Op art

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Movement in Squares, by Bridget Riley 1961 Riley, Movement in Squares.jpg
Movement in Squares, by Bridget Riley 1961

Op art, short for optical art, is a style of visual art that uses optical illusions. [1]


Op art works are abstract, with many better known pieces created in black and white. Typically, they give the viewer the impression of movement, hidden images, flashing and vibrating patterns, or of swelling or warping.


Francis Picabia, c. 1921-22, Optophone I, encre, aquarelle et mine de plomb sur papier, 72 x 60 cm. Reproduced in Galeries Dalmau, Picabia, exhibition catalogue, Barcelona, November 18 - December 8, 1922. Francis Picabia, c. 1921-22, Optophone I, encre, aquarelle et mine de plomb sur papier, 72 x 60 cm.jpg
Francis Picabia, c. 1921–22, Optophone I, encre, aquarelle et mine de plomb sur papier, 72 × 60 cm. Reproduced in Galeries Dalmau, Picabia, exhibition catalogue, Barcelona, November 18 – December 8, 1922.
Jesus Soto, Caracas Soto Sphere.jpg
Jesús Soto, Caracas

The antecedents of op art, in terms of graphic and color effects, can be traced back to Neo-impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism and Dada. [2] László Moholy-Nagy produced photographic op art and taught the subject in the Bauhaus. One of his lessons consisted of making his students produce holes in cards and then photographing them.[ citation needed ]

Time magazine coined the term op art in 1964, in response to Julian Stanczak's show Optical Paintings at the Martha Jackson Gallery, to mean a form of abstract art (specifically non-objective art) that uses optical illusions. [3] [4] Works now described as "op art" had been produced for several years before Time's 1964 article. For instance, Victor Vasarely's painting Zebras (1938) is made up entirely of curvilinear black and white stripes not contained by contour lines. Consequently, the stripes appear to both meld into and burst forth from the surrounding background. Also, 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. Martin Gardner featured op Art and its relation to mathematics in his July 1965 Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. In Italy, Franco Grignani, who originally trained as an architect, became a leading force of graphic design where op art or kinetic art was central. His Woolmark logo (launched in Britain in 1964) is probably the most famous of all his designs. [5]

An optical illusion by the Hungarian-born artist Victor Vasarely in Pecs Hungary pecs - vasarely0.jpg
An optical illusion by the Hungarian-born artist Victor Vasarely in Pécs

Op art perhaps more closely derives from the constructivist practices of the Bauhaus. [6] This German school, founded by Walter Gropius, stressed the relationship of form and function within a framework of analysis and rationality. Students learned to focus on the overall design or entire composition to present unified works. Op art also stems from trompe-l'œil and anamorphosis. Links with psychological research have also been made, particularly with Gestalt theory and psychophysiology. [2] When the Bauhaus was forced to close in 1933, many of its instructors fled to the United States. There, the movement took root in Chicago and eventually at the Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, where Anni and Josef Albers eventually taught. [7]

Op artists thus managed to exploit various phenomena," writes Popper, "the after-image and consecutive movement; line interference; the effect of dazzle; ambiguous figures and reversible perspective; successive colour contrasts and chromatic vibration; and in three-dimensional works different viewpoints and the superimposition of elements in space. [2]

In 1955, for the exhibition Mouvements at the Denise René gallery in Paris, Victor Vasarely and Pontus Hulten promoted in their "Yellow manifesto" some new kinetic expressions based on optical and luminous phenomenon as well as painting illusionism. The expression kinetic art in this modern form first appeared at the Museum für Gestaltung of Zürich in 1960, and found its major developments in the 1960s. In most European countries, it generally includes the form of optical art that mainly makes use of optical illusions, like op art, as well as art based on movement represented by Yacov Agam, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesús Rafael Soto, Gregorio Vardanega or Nicolas Schöffer. From 1961 to 1968, the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) founded by François Morellet, Julio Le Parc, Francisco Sobrino, Horacio Garcia Rossi, Yvaral, Joël Stein and Vera Molnár was a collective group of opto-kinetic artists that—according to its 1963 manifesto—appealed to the direct participation of the public with an influence on its behavior, notably through the use of interactive labyrinths.

Some members of the group Nouvelle tendance (1961–1965) in Europe also were engaged in op art as Almir Mavignier and Gerhard von Graevenitz, mainly with their serigraphics. They studied optical illusions. The term op irritated many of the artists labeled under it, specifically including Albers and Stanczak. They had discussed upon the birth of the term a better label, namely perceptual art. [8] From 1964, Arnold Schmidt (Arnold Alfred Schmidt) had several solo exhibitions of his large, black and white shaped optical paintings exhibited at the Terrain Gallery in New York. [9]

The Responsive Eye

In 1965, between February 23 and April 25, an exhibition called The Responsive Eye, created by William C. Seitz, was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and toured to St. Louis, Seattle, Pasadena, and Baltimore. [10] [11] The works shown were wide-ranging, encompassing the minimalism of Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, the smooth plasticity of Alexander Liberman, the collaborative efforts of the Anonima group, alongside the well-known Victor Vasarely, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Wen-Ying Tsai, Bridget Riley and Getulio Alviani. The exhibition focused on the perceptual aspects of art, which result both from the illusion of movement and the interaction of color relationships.

The exhibition was a success with the public (visitor attendance was over 180,000), [12] but less so with the critics. [13] Critics dismissed op art as portraying nothing more than trompe-l'œil , or tricks that fool the eye. Regardless, op art's although the public's acceptance increased, and op art images were used in a number of commercial contexts. One of Brian de Palma's early works was a documentary film on the exhibition. [14]

Method of operation

Black-and-white and the figure-ground relationship

Op art is a perceptual experience related to how vision functions. It is a dynamic visual art that stems from a discordant figure-ground relationship that puts the two planes—foreground and background—in a tense and contradictory juxtaposition. Artists create op art in two primary ways. The first, best known method, is to create effects through pattern and line. Often these paintings are black and white, or shades of gray ( grisaille )—as in Bridget Riley's early paintings such as Current (1964), on the cover of The Responsive Eye catalog. Here, black and white wavy lines are close to one another on the canvas surface, creating a volatile figure-ground relationship. Getulio Alviani used aluminum surfaces, which he treated to create light patterns that change as the watcher moves (vibrating texture surfaces). Another reaction that occurs is that the lines create after-images of certain colors due to how the retina receives and processes light. As Goethe demonstrates in his treatise Theory of Colours , at the edge where light and dark meet, color arises because lightness and darkness are the two central properties in the creation of color.[ citation needed ]


Beginning in 1965 Bridget Riley began to produce color-based op art; [15] however, other artists, such as Julian Stanczak and Richard Anuszkiewicz, were always interested in making color the primary focus of their work. [16] Josef Albers taught these two primary practitioners of the "Color Function" school at Yale in the 1950s. Often, colorist work is dominated by the same concerns of figure-ground movement, but they have the added element of contrasting colors that produce different effects on the eye. For instance, in Anuszkiewicz's "temple" paintings, the juxtaposition of two highly contrasting colors provokes a sense of depth in illusionistic three-dimensional space so that it appears as if the architectural shape is invading the viewer's space.

Color interaction

There are three major classes of the interaction of color: simultaneous contrast, successive contrast, and reverse contrast (or assimilation). (i) Simultaneous contrast may take place when one area of color is surrounded by another area of a different color. In general, contrast enhances the difference in brightness and/or color between the interacting areas. Such contrast effects are mutual, but if the surround area is larger and more intense than the area it encloses, then the contrast is correspondingly out of balance, and may appear to be exerted in one direction only. (ii) In successive contrast, first one color is viewed and then another. This may be achieved either by fixing the eye steadily on one color and then quickly replacing that color with another, or by shifting fixation from one color to another. (iii) In reverse contrast (sometimes called the assimilation of color or the spreading effect) the lightness of white or the darkness of black may seem to spread into neighbouring regions. Similarly, colors may appear to spread into or become assimilated into neighbouring areas. All effects tend to make neighbouring areas appear more alike, rather than to enhance their differences as in the more familiar simultaneous contrast, hence the term reverse contrast (Jameson and Hurvich). Note that in the interaction of color the constituent colors retain much of the own identity even though they may be altered somewhat by contrast.

Floyd Ratliff, "The Theory of Color and the Practice of Painting" [17]


See also

Related Research Articles

Bridget Riley British painter

Bridget Louise Riley is an English painter known for her singular op art paintings. She lives and works in London, Cornwall and the Vaucluse in France.

Hard-edge painting

Hard-edge painting is painting in which abrupt transitions are found between color areas. Color areas are often of one unvarying color. The Hard-edge painting style is related to Geometric abstraction, Op Art, Post-painterly Abstraction, and Color Field painting.

Victor Vasarely

Victor Vasarely, was a Hungarian-French artist, who is widely accepted as a "grandfather" and leader of the Op art movement.

Josef Albers

Josef Albers was a German-born artist and educator. He taught at the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, headed Yale University's department of design, and is considered one of the most influential teachers of the visual arts in the twentieth century.

Richard Joseph Anuszkiewicz was an American painter, printmaker, and sculptor.

Kinetic art Genre of artworks that contains movement

Kinetic art is art from any medium that contains movement perceivable by the viewer or depends on motion for its effect. Canvas paintings that extend the viewer's perspective of the artwork and incorporate multidimensional movement are the earliest examples of kinetic art. More pertinently speaking, kinetic art is a term that today most often refers to three-dimensional sculptures and figures such as mobiles that move naturally or are machine operated. The moving parts are generally powered by wind, a motor or the observer. Kinetic art encompasses a wide variety of overlapping techniques and styles.

Julian Stanczak was a Polish-born American painter and printmaker. The artist lived and worked in Seven Hills, Ohio with his wife, the sculptor Barbara Stanczak.

Getulio Alviani Italian painter

Getulio Alviani was an Italian painter based in Milan. He is considered to be an important International Optical - kinetic artist.

Ludwig Wilding was a German artist whose work is associated with Op art and Kinetic art. Wilding was born in Grünstadt, Germany. He studied at the University of Mainz Art School.

20th-century Western painting art in the Western world during the 20th century

20th-century Western painting begins with the heritage of late-19th-century painters Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and others who were essential for the development of modern art. At the beginning of the 20th century, Henri Matisse and several other young artists including the pre-cubist Georges Braque, André Derain, Raoul Dufy and Maurice de Vlaminck, revolutionized the Paris art world with "wild", multi-colored, expressive landscapes and figure paintings that the critics called Fauvism. Matisse's second version of The Dance signified a key point in his career and in the development of modern painting. It reflected Matisse's incipient fascination with primitive art: the intense warm color of the figures against the cool blue-green background and the rhythmical succession of the dancing nudes convey the feelings of emotional liberation and hedonism.


Lightpainting is an art form developed by artist Stephen Knapp and introduced in 2002. Lightpainting is not to be confused with light painting, the latter of which is a photographic process recording traces of light on film or digital media to create images that must be reproduced in printed or transparency form. Lightpainting uses white light projected in space through specially coated glass that breaks the light into bands of color, producing optically complex virtual 3D images that sit at the intersection of painting and sculpture. Lightpaintings can take the form of moveable wall-mounted panels but the most spectacular effects are achieved in large-scale architectural installations. Layers of metallic coating are applied to glass pieces to refract and reflect colors, which becomes the palette to be used as pure chroma or mixed into a wide spectrum of colors. Glass is cut into various sizes and shapes that determine planes of color and other elements that can be used much as in traditional painting or sculpture.

Oliver Bevan is an English artist, who was born in Peterborough and educated at Eton College. After leaving school he spent a year in 1959–60 working for Voluntary Service Overseas in British North Borneo before returning to London to study painting at the Royal College of Art, where he became strongly influenced by Op Art and in particular the work of Victor Vasarely. Bevan graduated from the RCA in 1964 and had his first exhibition of Op Art-inspired paintings the following year. Optical, geometric and kinetic art then served him well until the late 1970s when he moved to the Canadian prairies for a two-year teaching post at the University of Saskatchewan. By the time he returned to London in 1979 he had abandoned abstract art in favour of figurative art and urban realism.

Edna Andrade American artist

Edna Andrade was an American abstract artist. She was an early Op Artist.

Eusebio Sempere Juan was a Spanish sculptor, painter and graphic artist whose abstract geometric works make him the most representative artist of the Kinetic art movement in Spain and one of Spain's foremost artists. His use of repetition of line and mastery of color to manipulate the way light plays on the surface give depth to his pictorial compositions.

Gerhard von Graevenitz

Gerhard von Graevenitz was a German kinetic artist, co-founding member of the Nouvelle Tendance and member of the op-art movement. He also belonged to the international circle of the Zero-Group. He is seen as one of the uncompromising representatives of the constructive-concrete art of the younger generation.

Marina Apollonio is an Italian painter and Optical artist. She lives and works in Padua.

Jeffrey Steele (artist)

Jeffrey Steele is an abstract painter. In Paris (1959) he encountered the work of artists working in the mode of geometric abstraction, such as Victor Vasarely (1906–97), Max Bill (1908–94) and Josef Albers (1888–1976), and adopted a lifelong abstract approach. For eight years he worked purely in black and white and was identified with the Op-art movement. He incorporated other colours into his work in the 1970s.

Francis Michael Celentano was one of the seminal artists in the Op art movement that started in the 1960s. He was one of the featured artists in an exhibition called The Responsive Eye, which was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1965. He continued to contribute to the art form throughout his life, working in black and white, color, kinetic paintings and three dimensional studies.

Mervyn Williams (artist)

Mervyn John Williams is a New Zealand artist. He was an early exponent of Op art in New Zealand in the 1960s–70s. In 1990 he originated a style of illusionary abstract painting based on chiaroscuro, creating the impression of three-dimensional forms and textures on a flat canvas. Since 2009 he has used digital techniques in returning to an Op art style. Williams is almost unique amongst his contemporaries in New Zealand art for having embraced abstraction at the start of his career and exclusively throughout. His work is held in all major New Zealand public collections. A monograph by Edward Hanfling was published by Ron Sang in 2014 coinciding with a survey exhibition.

Victor Kord

Victor George Kord American painter and educator. He currently maintains a studio and exhibits in New York City. He previously served as art department chair for several major universities, and remains professor emeritus of painting at Cornell University Department of Art.


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  8. Bertholf. "Julian Stanczak: Decades of Light" Yale Press
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  11. "The Responsive Eye" (PDF) (Press release). New York: Museum of Modern Art. February 25, 1965. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
  12. Gordon Hyatt (writer and producer), Mike Wallace (presenter) (1965). The Responsive Eye (Television production). Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. (Available on YouTube in three sections.)
  13. "MoMA 1965: The Responsive Eye". CoolHunting.com. Archived from the original on September 28, 2009. Retrieved November 5, 2017.
  14. Brian De Palma (director) (1966). The Responsive Eye (Motion picture).
  15. Hopkins, David (September 14, 2000). After Modern Art 1945-2000. OUP Oxford. p. 147. ISBN   9780192842343 . Retrieved November 5, 2017 via Google Books.
  16. See Color Function Painting: The Art of Josef Albers, Julian Stanczak and Richard Anuszkiewicz, Wake Forest University, reprinted 2002
  17. Floyd Ratliff. "The Theory of Color and the Practice of Painting", in Color Function Painting: The Art of Josef Albers, Julian Stanczak and Richard Anuszkiewicz , Wake Forest University, 1996, p. 8.