Inspired by the innovative use of color in Bauhaus art, Hungarian painter Victor Vasarely (1906-1997) developed his own abstract-geometric visual language, exploring the relationship between pure form and pure color. Vasarely`s experimentation with optical effects in the 1940s and 50s earned him a central role in the evolution of Op Art. By the late 50s and early 60s, he concentrated on the "democratization of art" by no longer producing his works as expensive originals but in large editions of affordable screen prints; this attempt to redefine the position and function of the artist in society was an important first step in the Pop Art movement. Vasarely`s boldly colorful and eye-popping paintings are instantly recognizable and remain entirely modern and relevant today.
OP ART, a major development in the 1960s of painting that created optical effects for the spectator. These effects ranged from the subtle, to the disturbing and disorienting. Op painting used a framework of purely geometric forms as the basis for its effects and also drew on colour theory and the physiology and psychology of perception. Leading figures were Bridget Riley, Jesus Raphael Soto, and Victor Vasarely. Vasarely was one of the originators of Op art. Soto's work often involves mobile elements and points up the close connection between Kinetic and Op art.
Victor Vasarély (1908-1997), French painter, sculptor, and graphic artist of Hungarian birth, who is recognized not only as the creator of Op Art but of one of the most successful Op Artists.
He was born in Pécs and, forsaking the medical studies he had begun in Budapest, attended the Polodini-Volkmann Academy in 1927, then (1928-1929) the Mühely Academy (the “Bauhaus of Budapest”), where Laszló Moholy-Nagy was one of his teachers and where he encountered the work of Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, and Gropius. In 1930, he settled in Paris, where he initially worked as a commercial graphic artist. He acquired French nationality in 1959.
Vasarély's interest in geometrical abstractions, and the potential of using them to produce striking visual effects, began in the late 1940s. The basic components were squares, circles, and triangles, and horizontal and vertical parallel lines; by drawing lines at varying distances from one another and introducing undulations, Vasarély created the illusion of three-dimensional space. He later introduced vibrant colours, which further enhanced the optical illusion. In their fully developed form, Vasarély's geometrical abstractions produce mesmerizing, almost hallucinatory effects that entrap the eye and often create a very immediate sensation of movement. For example, VEGA PER (1969, Honolulu Academy of Arts) is a canvas covered with an overall pattern of red and green dots. By the manipulation of foreshortening and perspectival effects, the centre of the picture plane appears to balloon out at the viewer, in the manner of a net into which a football has been thrust. Other compositions lead the eye headlong into illusory tunnels or corridors formed by squares that “disappear” in the “depths” of the canvas. Vasarély called this technique “cinétisme”.
Vasarély's paintings are some of the most powerful examples of Op Art. He was very influential on younger Op Artists and was instrumental in forming the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel in Paris. A large collection of his work is on display in the Musée Vasarély, which the artist opened at the Château de Gordes, near Aix-en-Provence, in 1970. He also worked as a sculptor, and collaborated with architects, producing a mural and an aluminium relief for the University of Venezuela (1967) and contributing to the design of the French pavilion at Expo '67 in Montreal.
In his own words…
Excerpts from the “Notes Brutes” (Rough Notes) 1946-1960
1950 “I have faith in the advent of a polychrome and multidimensional technological art that will radiate as the first purely visual language void of any anecdotic or literary references.”
1950 “In the future, we will attend projected exhibits by contemporary artists. Two days will suffice to send a large show by envelope to any point in the globe. And in the attached letter, as in some sort of partition, in ciphers and terminology, the artist will present the initial and true conditions of his creation.”
1953 “The egocentric thought that has prevailed until today must become an expansive thought. Art must become generous and totally diffusible, and most of all, art must be truly contemporary and not posthumous. From now on, the new technologies are here to diffuse art instantaneously to the masses.”
1959 “I cannot prevent myself from feeling a troubling analogy between my “visual kinetics” (plastique-cinétique) and the ensemble of the micro and macrocosm. Everything is there: Space, Time, Bodies, and Waves, the relations and the fields. My art transposes nature thus one more time, this moment right now, the one of pure physics that renders the world physically comprehensible.”
1960 “The individual will never be capable of knowing it all. Therefore, electronics will always help us more and more to hem in the contours of this vast heap of knowledge, to locate the ones in relation to the others, and obtain an intuition of synthesis. No artistic creation of value is any longer conceivable without this global idea of the living world. We must therefore completely rethink the reasons of the creative step and its effect on fellow men. We now know that through the successive levels of the processes of complication of the unit-particle-wave we arrive at the human phenomenon. Art can no longer have a divine explanation, just a beautiful and very materialistic one.
1960 “The end of personal art for a sophisticated elite is near, we are heading straight towards a global civilization, governed by Sciences and Techniques. We must integrate visual sensibility (sensibilité plastique) into a correct world…”
1960 “The art of tomorrow will be a common collective treasure or it will not be art at all.”
Painting: Op's TopFriday, Feb. 02, 1968
"The whole of my life and work has been and is consecrated to the modern city," says Victor Vasarely, 59, France's great academician of op art. "For me, there is nothing more beautiful than New York, especially at night." Inevitably it follows that Vasarely lives in immaculate seclusion behind iron gates on a wooded estate at Annet-sur-Marne, 20 miles from Paris—and refused to journey to Manhattan even for the opening of his current show at the Sidney Janis Gallery.
Paradox is at the core of Vasarely's throbbing vistas of geometry; it creates the tension that gives them vibrancy and verve. Although the 50 paintings on view appear to be little more than decorative flat arrangements of squares, lozenges and ovals, in fact the shapes are knitted together in complex honeycombs to create rippling illusions of perspective and depth. Glowing with savage chartreuses, electric blues, racing-silk greens and murky purple shadows, his panels, priced at up to $14,500, have made Vasarely the darling of multimillionaire collectors, including the Rothschilds and the Aga Khan.
Olympic Shield. Despite such wealthy patronage, Vasarely has maintained in many a pamphlet and manifesto that art should be vastly more democratic. "In our modern society of consumption," he says, "everything is multiplied, from cars and refrigerators to country homes. One unique piece of art is an anachronism." An assembly line of ten assistants executes the paintings that he first drafts, then pastes up in prototype collages. Other aides turn out his serigraphs, tapestries, wood and Plexiglas constructions. Yet the multiples, priced at only $70 to $1,000, lack illusionistic finesse compared with the blazing oils and temperas that he supervises and touches up himself. In reality, his art is about as suitable to mass production as a Rolls-Royce.
"I have often experimented with my assistants," says the savant in some puzzlement. "Using exactly the same elements, none of them has been able to create an original work." Nonetheless, in the U.S. and Europe, he has spawned a host of op disciples. He has also played spiritual begetter to a younger generation of kinetic "visual researchers," led by his son Yvaral, who apply his democratic principles to mechanized art. Moreover, at Grenoble his work is at last being integrated into a "consecrated modern city" in the form of a giant aluminum shield for a skating rink at the Winter Olympics. What Vasarely would really like is to extend his designs to entire cityscapes. Toward that end he plans to open a study center in 1969 where urbanologists, architects and artists can meet. Their goal, as set by Vasarely, will be "to improve the plastic beauty of the city housing development, as indispensable to man's health as vitamins or love."
Art: Something to Blink AtMonday, Jun. 22, 1970
Some artists are convinced that pleasing the eye is no virtue. They call themselves visual researchers, and their wriggly art is as readable as Dr. Jekyll's new, improved eye chart.
Chief visual researcher is Victor Vasarely, 56, a Hungarian who has lived in Paris since 1930. He lives as immaculately as he paints, speaks more like a physicist than a painter. Says he: "I do not like to use the word painting to describe my works; they are plastics." Then he asks: "What remains of the Muses, who inspired beautiful souls, under the hard light of biochemistry, genetics or bionics?" Answer: plastic art. Vasarely weaves zebra-ziggly patterns that actually seem to move on their white backgrounds.
Vitamin Vision. Mondrian and other constructivists were forerunners of calculated geometry. But Mondrian, explains Vasarely, "was still abstracting natural forms, the sea or a tree. My plastic abstractions are composed of pure form and pure colors with no relation to natural structures at all. By 1955 I had developed a plastic alphabet of 30 simple geometric forms and 30 basic interchangeable colors." The A of his alphabet is the square, and the rest proceeds through ovals, rhombi, etc., in a code of images down to the Z shape itself. With these pictorial tools, he broadcasts winnowing waves like those on a TV set after the last late show ends. They are, he says of his works now at London's Brook Street Gallery, Paris' Gallery Denis Rene and Manhattan's Pace Gallery, "a nourishment for all, just like consciousness, rhythm, song or vitamins."
The master has pupils that he has never even met. One is U.S. Painter Richard Anuszkiewicz (TIME, July 19). Another is Bridget Riley, 32, whose visual torments are on view in London's Whitechapel Art Gallery. Precise black and white herringbone lines constantly wriggle, peak and valley, in an embodiment of vertigo. Visitors have become nauseated and dizzied by Riley's intense, chattering images that force their eyes to jerk to and fro. Not simply geometric tricks, they are larger than sheer optical delusions: orderliness clashes with chaos in the precarious proximity of black and white bands. They also teach that man cannot always master his senses.
Math Book Muse. A slight, trim, brunette bachelor girl, Bridget Riley is now a Jill-of-all-trades in the London office of the advertising empire of J. Walter Thompson. She spent her youth during the blitz in Cornwall and Lincolnshire, which she calls "a fascinating horizontal landscape, terrifically recessional." After three years at the Royal College of Art, she began following her pointillist god Seuiat and the interpenetrating planes of Italian futurism. Now she lives in a bone-white flat with white-painted floors as stark as her work. She designs on graph paper, often resorts to math books for inspiration, turns the actual execution over to apparently myopic artisans to reproduce on canvas.
The art of visual research is often challenged as phony. Yet in the permutations of pattern that sometimes hurt and sometimes enchant human vision lie the power and the challenge to change reality. As Bridget Riley says, "I wish somebody would give me a big wall to destroy. I mean, to make it no longer seem a wall."
Art: Craftsman for Today, Dreamer for Tomorrow
VICTOR VASARELY'S first visit to the Provengal village of Gordes was decisive. "Southern towns and villages devoured by an implacable sun have revealed to me a contradictory perspective," he wrote. "Never can the eye identify to what a given shadow or strip of wall belongs: solids and voids merge into one another, forms and backgrounds alternate, a given square jumps up or slithers downward depending on whether I couple it with a dark green spot or a piece of pale sky. Thus, identifiable things are transmuted into abstractions and begin their own independent life." From that moment on, Vasarely's canvas was to become a visual theater expressing the permutations of light, space and movement—in short, what has come to be known as Op art.
That was 1948, and Vasarely has been returning to Gordes every summer since. Last week the whole village turned out to honor the sinewy Hungarian, who long ago was tacitly adopted as an honorary citizen. Down from Paris flew a host of artists, critics and dignitaries, led by Mme. Georges Pompidou, to attend the opening of the Vasarely Foundation in Gordes, a combination research center and public museum containing 1,500 ; of Vasarely's works. To house the foundation, the city rented " to the painter the massive 16th century Chateau de Gordes for a symbolic one franc a year.
Out of Folklore. Vasarely's debt to'Mondrian, Malevich and Seurat is apparent and acknowledged. But what Vasarely did was to build on the somewhat dry ideas of the Bauhaus and suffuse them with new life—the life of shifting perspectives, vibrant color harmonies and weighted geometric shapes. The deep, rich tonalities of such paintings as Chom and Axo-77, for which he often credits Hungarian folklore, are designed to give the viewer a sense of balance and wellbeing. In other works, like Ond-JG, the illusion of bulging forms acts as a magnetic force pulling the viewer into the painting.
An articulate theoretician who prefers to be called a craftsman rather than a painter, Vasarely z was born in Hungary in 1908. He ° made a stab at medical studies. ; then signed up at the Budapest I Bauhaus, which had been established by the painter Bortnyik ' after a visit to Germany. In 1930, he went to Paris. There, he was able to make a living as a draftsman for several large publicity firms. He kept up his own experimenting on the side.
One of the most remarkable works of that period, Fille-Fleur, is at once colored with nostalgic memories of the bright costumes of his homeland and, in its ellipses and squares, prophetic of the direction that Vasarely would take. It was not until after the war that the artist, spurred on by the enterprising Paris dealer Denise Rene, was able to devote himself full time to his art. He read numerous scientific volumes and decided that Mondrian and Malevich had written fini to easel painting. "Pure physics suddenly revealed itself before my dazed eyes as the new poetic source," he recalls. By 1955, he had developed an alphabet —"planetary folklore," he calls it—composed of geometric forms and basic colors capable of infinite arrangements.
Today Vasarely, 62, lives in an 18th century villa on the outskirts of Paris, where he draws up coded "scores" with pencil and ruler for ten assistants to transfer onto canvas. The very idea of allowing assistants to do his paintings is considered heresy by some, but it is fundamental to Vasarely's belief that the unique work of art is a thing of the past. After all, he points out, "it is the original idea that is unique, not the object itself. There is such a great interdependence today that we do nothing alone. The artist may have the idea, but he depends on the chemist for his colors, and the engineer, architect and even the manufacturer help him realize it." Scornful of the practice of speculating in art, he deliberately seeks to subvert the system by selling only "enlargements" made by his assistants, never the original "score."
Double-Dealing. "I am like a Trojan horse," he says. "I allow my paintings to go to collectors in order to destroy this whole conception of the unique picture.
I admit this is a bit of double-dealing, but no one is willing to subsidize my work. I need collectors in order to live. Elementary dialectics tells us trail blazers to take what we need from the declining society in which we live while preparing its downfall."
Vasarely has long espoused something akin to esthetic socialism—the belief that art today must not be something "to tickle the senses" of the elite but a force in beautifying the environment for all. At his foundation, he hopes to accomplish just that by bringing together artists, sociologists and scientists to work on better urban design. Only through a marriage to architecture, he says, will art survive in the future. He dreams of a day when whole cities may be done in pastels or brilliant colors exploding like fireworks. Looking, presumably, more or less like Vasarelys.