A writer for Time magazine coined the term "Op Art" in a 1964 article anticipating an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The popular show, entitled "The Responsive Eye," prominently featured works by Optical artists who, beginning in the late 1950s and 1960s, created paintings and graphic designs that effectively played with the way human beings see. With machine-like precision, Op artists painted swirling lines and checkered grids that seemed to flicker and vibrate, heave and billow, and change color. Op works were extolled in the popular press as refreshingly neat and mechanical; they appeared scientific and enjoyed popularity with a post-World War II American public consumed with lust for gadgetry, modern appliances, and atomic power.
Op Art started mainly as a reaction to the high spiritualism of prevalent post-war movements like Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting. While abstractionists and action painters attempted on their canvases to express the inner-world of their emotions and philosophical yearnings, Op artists joined a wider cultural movement to de-mystify the creative process and recapture it from an increasingly elite class of artists and scholars. Op artists therefore made a direct appeal to the spectator; they relied upon viewers' eyes to complete their works, to physiologically dissolve and expand the space between lines, to mix colors, and to generate afterimages. "There must be no more productions exclusively for the cultivated eye, the sensitive eye, the intellectual eye… " wrote the Groupe de Recherche in their 1964 Op manifesto. "The human eye is our point of departure." The fact that over the course of the 1960s advertisers and fashion designers lifted Op paintings for use on billboards, t-shirts, bathing suits, and dresses, for instance, only served to bolster proud assertions that Op was art for the masses.
Yet unlike Pop Art, which similarly aimed at closing the gap between art and life, Op Art attracted attention mostly because of its scientific character. Indeed, in the cultural climate fostered during the 1950s by the Cold War, many might have viewed Op Art, with its foreign language manifestos and proletarian sympathies, as a threatening import from the European Left. During the age of the space race, however, anything couched in science and technology carried cachet. Op Art not only appeared computer-generated, it was also partly a product of well-known seminars taught by scientist-painters like Josef Albers at Harvard and Yale. In fact, in 1965 Yale Scientific Magazine devoted an entire issue to Op Art, claiming that the movement served "as an example of the interrelationship of science and the humanities in the modern world."
The 1960s' psychedelic movement in its own way also championed Op Art. Timothy Leary's widely imitated "celebrations" at the Village Theater on Second Avenue included Op designs in multimedia shows intended to simulate drug-induced experiences. Popular and commercial psychedelic art erupting out of San Francisco at the time similarly incorporated Op designs. Famous concert posters, comic strips, album covers, and concert stage sets inspired by hippie guru Ken Kesey's "Acid Tests" regularly borrowed Op's radial images and distorted checker boards for use alongside Day-Glo Pop Art images and art nouveau lettering.
Outside the Ivy League and beyond the world of the psychedelic underground, Op thrived as fashion design. A 1965 Vogue magazine cover featured a model's face overprinted with an Op pattern, while Harper's Bazaar celebrated a new line of dotted and checkered dresses perfect for mixing in the "Op scene." It was the borrowings of the fashion industry that finally provoked British artist Bridget Riley to rail against the way her art was being "vulgarized" and to sue an American clothing manufacturer over the use of one of her paintings as a dress pattern.
Predictably, the same qualities that made Op popular with news magazines and fashion reporters made it vulnerable to attacks in the art world. Many critics dismissed Op Art as trendy kitsch, as mere gimmickry devoid of serious content. Others, however, highlighted the movement's ties to venerated investigations in optics conducted by the Impressionists and painters like Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, and Piet Mondrian. Other than Riley and Albers, the most famous Op artists include Victor Vasarely, J. R. Soto, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Julio Le Parc.
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"Op Art: Pictures that Attack the Eye." Time. October 23, 1964.
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Yale Scientific Magazine. Vol. XL, November, 1965.