Richard Anuszkiewicz - Biography and Legacy
American Painter, Printmaker, and Sculptor
Englewood, New Jersey
Biography of Richard Anuszkiewicz
Richard Anuszkiewicz was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, the only child of Polish immigrant parents - though his mother was already a widow with five children. Despite growing up in a family of modest means, Anuszkiewicz would later recall: "I really had a very happy childhood and never wanted anything ... I had companionship, affection, all the good things." He loved art as a child and drew every day, supported by his parents. His father, who operated a machine at a paper mill, encouraged him by bringing pads of paper home for him to use. His family was devoutly Catholic, and he attended Catholic grade schools, where he was given extra time to draw as a result of his excellent academic performance. In 1944 he transferred to Erie Technical High School, attending art classes for three hours every day. In these classes he learned about Impressionist color theory, the theory of complementary colors, and the spectrum prism. Even in high school his approach to painting was very disciplined. He would set himself the challenge of mixing a broad range of tones from a limited palette of three or four colors. His art teacher encouraged him to enter competitions, many of which he won, including a major prize in his senior year in the 1947 National Scholastic Art Awards and, ultimately, a full scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Early Training and Work
At the Cleveland Institute of Art, Anuszkiewicz began to simplify his representational scenes into abstract designs. In the summer of 1950, between his sophomore and junior years, he experimented with plein-air painting on Cape Cod with the painter Henry Hensche, who deepened his understanding of the Impressionist movement by teaching him about the Impressionist technique of mixing colors on the canvas. In his final academic year at Cleveland, 1952-53, he was awarded a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship to study art in Europe. However, feeling his urgent need was to learn more about the principles of color, he decided instead to attend Yale School of Art and Architecture to study with the renowned artist, and color theorist Josef Albers, then chairman of the Department of Painting.
Albers was a former teacher at the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, who had already taught a generation of American modern artists such as Cy Twombly, and whose precisely conceived theories of color combination, later expounded in his book The Interaction of Color (1963), fostered a deep understanding of color relationships amongst countless educators and art students. Albers was a formidable and exacting teacher, strengthening his students' perceptual abilities through exercises based on observation and experiment. Anuszkiewicz graduated from Yale with a Master in Fine Art in 1955, learning Bauhaus and Constructivist-influenced principles of simplified abstract art, as well as Paul Klee's theories of color interaction. Anuszkiewicz's work became more and more abstract as he began to imbibe these concepts more and more. He also became interested in the science of perception and optics, reading the perceptual psychologist Rudolph Arnheim's book Art and Visual Perception, which inspired the topic of his graduate thesis, A Study of the Creation of Space with Line Drawing. The work undertaken towards the thesis benefitted him greatly, and line became an important compositional tool in his work, second only to color combination. Beginning in his second year at Yale, he roomed with his Cleveland friend (and future influential Op Artist) Julian Stanczak, who was also of Polish descent. The two students took field trips together to New York City to see paintings by the Abstract Expressionists and other artists whose use of color excited Anuszkiewicz, including Stuart Davis, Ben Shahn, Henri Matisse, and Pierre Bonnard.
After graduating from Yale, Anuszkiewicz moved back to Ohio, earning a teaching degree to supplement his income from art. He graduated from Kent State University in 1956 with a Bachelor of Science in Education. In Ohio, away from the overt influence of Albers, he began to develop the style for which he is best-known, creating abstract compositions from high-intensity contrasts of warm and cool colors. He also experimented with the interaction of complementary colors under different light conditions. By the early spring of 1957, at the age of 27, he had created enough paintings to move to New York City and show his work to galleries.
In New York, Anuszkiewicz was initially met with rejection. Gallerists still caught up in the emotional intensity of Abstract Expressionism were not used to seeing work of such precision and preemptive compositional intelligence. Nonetheless, Anuszkiewicz continued to develop his painting technique while holding down various odd jobs, experimenting further with contrasting colors, and also exploring the possibilities of repeated shapes and geometric forms. At the end of the 1950s he set off on a six-month tour of Europe, and when he returned to New York he was given a solo show at the Contemporaries Gallery in March 1960. After a slow start the show proved a resounding success. Alfred Barr, director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, bought the first painting, Fluorescent Complement, for the MoMA collection and other notable collectors followed suit. Following the success of this exhibition Anuszkiewicz quit his other jobs to devote himself full-time to painting. He also married Elizabeth (Sally) Feeney, a schoolteacher from East Orange, New Jersey, and the couple moved to Englewood, New Jersey.
The years that followed Anuszkiewicz's Contemporaries exhibition brought him increasing notoriety, and his technique developed. During 1962-63 he started using masking tape instead of painting freehand in order to create more precise geometric shapes and generate the razor-sharp division lines which would become his trademark. He and other Op Artists also started using Liquitex acrylic paint, which made it easier to create sharp edges and was available in a more 'modern' range of colors. In 1963 he exhibited five paintings in The Americans, a show at MoMA which was covered by TIME magazine, in an article featuring his work. LIFE magazine also displayed his painting Mercurian in The Fire on their cover in December 1964, describing Anuszkiewicz as the "New Wizard of Op."
In 1965 Anuszkiewicz was included in The Responsive Eye at MoMA, a landmark exhibition which helped Op Art to break through into the mainstream. Among the many works on display, only the British painter Bridget Riley's attracted comparable attention to Anuszkiewicz's dazzling compositions. The New York Times called him "one of the brightest stars in The Responsive Eye", "a virtuoso technician whose sizzling colors arranged in symmetrical bands, stripes and squares almost jump from canvas to eye", who "might already be called an op old master". Not all reviews were so favorable though. A New York Times editor, Lester Markel, wrote a letter condemning the favorable review which his own newspaper had given, stating that Op Art "is fascinating as a technique, but it is not art at all."
Fame and more shows followed, including at the prominent Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. This exhibition included some of Anuszkiewicz's Sol series, each painting from which consisted of a centered square within another of a brightly contrasting color, an approach very reminiscent of Josef Albers's Homage to the Square series. A major retrospective of Anuszkiewicz's work followed at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and he was included in H.H. Arnason's influential primer History of Modern Art. His work became highly mechanical and mathematical, described by John Canaday of The New York Times as "dazzling", "works of art created entirely by calculation", "executed with mechanical precision", but nonetheless "really beautiful". The demand for Anuszkiewicz's paintings became so great that his gallery could not keep up with the requests.
By the mid-stage of his career Anuszkiewicz was working primarily on extended sequences of works. In 1970 he began the series known as Portals, a set of paintings consisting of upright rectangles formed from soft colors with vertical lines breaking up the color field and framing central, luminous rectangles. This led in turn to his Spectral series in the mid-1970s, first shown at his new gallery, the Andrew Crispo Gallery. This series was even more mathematical in compositional approach than his previous work, consisting of predominantly light colors in cool and warm hues that played off against one another within carefully measured geometrical frameworks, set around a central square.
In the 1980s Anuszkiewicz began his Centered Square, a set of works which possessed a certain aura of classical austerity. Increasingly, Anuszkiewicz focused on creating the optical sensation of a shimmering atmosphere of color, that seem to radiate from the canvas, an effect that became known as 'film color.' The central squares in these works can therefore be seen as either solids or as brilliant planes of light. During 1981-84 he was also working on the Temple Series, inspired by a trip to Egypt in 1981. These monumental works possess a kind of inner luminosity as well as an implied three-dimensional monumentality. With his Translumina series, which he developed over twenty years, he began working with explicitly sculptural effects and media, creating large-scale wood constructions in low relief, and also working with sheets of aluminum and steel. In 2000 he created a series dedicated to Piet Mondrian, also with painted steel. He continued throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century to compose works using acrylic on canvas, including a series based on the Twin Towers in 2011.
Anuszkiewicz still lives and paints at his home in Englewood, New Jersey, never signing his paintings on the front because he does not want to compromise the precise visual effect of his carefully planned compositions. His signature is not necessary, though, to identify these remarkable works, created methodically and consistently on a compositional model perfected over more than half a century. From a recognisiable set of antecendents - including Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Constructivism, and Concrete Art - Anuszkiewicz has created a unique oeuvre which, while it played a crucial role in defining the parameters of Op Art, still continues to develop, reminding us afresh how colors placed side by side can cause a pulsating feeling, and the illusion of movement and vibration.
The Legacy of Richard Anuszkiewicz
Anuszkiewicz's geometric paintings dazzle the mind and eye with their exquisite use of color, seeming to glow with an inner light. In a 1985 New York Times article, David Shirey wrote: "[w]e would not know so much about color today, nor feel so much about it, were it not for Richard Anuszkiewicz. He has changed the way we think about and respond emotionally to color, and has even affected our spiritual response to it." His work has inspired us, challenged us, and, in poetic fashion, connected us with our spirits. In Anuszkiewicz's words: "[l]ike the Impressionists, I want the viewer to mix the colors in his eye. I do not want to mix them on the palette. This way, I get greater intensity of color and greater purity, too. Unlike the Impressionists, however, I've freed such explorations from subject matter and discovered greater freedom in non-objective art."
Anuszkiewicz is considered one of the founders and giants of Op Art in America, although he maintains that he doesn't belong to a group, and his work has also been described as perceptual art and scientific art. In the era since that movement was defined and celebrated (roughly speaking the first half of the 1960s) his work has either been rebelled against - for example by Minimalists such as Donald Judd - or praised, criticized or emulated. But it has rarely been ignored. In pop culture, meanwhile, his work, and that of the Op Art movement more generally, would prove influential on the fashion, advertising and music industries.
These external responses to Anuszkiewicz's art, however, have rarely impacted on the personal vision which has guided his development. His longevity, meanwhile, has ensured that this vision continues to invigorate the Op Art movement half a century after its conception. As Dennis Dooley wrote: "Anuszkiewicz's paintings force us, again and again, and in wonderfully imaginative ways, to reflect on our experience as human beings in a physical world - as well as one defined by cultural associations."