Contemporary Art

Op-Art Obsession: A Founding MacKenzie-Childs Designer on Victor Vasarely

By Sotheby's

Victor Vasarely (1906–1997) is considered to be one of the founders of the Op Art movement that emerged in the 1960s and explored the optical effects of abstract forms. With its whimsical pattern and bright colors, Vasarely’s Axo-Csillag captured the imagination of the founders of homewares company MacKenzie-Childs. Known for their imaginative and highly original aesthetic, Richard and Victoria MacKenzie-Childs have been living and making art aboard the Yankee, a 1907 ferryboat originally used to transport newly arrived immigrants from Ellis Island to Manhattan. The Vasarely painting has long been a centerpiece of the Yankee’s living room alongside many of the couple’s own designs. We spoke with Victoria MacKenzie-Childs about Vasarely’s charming sincerity, living with art and more.

VICTOR VASARLEY, AXO-CSILLAG, 1906-1997. ESTIMATE $50,000–70,000.

Can you share the story of how you came to acquire this Victor Vasarely painting?

The Vasarely family had been collectors of our works for a long time. They came to us in the late 1990s, interested in exchanging Victor Vasarely’s works for some of our larger furniture pieces. The family flew me to Puerto Rico to view their collection of paintings. All the canvasses where rolled up and had been stowed away for many years. Together, we unfurled them. I was in awe. It was clear that the artist wanted to communicate with the beholder. How refreshing to be aware of art’s responsibility to engage and enthrall.

What struck you about the work that you ultimately chose?

I was gobsmacked by the electric, optical elegance of this wondrous treasure. It is as humorous as a circus act, but laboratorial in its perfection. The acme of art and science is where the two opposites meet. Up close to the painting, one sees a deep care for detail. The work is subtly constructed with a base, hidden by the nearness of blackish-brown blocks, giving substance to the superstructure of its bold blast of color.

How has Vasarely influenced your own work?

I see a shared purity and sincerity as well as illusion and teasing with a childlike nature. Vasarely was labeled a commercial artist and we, as MacKenzie-Childs, were simply potters. Working away in this quietude, hidden from the tides of artistic movements and under the cover of those lowly titles, afforded us the opportunity for a surprise attack on complacency and conventional good taste. Initially, the popular appeal of our Courtly Check pattern and Vasarely’s interest in optical effects rattled the “sophisticates,” but as more people started living with such work they came to see it as life-changing and even liberating.

The Vasarely painting has been hanging in the salon aboard your boat, Yankee. What is the history of the vessel and how did you come to transform it in to your home?

As New York City gentrified, the artists within us, by necessity, engendered innovation in dwelling creatively while simultaneously discovering flexibility in ourselves and in our work. The search was of a spiritual nature, and our search blossomed and brought us to Yankee. Our multifarious skills as sculptors would benefit this beautiful historic vessel, and in turn it could provide us with shelter and space to perform our art. The graceful entanglement of life and work with a grandiose historic monument has been both humbling and elevating.

The Yankee is full of interesting art and objects, and is itself a kind of artwork. Do you think of it that way?

My natural inclination as an artist is that I respect artlessness – with its playfulness and fervent connection to function – above art. In its realness, the Yankee is by definition artless. Since 1907, she has adapted to serve the needs of her time and to be flexible. The most important lesson of living and working on Yankee is that life is about flexibility. The shedding of thinking preciously about yourself lightens the burden.

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