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Op Art - History and Concepts

Op Art Collage

Started: 1964

History and Concepts


The term "Op art" may have been first used by artist and writer Donald Judd, in a review of an exhibition of "Optical Paintings" by Julian Stanczak. But it was made popular by its use in a 1964 Time magazine article, and its origins date back many years. One could see its roots in 19th-century art and color theory, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's writings on color, and particularly in the Neo-impressionist paintings of Georges Seurat.

However, the style we now know as Op emerged from the work of Victor Vasarely, who first explored unusual perceptual effects in some designs from the 1930s. It was given a further boost by the group show Le Mouvement at Galerie Denise Rene in Paris in 1955, and later by a series of international exhibitions exploring what was known for a time as the "New Tendency." Vasarely's work soon attracted followers across the world: Bridget Riley, who, like Vasarely, had worked in advertising, took up the style (soon achieving even more prominence than Vasarely) and many South American artists, mainly residing in Paris, also worked in an Op mode.

The pinnacle of the movement's success was 1965, when the Museum of Modern Art embraced the style with the exhibition The Responsive Eye, which showcased 123 paintings and sculptures by artists such as Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesus Rafael Soto, and Josef Albers. Many museum attendees were intrigued by the collision of art and science, but critics such as Clement Greenberg were vehemently opposed to the movement. The breadth of exhibitions such as The Responsive Eye also cast doubt on the movement, since by including artists such as Frank Stella, whose interests were so different from those of Vasarely, the label seemed almost too broad to be useful or plausible.

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Op artists were typically concerned with the behavior of the eye, and they developed abstract compositions to explore a variety of optical phenomena. After-images, moire effects, dazzling, and all kinds of other effects resulting from the eye's struggle to read an image were of interest to them. The movement never produced a coherent body of ideas, and the range and scope of its artists' interests made the Op art label seem very flexible. Yet the fact that the label could embrace them shows how important vision and its effects have been throughout modern art.

Typically, Op artists used only black and white in order to produce the greatest contrast in their designs, since this contrast causes the greatest confusion for the eye, which struggles to discern which element of the composition is in the foreground and which in the background. But color was also a focus of attention at times, as in Vasarely's Plastic Alphabet series (1960-1980). The ways in which color suggests space, and the ways colors contrast with one another, proved fertile areas for experiment.

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Later Developments

Although the highly complex perceptual effects created by Op artists were embraced by the general public, many art critics considered the phenomena to be a fleeting and somewhat gimmicky trend. Commercial success may have led to the decline of the movement, in particular after some artists discovered that their work designs were borrowed by American clothing manufacturers. Op art elements were also translated into posters, t-shirts and book illustrations. Audiences who initially embraced the movement later denounced it as nothing more than tricks of the eye. Although the movement lost popularity by 1968, the systematic optical effects continue to be explored in visual art and architecture.

Key Artists

Victor VasarelyVictor Vasarely
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Bridget RileyBridget Riley
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Frank StellaFrank Stella
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Jesus Rafael SotoJesus Rafael Soto
Josef AlbersJosef Albers
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Richard AnuszkiewiczRichard Anuszkiewicz

Most Important Art


"There was a time when meanings were focused and reality could be fixed; when that sort of belief disappeared, things became uncertain and open to interpretation."
Bridget Riley Signature
"Every form is a base for color, every color is the attribute of a form."
Victor Vasarely Signature
"Focusing isn't just an optical activity, it is also a mental one."
Bridget Riley Signature
"I have never sought to show reality caught at one precise moment, but, on the contrary, to reveal universal change, of which temporality and infinitude are the constituent values. The universe, I believe, is uncertain and settled. The same must be true of my work."
Jesus Rafael Soto

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