What is Op Art?
Op art is a form of abstract visual art that uses geometric forms to create optical illusions. The term “Op Art” is short for optical art. With the formal movement beginning in the 1960s, op artists explore theories of optics, perception and color theory by creating geometric patterns that create optical illusions and often give the viewer the impression that the artwork is somehow in motion.
Notable Op Artwork
History of Op Art
Optical illusions date back to ancient Greece and were used to explore the complexities of human vision and the human mind. Hidden images were a popular form of optical illusion, especially in the 19th century when scientists were particularly interested in the mechanics of visual illusions. Optical illusions later became popular in society as a form of entertainment and were used casually among friends, in books and magazines, and even in stage productions. Eventually, optical illusions made their way into the art world.
The use of optical illusions in modern art and contemporary art is often called optical art. Optical art was a form of abstract art that was initially popular in New York City and most European countries, later expanding into South America. The term Op Art was officially coined in 1964 in relation to major developments in the op art movement. Time magazine coined Op Art as a form of specifically non-objective art, or abstract art, that used painting illusionism to produce optical illusions. At first, many art critics disliked op art for its graphic, almost commercial aesthetic.
Like any other art movement, the techniques and style central to optical art developed over time and with inspiration from previous modern art movements. Neo-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism and Dadaism all serve as precursors to the Op Art movement. Each movement had its own unique treatment of color and form that eventually combined to influence optical art.
Artists like Francis Picabia, Victor Vasarely and John McHale had been making optical paintings, what would later be described as op art works, since the 1920s and 1930s. Works like Francis Picabia’s Optophone I from 1921-22 and Victor Vasarely’s painting Zebras from 1938 are examples of op art’s characteristic look: bands of black and white lines that appear to pop out of the painting and into the viewer’s space while simultaneously floating backwards in the picture plane. Creating this ambiguous sense of spatial depth would disorient the viewer’s perception of what is in the foreground and what is in the background.
Trompe-l’œil, the technique of depicting objects as if they existed in three-dimensional space, was also of particularly strong influence despite its historically hyper-realistic depiction of subject matter. Dada and Surrealist artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí used trompe-l’œil and optical illusions in their photographs, paintings and even sculptures.
Op art is sometimes referred to as perceptual art or retinal art because it creates a visual experience based on how human vision functions. The illusion of movement and the interaction of colors were key aspects of op art because they could be combined to explore the ability of art to challenge the notion of perception on a physiological level. While other movements were challenging the limits of conceptual perception, or the understanding of multiple concepts within and beyond one work of art, op artists challenged what viewers actually saw in the art.
In the late 1960s, the success of op art peaked despite the disapproval of critics who saw the movement as trivial. In 1965, the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition called The Responsive Eye, whose variety of paintings represented op art as an intersection between art and science.
Later Developments in Op Art
While op art began as a movement in optical painting, artists such as Hungarian photographer László Molohy-Nagy produced photographs in the same style. Moholy-Nagy also taught photographic op art in the Bauhaus, the German school founded by Walter Gropius, and influenced many photographers to continue in this style. The Bauhaus was an important part of establishing the relationship between op art, psychological research and unified, functional artwork and design.
Kinetic art is an artistic movement that is very closely related to op art. The main difference between the two movements is that kinetic art generally uses three-dimensional forms to create illusions, whereas op art creates the illusion of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface. Kinetic artists also present unified works as kinetic expressions based on optical illusions.
The graphic and color effects of op art eventually made it popular within commercial contexts, such as advertising, which led to a fall in popularity in the art world by 1968. However, artists and architects continued to explore optical effects and the human mind. Because of its almost mathematical placement of lines and shapes, op art also appeals to contemporary artists and viewers. The use of digital media in art production expanded the possibilities of op art to create optical illusions that continue to mesmerize viewers around the world.
Op Art Techniques
Op art often combines distinctly different elements to create a stark contrast between the foreground and background of an artwork. Using black and white lines and abstract patterns to create geometric abstraction is one of the most popular ways that artists created op art. Usually, the black and white lines were arranged in close proximity to each other, often creating an after-image of certain colors that seemed to vibrate or flash in and out. In op art, positive and negative spaces complement each other and are equally important to the creation of the optical and luminous phenomenon.
In Theory of Colours, German scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe contends that the illusion of color appears at the edge where light and dark meet because lightness and darkness are two foundational properties in the creation of color . This is why our retinas perceive there to be color at the intersection of repeated black and white lines and geometric shapes such as black and white grids.
While black and white op art was more popular earlier on in the movement, artists such as Bridget Riley, Julian Stanczak and Richard Anuskiewicz eventually began to create colorful op art. Artists often used complementary colors in color-based op art because complementary colors (colors opposite to each other on the color wheel) create vivid, simultaneous contrast. This contrast was used to create depth in a composition and produce a wider range of effects on the eye than the black and white works. Works such as Kezdi-Ga from 1970 by French Hungarian op artist Victor Vasarely use color to create a more intense illusion of three-dimensional shapes and space. The architectural shape of the entire composition seems to protrude from the paper’s surface and toward the viewer.
References von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. (1810, 1970). Goethe’s theory of colour. London: New Knowledge.
Notable Op Art Artists
- Bridget Riley, b. 1931, English
- Richard Anuskiewicz, 1930-2020, American
- Josef Albers, 1888-1976, German
- Richard Allen, 1933-1999, English
- John McHale, 1922-1978, English
- Vera Molnár, b. 1924, Hungarian
- Victor Vasarely, 1906-1997, Hungarian-French
- Frank Stella, b. 1936, American
- Jean-Pierre Yvaral, 1934-2002, French
- Jesús Rafael Soto, 1923-2005, Venezuelan
- Carlos Cruz-Diez, 1923-2019, Venezuelan
- Larry Poons, b. 1937, American
- Jeffrey Steele, 1931-2021, English
Related Art Terms
- Abstract Art
- Optical Illusion
- Kinetic Art