Bridget Riley, Bright Shade, 1985. Sold for £1,071,000

Op Art

About Op Art

What is Op Art?

Bridget Riley, Untitled [Fragment 3] (S. 5C), 1965

Op Art is a style of non-objective abstract art, featuring optical illusions and ambiguities, that rose to prominence in the 1960s. While artists had long been drawn to investigations of optical effects, new advancements in technology and the psychology of perception gave rise to a concentrated period of exploration in this area. A diverse international movement with exponents in the United States, Britain, France and South America, Op Art produced a range of artistic tendencies. The style, evoking virtual movement, is also often associated with Kinetic art; both have historical antecedents in Dada and the Bauhaus. Using purely geometric forms, lines and patterns in stark black and white or boldly contrasting colours, Op Artists engaged in purposeful manipulation of formal relationships to produce novel visual effects, from the subtle to the mind-bending.

Characteristics & Style of Op Art

Victor Vasarely, Kara-Deuu, conceived in 1956. Executed in 1973. Sold for £100,000

Underpinning the Op Art style is a fascination with the ways in which an artist might exploit the processes of visual perception to create optical illusions – impressions of movement, vibration and three-dimensionality, afterimages, hidden images, moiré effects and more. Distorting the viewer’s perception of motion, depth and form by emphasising discordant figure-ground relationships, the most iconic examples of Op Art rely on high-contrast black-and-white lines and patterns, composed with mathematical precision. Op Artists also applied principles of colour theory, utilising chromatic tension to provoke unexpected perceptual responses. While the movement is primarily associated with painting, a number of artists, particularly those whose work straddles the line between Kinetic and Op Art, worked in three-dimensional media.

Legacy of Op Art

Widely dismissed by critics as gimmicky and fleeting, Op Art was nevertheless enormously popular in its time, with lasting impacts on textile and graphic design. Op Art imagery became synonymous with the psychedelic 1960s and was quickly adopted into many aspects of mass culture, from posters and T-shirts to advertisements and book illustrations.

Richard Anuszkiewicz, Elementary Fire, 1964. Sold for £25,000

The style’s commercial appeal gave credence to its detractors, and by the end of the decade, it had largely fallen out of favour. However, its systematic approach to exploring optical effects and its emphasis on the perceptual response of the viewer has had far-reaching consequences for interactive art and other contemporary practices.

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Timeline & History of Op Art

  • 1937

    Victor Vasarely paints Zebra, widely considered the first example of Op Art.

    (pictured) Victor Vasarely, Zebra, 1937
  • 1955

    The group exhibition Le Mouvement debuts at Galerie Denise René in Paris, attracting wide attention and launching Op Art and Kinetic Art. Vasarely publishes his Manifeste Jaune (Yellow Manifesto) to coincide with the show.

    (pictured) Victor Vasarely
  • 1962

    Bridget Riley has her first solo show of geometric patterned paintings at Gallery One in London, to great acclaim.

    (pictured) Bridget Riley with some of her works. Photo: Romano Cagnoni/Getty Images
  • 1964

    Time magazine coins the term Optical Art.

    (pictured) Richard Anuszkiewicz, The Harpist and Nine Muses, 1963. Sold for $33,000
  • 1965

    Op Art reaches its pinnacle with the legendary group show The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Featuring works by Vasarely, Riley, Josef Albers and Jesus Rafael-Soto, the exhibition is enormously successful and leads to a craze for Op Art designs in fashion and popular media.

    (pictured) Jesus Rafael Soto photographed by Lothar Wolleh
  • 1968

    By the end of the decade, marketplace saturation and overwhelming commercialisation of Op Art has led to dwindling interest in the style.

    (pictured) Paper Caper dress in optical art print by Scott Paper Company, United States, 1966. © Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation


Who are the Op Art Artists?

The term Op Art has been flexibly applied to the work of numerous artists. Josef Albers, widely regarded as an important influence on the movement through his association with the Bauhaus and later Black Mountain College and Yale University, in fact rejected the label.

The French-Hungarian painter Victor Vasarely is often credited as the “grandfather” of the Op Art movement; his 1937 painting Zebra is one of the earliest examples of the style, and his compelling illusions of spatial depth went on to influence a new wave of Op Artists.

Among them, the most famous is British artist Bridget Riley, whose painting Current, 1964, alive with the suggestion of vibrational movement, graced the catalogue cover for the seminal MoMA exhibition The Responsive Eye.

Other practitioners included the American artists Julian Stanczak and Richard Anuszkiewicz, who used contrasting colours to produce different optical effects. Venezuelan-born Carlos Cruz-Diez is also a pioneering figure in the theory and practice of colour, creating paintings and installations based on the moiré effect; fellow Venezuelan-born artist Jesus Rafael-Soto was an important exponent of both Kinetic and Op Art.

The Op Art movement also inspired the Paris-based collaborative group GRAV (Group de Recherche d’Art Visuel), a collective of opto-kinetic artists best known for their use of interactive labyrinths.

Op Art Artists at Auction

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