustrations. This normalised the art style and further reduced its meaning, being seen more as something you could buy rather than a complex insight into human perception, on which the original purpose of Op Art was based upon. Although the movement lost popularity by 1968, the systematic optical effects continue to be explored in visual art and architecture. Since the emergence of the digital age and the widespread use of editing software the availability to make digital Op Art has risen. A resurgence has occurred with art previously not possible to create now being made and available, free on the internet.

Jean-Pierre Yvaral
Jean-Pierre Yvaral Ambiguous Structure No.92 1969
Getulio Alviani, c. 1964 - Rhombus from Orthogonal Series
Richard Anuszkiewicz, c.1965 - Diamond Chroma from New York Ten
Bridget Riley, c. 1964 - Blaze
Edna Andrade
Marina Apollonio
Jesus Rafael Soto

For Alex