Op Art

Article excerpt

Op Art Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt February 17 to May 20

Op Art--the termed coined by an anonymous journalist writing in late 1964 for Time magazine--has always had the reputation for being the somewhat vacant party-animal of the post-1950 Avant Garde. When William Seitz of the Museum of Modern Art, New York opened 'The Responsive Eye' in 1965, he probably did not expect the exhibition to be the most popular in the museum's history to that date. Clement Greenberg--ever vigilant against Dionysian infections of Modernism's 'disembodied opticality'--despised Op Art for its ease, familiarity and degradation of 'true' avant-garde art into a middlebrow spectacle. For some, Op Art was too much of a popular phenomenon to be considered serious as art, despite its implicit warning of the consequences of the bureaucratisation of the senses and the dominance of the visual at the exclusion of the visceral. Op Art's subsequent commercialisation and exploitation on a truly mass scale seemed to undermine its credibility as art and prove Greenberg's point. From Larry Aldrich's misguided use of Bridget Riley's paintings as textile patterns, all the way up to the worthy idealisations of Victor Vasarely, Op Art--so its detractors claimed--revealed itself to be incapable of understanding its own limits as modernist critique and thereby became complicit with its own trivialisation in everyday life. The dream of Op Art as 'the plastic aspect of community', a true social art, turned into a nightmare of opportunism in plastic.

'Op Art', curated by Martina Weinhart, is an exhibition of extraordinary depth and scholarship that brings us back to the essential themes of optical and kinetic art and succeeds in debunking the claims about Op Art advanced by hack and highbrow alike. As much as any exhibition on this period you are likely to encounter, this one will profoundly alter your view of Op Art. The picture that is most clearly transmitted is that of an international artistic practice that successfully utilised technically and theoretically sophisticated resources to challenge the position of modernist painting through a radical alteration of the conditions of spectatorship. Through its insistence on the universality of perceptual experience and the conjunction of vision and movement, Op Art aimed to bring down the lumbering self-satisfied beast of Abstract Expressionism, Tachisme and other practices promoted through expressive gesture overdetermined by subjectivity and by reference to an exalted view of individual genius.

The exhibition puts paid to the idea that Op Art--as unfortunate a bit of nomenclature as has ever been thrust upon an artistic practice--is solely about taking visual perception to the extreme. It is true that Seitz's 1965 exhibition was instrumental in fixing this idea in the mind of an American public, yet 'The Responsive Eye' was essentially an exhibition about painting that attempted to reduce a vibrant Avant Garde to a more manageable scale. A more accurate treatment of the phenomenon--one more aligned to the actual historical unfolding of this tendency in Europe--would necessarily include works of kinetic art, environmental installations and performance alongside the optically irritating works that have come to narrowly define Op Art in the public's mind. …