Born April 9, 1908, in Pecs, Hungary; died of prostate cancer March 15, 1997, in Paris, France; naturalized French citizen, 1959; married Claire Spinner (an artist), 1930; children: Andre, Jean-Pierre. Education: Attended school in Budapest, until 1925; studied at Podolini-Volkmann Academy of Painting (Budapest), 1925-27, and Muhely Academy or Bauhaus School, 1928-30.
Painter and printmaker. Agence Havas, Paris, France, and Editions Draeger Freres, Montrouge, France, graphic artist, 1930-47. Independent artist, 1930-97: produced first paintings, 1944; first architectural integrations, 1954; Yellow Manifesto (kinetic works, films, and writings), beginning 1955. Founder, Vasarely Didactic Museum, Gordes Chateau, Vaucluse, 1970, Vasarely Foundation, Aix-en-Provence, France, 1971, Vasarely Museum, Pecs, Hungary, 1976, Vasarely Center, New York, NY, and 1978, Centre Vasarely, Oslo, Norway, 1982. Exhibitions: Individual exhibitions include Kovacs Akos Gallery, Budapest, Hungary, 1930; Ernst Museum, Budapest, 1933; Galerie Denise Rene, Paris, France, 1944, 1946, 1949, 1952, 1955, 1959-60, 1966, 1969, 1971-73, 1976; Ame Bruun Rasmussen Gallery, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1950; Samlaren Gallery, Stockholm, Sweden, 1952; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium, 1954, 1960; A.P.I.A.W., Liege, Belgium, 1954; Blanche Gallery, Stockholm, 1956; Galerie der Spiegel, Cologne, Germany, 1956, 1959, 1961, 1966; Rose Fried Gallery, New York, NY, 1958; Galleria del Grattacielo, Milan, Italy, 1958; Museo de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1958; Museum of Modern Art, Montevideo, Uruguay, 1958; Museum of Fine Arts, Caracas, Venezuela, 1959; Galleria Lorenzelli, Milan, 1961; Galerie Le Point Cardinal, Paris, 1961-62, 1964; Artek Gallery, Helsinki, Finland, 1961-62; World House Galleries, New York, 1961; Hanover Gallery, London, England, 1961, 1965; Kaare Bemsten Gallery, Oslo, 1962; Pace Gallery, Boston, MA, 1962; Taft Museum, Cincinnati, 1963; Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, 1963, 1967; Kunstkabinett Klihm, Munich, Germany, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover, Germany, 1963; Academie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1964; Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, Germany, 1964; Pace Gallery, New York, 1964-65; Kunsthalle, Berne, Switzerland, 1964; Hybler Gallery, Copenhagen, 1964; Brook Street Gallery, London, 1964; Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, 1964; Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Netherlands, 1964; Galerie Rene Ziegler, Zurich, Switzerland, 1964; Galleria Deposito, Genoa, Italy, 1965; Galerie Handschin, Basel, Switzerland, 1965; Galerie Muller, Stuttgart, Germany, 1965; Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, 1966, 1972, 1988; Hayden Gallery, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 1966; Brook Street Gallery, London, 1966; Overbeck-Gesellschaft, Lubeck, Germany, 1966; Gallery D, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1966; Aura Krognoshuset, Lund, Sweden, 1966; Larrnitiere, Rouen, France, 1966; Galerie Aktuell, Berne, 1966; De Cordova Museum, Lincoln, MA, 1967; Muzeum V, Moste, Czechoslovakia, 1967; Gallery D, Prague, 1967; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1967; Galerie Hans Meyer, Esslingen, West Germany, 1967; Galerie Pryzmat, Krakow, Poland, 1968; Galerija Suvremene, Zagreb, Yugoslavia, 1968; Galleria del Leone, Venice, 1968; Galerie Claude Nouel, Rouen, 1968; Centre de Culture, Neuchatel, Switzerland, 1969; Galeria Rene Metras, Barcelona, Spain, 1969; Gimpel and Hanover Galerie, Zurich, 1969; Museum of Fine Arts, Pecs, Hungary, 1969; Galerie Engelberts, Geneva, 1969; Galerie Les Contards, Lacost, France, 1969; Palace of Fine Arts, Budapest, 1969; Institut Français, Budapest, 1969, 1985; Galerie Veranneman, Brussels, 1970-71, 1973; Hungarian Institute, Paris, 1970; Knoll International, Paris, 1970; Barney Weinger Gallery, New York, 1970; Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville, Paris, 1970; Vision Nouvelle, Paris, 1970; Galerie Suzanne Egloff, Basel, 1971; Stratford Art Association, Ontario, Canada, 1971; Kunsthalle, Cologne, 1971; Chateau de Vacoeuil, France, 1971; Galerie Hans Mayer, Düsseldorf, 1971; Minami Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, 1971, 1974; Zellweger Building, Zurich, 1971; Glenbow Albert Art Gallery, Calgary, Canada, 1972; Galerie Municipale Marie-Therese Douet, Mentreuil, France, 1972 Galerie Argos, Nantes, France, 1972; Galerie Charles Kriwin, Brussels, 1972; Galerie Maurel, Nimes, France, 1972; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1972; Museum of Ludwigshafen-am-Rhein, West Germany, 1972; Galerie Formes Nouvelles, Lyons, 1972; Galerie Semiha Huber, Zurich, 1972, 1974; Galerie Schottenring, Vienna, 1972; Gallery Moos, Toronto, 1973; Galerie Philippe Reichenbach, Paris, 1973; Galerie Gulliver, Paris, 1973; Archers d'Art Plastiques, Dieppe, France, 1973; Musée de Meaux, France, 1973; Galerie des Arcades, Biot, France, 1973, 1977; Galerie Moser, Graz, Austria, 1973; Muséo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, 1973; Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1974; Galleria Annunciata, Milan, 1974; Heller Gallery, London, 1974; Galerie M-L Jeanneret, Geneva, 1974; Groupe Manouchian Sports Complex, Aubervilliers, France, 1974; Tour des Echevins, Luxeuil-les-Bains, France, 1974; Abbaye de Gard, Acquigny, France, 1974; Galleria La Borgogna, Rome, 1974; Casino-Kursaal, Ostend, Belgium, 1975; Sala della Cultura, Modena, Italy, 1975; Chateau de Cujan, Cher, France, 1975; Galeria Theo, Madrid, 1975; Galerie Bel'Art, Stockholm, 1975, 1977; Musée du Bastion Saint-Andre, Ramparts d'Antibes, France, 1975; Teheran Gallery, Teheran, Iran, 1975; Tel-Aviv Museum, Israel, 1976; Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf, 1976; Musée Postal, Paris, 1977; Kulturforum, Bonn, Germany, 1977; Galerie Mathilde, Amsterdam, 1977; French Institute, Stockholm, 1977; Galerie Nordenhake, Malmø, Sweden, 1977; Muséo de Arte Contemporaneo, Caracas, Venezuela, 1977; Vasarely Center, New York, 1978, 1982-83; Modern Art Museum, Monchengladbach, West Germany, 1978; Stadtisches Museum, Goslar, West Germany, 1978; Hilliard Collection, Munich, 1978; Centre Culturel Jacques Prevert, Villeparisis, France, 1978-79; Galerie Inard, Paris, 1978; Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1978; Phoenix Art Museum, AZ, 1979; Chateau de Rocheshouart, Limousin, France, 1979; Fondation Vasarely, Aix-en Provence, 1979-80; Chateau de Sedieres, Correze, France, 1979; Fundacao Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal, 1980; Konsthalle, Malmø, 1980; Galleri Homansbyen, Oslo, 1980; Galerie Heitman, Hannover, Germany, 1980; Junior Galerie, Vienna, 1980; Chateau-de-Val, Bort-les-Orgues, France, 1980; Galleria Planetario, Trieste, Italy, 1980; Ecole des Ingenieurs, Bienne, Switzerland, 1980; Young Gallery, San Jose, CA, 1980; Reading Public Museum, PA, 1980; Nanteshi Gallery, Tokyo, 1980; Royal Palace Gallery, Budapest, 1981; Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhe, Germany, 1981; Jazz Academy, Budapest, 1981; Midland Center of the Arts, MI, 1981; Hotel de Ville, Montelimar, France, 1981; Chateau de Vassiviere, Creuse, France, 1981; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chateauroux, France, 1982; Centre Vasarely, Oslo, 1982; Galeria Freites, Caracas, 1982; Hotel de Ville, Lucerne, 1982; Societe Hongroise de Secours Mutuel, Paris, 1983; Aktion Museum, Mistelbach, Austria, 1983; Galerie des Arcades de Blot, Alpes Maritimes, France 1983; Museum of Karcag, Hungary, 1983; Centre Vasarely, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, 1983; Hotel de Ville, Villeurbanne, France, (retrospective), 1984; Musée de Tauroentum, St. Cyr sur Mer, France, 1984; Town Hall, Leinfelden, West Germany, 1984; Artcurial, Munich, 1984; Palais des Papes, Avignon, 1985; Galeria S. Dubrownik, Smobor, Yugoslavia, 1985; Hotel de Ville, Villeurbanne, France, 1985; Espace Jacques Prevert, Aulnay-sous-Bois, France, 1985; Chapelle Belloin, France, 1985; Galerie du Quesne, Castillon du Gard, France, 1985; Galerie der Stadt Esslingen, Neckar, West Germany, 1986; Maison de la Lithographie, Paris, 1986; Musée National des Beaux-Arts, Algiers, 1986; Kunstkreis Sudliche Vergstrasse, Kraichgau, West Germany, 1986; Alliance Française, Bangkok, Thailand, 1986; Heimatmuseum, Gablitzhalle, Austria, 1986; Espace Belleville, France, 1986; Galerie Schemes, Lille, France, 1986; Maison Alexandré Dumas, Marly-le-Roi, France, 1986; Abbaye St. Germain, Auxerre, France, 1986; Galerie Lahumiere, Paris, 1986; Museum of the American Hungarian Foundation, New York, 1998; and Robert Sandelson Gallery, London, 2003. Group exhibitions include Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest, 1929; Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1947; Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, 1949; Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1953; World's Fair, Brussels, 1958; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1961; Tate Gallery, London, 1964; Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome, 1967; Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, 1970; Annely Juda Fine Art, London, 1973; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2004. Work included in permanent collections at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Tate Gallery, London; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Power Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia; Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montreal, Canada; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Art Institute of Chicago.
Guggenheim prize, 1964; first prize, São Paulo Biennial, 1965; Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), member, 1965, officier, 1985; Legion d'Honneur (France), chevalier, 1970, officier, 1981; Gold Medal, International Biennale of Graphics (Fredrikstad, Norway), 1974; Plastic Arts Medal, Academie d'Architecture (Paris, France), 1975; Bello Grand Sash of Honor (Caracas, Venezuela), 1977; D.H., Cleveland State University, 1977; Kaiserring prize (Goslar), 1978; certificate of distinction, New York University, 1978; Medal of the Order of the Flag of the Republic (Budapest, Hungary), 1978; Gold Centenary Medal, Bruckmann Verlag, 1978; Ordre du Merite (France), officier, 1978, commandeur, 1994; Officier du Merite Culturel (Monaco), 1980.
Notes brutes, introduction by Claude Desailly, Denoel/Gonthier (Paris, France), 1972.
Farbwelt, Chene (Paris, France), 1973.
Plasticien, R. Laffont (Paris, France), 1979.
One of the leading figures in the development of geometrical abstraction, Hungarian-born artist Victor Vasarely was known as the "father of Op Art." That short-lived movement, born in the 1960s, was a direct result of the visual experimentation Vasarely had been engaged in since the 1930s. As John Russell Taylor noted in the London Times, "In a characteristic Vasarely work, the shapes seem to move and change, even as our eyes travel over the surface of the picture, and the moment we move a foot or two everything changes again." Such an art, filled with stylized geometric shapes, was easy to mass-reproduce and evoked the "desire for an art of mesmerizing hyper-reality, a druggy, dreamlike quality," according to art critic Barry Schwabsky, writing in the New York Times, "that made it perfect for the era of Timothy Leary and Carlos Castaneda, 2001 and Sergeant Pepper." Schwabsky went on to note that "Vasarely's mature paintings and graphics succeed in attaining such strong and immediate perceptual effects, but their range is not wide." For Jay Merrick, writing in the Independent, Vasarely's "obsession with geometric deceits and colour combinations made [artist M. C.] Escher look quaintly pedestrian. Vasarely reinvented 3-D effects and made it possible to apply them to flat and sculpted surfaces."
That he and his Bauhaus-influenced experimentation should become the darlings of the hip movement was a surprise for Vasarely, then in his sixties. However, for a couple of decades his work, full of brightly colored geometric forms and optical illusions, found their way into museums, corporate headquarters, clothing design, and architecture. As Ellie Duffy noted in Building Design, Vasarely's "paintings and prints were widely reproduced and, in his heyday, he was second only to Picasso in popularity at auction." According to Schwabsky, it was "the ubiquity of [Vasarely's] graphics that made him anathema to the art world." However, this very ubiquity was one of Vasarely's goals, though it was not motivated by greed. Instead, he developed a philosophical credo of creating art for everyone. "Vasarely never believed in the uniqueness of the work of art," noted a contributor for the London Times in an obituary on the painter and printmaker. "To him the artist was simply an artisan who creates his artifacts at will and in volume, so that they can be accessible to the ordinary person." Dominic Lutyens, writing in the London Observer, further explained that, "Impeccably socialist, [Vasarely] believed art should have a collective appeal and not be the preserve of the rich." Therefore, Vasarely strove to make his art more and more accessible by creating large runs of his prints and by donating hundreds of his paintings to a foundation he established in France.
Hungarian Origins and French Career
Born Gyozo Vasarhelyi on April 9, 1908, in Pecs, Hungary, Vasarely changed his name once he immigrated to France. As a seven year old he was already demonstrating definite skill in drawing, but when he went to Budapest to study, it was medicine that first attracted him. However, he soon left his medical studies behind to study at the Podolini-Volkmann Academy from 1925 to 1927, and then at the Muhely Academy run by Sandor Bortnyik from 1928 to 1929. The Muhely school was also known as the Bauhaus of Budapest, after the German arts and craft school that was noted for its modern design and its dictum of form following function. While studying at the Muhely, Vasarely became acquainted with trends in modern art, including abstract art, and the work of Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky. He also gained an appreciation for qualities of various artistic and building materials, and worked on color theory by preparing color scales. During these years he supported his studies by working as a clerk.
Vasarely settled in Paris in 1930, married artist Clair Spinner, and had two boys, one of whom, Jean Pierre, later became the artist known as Yvaral. In Paris Vasarely worked for fifteen years as a commercial graphic artist and poster artist. As such, he used the principals he had learned from the Muhely Academy. According to Stephen Bann, writing in Grove Art Online, Vasarely's "work during the 1930s shows a sophisticated grasp of the techniques of applied art." At this early stage in his career, his work already demonstrates a keen interest in optical illusion, as can be seen in a poster advertising a textile treatment, Mitin. He also played with perspective in Study of Matter M. C. and the black-and-white checked designs of The Chessboard, from 1936. These early works used realistic objects—chessboards, zebras, and tigers—to initiate a program of optically challenging works, which he dubbed "optical kineticism." Such works also took the artist closer to surrealism, and he came to see that what he really wanted to achieve by his art was to make the viewer "think anew about space, matter and energy, as scientific phenomena," according to the contributor for the Times.
Turns to Painting
By the early 1940s Vasarely had turned his hand to painting and began exhibiting regularly at a gallery run by Denise René. By 1947 he had developed his own form of geometrical abstraction, and had also left his day job behind. For the next half century he would make his living as an independent artist. Influenced by the work of painters such as Piet Mondrian, he focused on reproducing certain landscapes into simplified geometrical abstraction. One of his favorite landscapes was the Breton island of Belle-Isle where he had a lasting insight about the nature of form and color. He felt that the two were inextricably linked and began to see his abstract work as being composed of color-form, or an "inner geometry of nature," as he termed it.
Increasingly Vasarely also researched color, optics, and visual perception, devising what Robert Waterhouse described in the London Guardian as a "systematic stylization of objective experiences." Such a synthesis "came in the phrase 'plastic unity,'" Waterhouse further noted, and Vasarely "came to consider himself a 'plastician' rather than an artist." Roberta Smith, writing in the New York Times, found that Vasarely's "optical patterns came with a strong, sometimes pretentious theoretical base." However, even at this early stage, according to Lutyens, Vasarely's style "was embryonically Op: typically black and white interlocking, but contradictory perspectives—jarringly juxtaposed concave and convex spheres [that] would later be a hallmark of his 60s Op canvases." Of course by the time he was well known internationally, Vasarely had left behind the simple black and white for vibrant colors.
In the 1950s Vasarely published numerous treatises and manifestos dealing with his use of optical phenomena in art. These years also saw him experimenting in kinetic art. He was additionally a strong proponent of combining art and architecture, and thus he not only drew urban and architectural designs, but also carried some of these out, as in his Vasarely Foundation building at Aix-en-Provence. One of the first works to demonstrate his new theoretical basis was Homage to Malevich, a black-and-white celebration of that suprematist's famous image of a black square on a white ground. According to Bann, the apotheosis of Vasarely's theories came in 1960 with the first of his Planetary Folklore series. As Bann wrote, the artist's theoretical goals "came to complete fruition" in these works "composed of an aggregate of 'plastic units' (geometric shapes of varying types and colours superimposed on an overall grid)."
International Fame and Legacy
Fame came to Vasarely in the 1960s and 1970s when he was hailed as the godfather of Op Art, pioneering forms that came to full fruition in the work of Bridget Riley and others of her generation. Vasarely's geometric designs were seen in galleries and on apartment wallpaper. Works such as Vega-Nor, from 1969, had museum-goers gazing into its depths as it seemingly bulged off the canvas at them. He also became a tireless self-promoter of his theories, opening his Foundation in southern France, a museum in Hungary and Norway, and a research center near Avignon. Unfortunately, once his fame passed, so too did the work. Vasarely was little heard of after the 1970s. His last years presented difficulties to the aging artist. The man put in charge of the Vasarely Foundation was found to have stolen and sold most of the artwork; long years of litigation followed with no new Vasarely sales. In his eighties Vasarely unsuccessfully battled prostate cancer and died in a Paris clinic on March 15, 1997. His wife of over sixty years had died several years before him.
Vasarely's reputation went into decline toward the end of his life; in fact at the time of his death, many were surprised by the obituary notices, believing he had died already. However, in the new century his designs found new life, inspiring some clothing designers and prompting retrospective exhibits. Corinne Julius, reviewing a 2003 London retrospective in the London Evening Standard, wrote that "Vasarely's work, which relies on the illusions created by the eye as it makes sense of a complex visual image, is once again influencing designers." Vasarely's importance as a pioneer of modern art accords him a place in art history texts. As Merrick noted, "without Vasarely's scintillating original creation of what became known as Op Art, Riley and a vast cascade of artists, designers, architects and corporate logo wallahs could not have emerged with such energy." For Merrick, the artist's "power lies in his acute understanding of colour in relationship to patterned forms." Similarly, Waterhouse noted that Vasarely's "strength came from the logical and imaginative reproduction of 'plastic unity'—working almost mechanically with what he saw as irreducible pictorial molecules, with a more enterprising end result than most fine art painters."
If you enjoy the works of Victor Vasarely
you may also want to check out the following:
The Op Art painters Jesús Rafael Soto (1923--), François Morellet (1926--), Richard Anuszkiewicz (1930--), and Bridget Riley (1931--).
Vasarely's impact and influence on computer art has also been acknowledged. Duffy commented that his paintings "still have enormous visual impact. But what is really astonishing is that they predicted the computer-generated visual aesthetic by more than 40 years." And Julius concluded that Vasarely was a "forerunner of computer art, and his mind-boggling designs illustrate the continuing fascination of optical illusion."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Contemporary Artists, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dahhan, Bernard, Victor Vasarely; ou, la connaissance d'un art meluculaire, Denoel/Gonthier (Paris, France), 1979.
Diehl, Gaston, Vasarely, Crown (New York, NY), 1985.
Hars, Eva, Vasarely, Corvina (Budapest, Hungary), 1983.
International Dictionary of Arts and Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Joray, Marcel, editor, Vasarely, translated by Haakon Chevalier, Editions du Griffon (Neuchatel, France), 1976.
LaMotte, Manfred de, Vasarely: Werke aus sechs Jahrzehnten, Klett-Cotta (Stuttgart, Germany), 1986.
Morgan, Robert C., Vasarely, George Braziller (New York, NY), 2004.
Spies, Werner, Victor Vasarely, DuMont Schauberg, 1971.
Vasarely (exhibition catalogue), Musée des Arts Decoratifs (Paris, France), 1963.
Vasarely: 22 novembre-22 decembre, 1973 (exhibition catalogue), Galerie Veranneman (Brussels, Belgium), 1973.
The Vasarely Didactic Museum at the Gordes Chateau, English edition, Musée Vasarely (Vaucluse, France), 1973.
Boston Herald, October 28, 2001, Mary Sherman, "Show Takes another Look at Optical Art," p. 63.
Building Design, June 13, 2003, Ellie Duffy, "Graphic Scenes," p. 18.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 14, 2003, Colin Gleadell, "'Op' Pioneer Gets His Stripes Back: Vasarely Sale," p. 21.
Evening Standard (London, England), May 14, 2003, Corinne Julius, "The Master of Optical Illusions," p. 18.
Independent (London, England), Jay Merrick, "The Original Pop Poster Boy: Victor Vasarely," p. 15,
New York Times, August 9, 1998, Barry Schwabsky, "An Optical Future Whose Time Passed," Section 14NJ, p. 15; July 2, 2004, Michael Kimmelman, "Modernism Wasn't So Modern After All," p. E2.
Observer (London, England), May 18, 2003, Dominic Lutyens, "Life Interiors: Kitsch in Sync," p. 44.
Scholastic Arts, December, 1995, "Exploding Squares," p. 11.
Times (London, England), June 11, 2003, John Russell Taylor, "Early Works Get the Bird," p. 19.
ArtCyclopedia,http://www.artcyclopedia.com/ (October 27, 2004), "Victor Vasarely."
Artists.org,http://www.the-artists.org/ (October 27, 2004), "Victor Vasarely."
Grove Art Online,http://www.groveart.com/ (October 27, 2004), Stephen Bann, "Vasarely, Victor."
Masterworks Fine Art,http://www.masterworksfineart.com/ (October 27, 2004), "Victor Vasarely."
Museum.Hu,http://www.museum.hu/ (October 27, 2004), "Vasarely Museum."
Guardian (London, England), March 17, 1997, Robert Waterhouse, "Sad End of a Dazzling Life: Obituary of Victor Vasarely," p. 13.
Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1997, p. 18.
Maclean's, March 31, 1997, p. 15.
New York Times, March 18, 1997, Roberta Smith, "Victor Vasarely, Op Art Patriarch, Dies at 90," p. B8.
Time, March 31, 1997, p. 31.
Times (London, England), March 17, 1997, p. 23.*
Victor Vasarely (born 1908), the Hungarian-French artist, was recognized as the greatest innovator and master of Op Art.
Victor de Vasarely was born in Pécs, Hungary, on April 9, 1908. As a young man he attended the Academy of Painting in Budapest (1925-1927) and then studied under Alexander Bortnyik at the Mühely, also known as the Bauhaus School of Budapest (1929-1930). The Bauhaus schools were noted for approaches to architecture and graphic design that were compatible with machine production of high quality and with well-designed objects and environments. At the Mühely, Vasarely became acquainted with the formal and geometrical styles of Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky and with William Ostwald's theory of color scales.
In 1930, Vasarely moved to Paris, and after that remained a resident of France. He married Claire Spinner; they had two sons. In the 1930s Vasarely was a graphic designer and a poster artist who frequently combined geometric pattern and organic representational images. His Study of Matter M.C. (1936) juxtaposed objects of varying scales—a zebra, a piece of hound's-tooth patterned fabric, a black glove —with a richly colored background of rhomboids. The illogic of bringing together diverse objects of widely varying size and scale brings to mind similar explorations of Surrealist art. In The Chessboard 2, a black-and-white checked design of 1936, Vasarely explored the visually vibrating effect of insistent pattern as well as the appearance of depth despite the use of flat shapes and the absence of modeling.
Vasarely wanted to create designs that were universal. A socialist, his goal was to produce an art that could be mass produced and affordable for everyone. He became fascinated with an art of pure visual perception without traditional themes and representational qualities.
In 1944 the Denise René Gallery of Paris exhibited Vasarely's black and white designs of the late 1930s. This was the first public showing of Vasarely's work. That same year he began painting, and in 1945 he had a second show, devoted to his oil paintings. It was well received, and the Surrealist poet and critic Andre Breton declared Vasarely to be a Surrealist artist. Vasarely was influenced by the style of Salvator Dali, whose images were painstakingly rendered for illusionistic effect despite the illogical juxtaposition of recognizable objects.
New Levels of Abstraction
By 1947 Vasarely had changed his style completely and came to regard his first three years of painting as a false start. From then on Vasarely's work was abstract and increasingly based on geometry. He was working to devise a new pictorial language for the masses. He repeatedly studied the landscapes of the Breton island of Belle Isle, radically simplifying scenes to transform nature into geometric shapes. Vasarely increasingly found his subject matter in the sciences—such as physics, biochemistry, and magnetic fields—and described his abstract art as "…poetic creations with palpable qualities capable of triggering emotional and imaginative processes in others." His art gave sensory forms to unperceivable phenomena.
Vasarely came to feel that color and form were linked in that each color and each form should share the same identity. He viewed his abstract art as composed of pure color-form which by its very abstractness signified the world through the limitless associations and responses of the viewer.
In the mid-1950s Vasarely began integrating architecture into his art and producing kinetic works, films and writings. The Denise René Gallery in 1955 had a pioneering show of kinetic art, "Le Movement." Among those represented were Vasarely, whose works employed the principle of optical movement. Vasarely's concern with optical perception had lead him to explore the effects of motion, not of the art object but of the viewer in relation to it. His works were composed of several overlapped sheets of Plexiglas on which black designs had been painted. The slightest motion of the viewer made the design seem to change and move as well. In conjunction with the show Vasarely issued his Yellow Manifesto, in which he discussed his theories of color and perception.
In Vasarely's black-white period of 1951-1963, he used compositions of stripes, checks, circles, or lines to explore the illusionistic effects he could achieve by modifying his patterns to give the impression of surface movement or of concave or convex forms, as in Andromeda (1955-1958). At the same time he developed the idea of eliminating the premise of the figure-ground relation, the image or central motif set against a ground plane or an environment, by filling the entire surface with uniform optical stimulation. In conjunction with this he often reversed a composition by inverting the black-white or color relationships. Paar 2 (1965-1975), a pair of black-and-white compositions juxtaposed to be seen as one, is composed of circles and squares which are graduated in scale. In one half the shapes are black on a white ground and in the other half white on black. Wherever circles are used in one half, squares appear in the other half. By graduating the scale of these shapes, the effect is of planes of shapes advancing and receding. The optical perception created a sort of visual vibration. As Vasarely asked, "isn't optics, even if illusion, a part of kinetics?"
Designing Mass-Produced Art
Vasarely felt that the uniqueness of a work of art and the artist's personal involvement in its execution were bourgeois notions. He worked in a manner that lent itself to mass production by modern technical processes. Limiting himself to flat lines, simple geometric shapes, and unmodulated color, Vasarely viewed himself as a "creator" of designs which could be inexpensively produced in the same, enlarged, or reduced scales. This was reflected in his method of conception. Working on graph paper, Vasarely made notations of letters (for the shape to appear in a given graphed square) and numbers (one through 16 to indicate the shade or value of a particular hue or color). By using simple geometric shapes and hues that were modified by his established scale of shades, he or others could produce copies of a design. In this way he produced art which he believed could benefit all of society by being available and affordable.
This claim for significance beyond personal aggrandizement found justification in the 1960s as Vasarely influenced groups of younger artists and his designs were widely reproduced in posters, fabrics and other images in mass circulation. While Op Art (Optical Art) had its zenith in the 1960s, Vasarely was recognized as its pioneer and greatest master. He continued to work in the Op Art style with an undiminished reputation into the 1980s and was widely honored. He established the Center for Architectonic Research and the Vasarely Foundation in Aix-en-Provence. In 1976 the Vasarely Museum was opened in the house in which the artist was born in Pécs, Hungary. To permanently house his works, the Vasarely Center was opened in New York City in 1978 and the Centre Vasarely opened in Oslo, Norway, in 1982. Vasarely's work in film and architectural design as well as his more famous art and graphic design earned him a prominent place in the history of modern art.
Vasarely's own writings include Plasticité (1969) and Vasarely (1978). Editions du Griffon of Neuchatel, Switzerland, has published three volumes—Vasarely (1963); Vasarely II (1970), and Vasarely III (1974)—which are invaluable sources for the visual study of the artist's work, though each volume has very little text. For biographies, see Werner Spies, Vasarely (1969) and G. Diehl, Vasarely (1972). F. Popper's Origin and Development of Kinetic Art has a section on Vasarely. □