The Return of Op: With Two Major Survey Shows on Op Art Running Almost Concurrently in Europe and the United States, We Asked Contributing Editor David Rimanelli and Art Historian Sarah K. Rich to Assess the Exhibitions and Reflect on the Resurgence of Interest In-And Contemporary Resonance Of-This Long-Moribund Movement

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Beautiful Loser: Op Art Revisited

SO WHY OP NOW? Some forty years after the Museum of Modern Art, New York, introduced Op art to the American public with its landmark 1965 exhibition "The Responsive Eye," two museums have mounted historical shows looking back: "Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s" at the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio (through June 17); and "Op Art" at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (through May 20). Both are ambitious curatorial efforts, distinct in certain relative emphases, and for that very reason providing in tandem an unusually rich perspective on a movement consigned by pretty much everyone to the dustbin of art history. Yet such impressive attentiveness only serves to raise the stakes with respect to the question, Why should we be looking at this midcentury anachronism again? What are we supposed to learn? The cynic no doubt wonders whether all those museum curators, academics, and artists who have been mining the '60s for good material finally found the well dried up--meaning, Op is all that's left to "rediscover." But then, looking again with a more self-conscious eye, one wonders if we might discover something more about ourselves if we consider Op--and, more specifically, "The Responsive Eye"--less in light of its art than of the cultural phenomena surrounding it. After all, the exhibition was in a sense the first contemporary art blockbuster: Remember the lines around the block to get in; the readymade "controversy" regarding Op's aesthetic viability; the media craze, complete with a documentary by first-time filmmaker Brian De Palma; the unprecedented public embrace of Op, attended by the rapacious commodification and virtually instantaneous ubiquity of the look; the mindless fun to be had! Everything contemporary art curators today wish their shows could be. (It is no denigration to curators that they desire more than a day in the sun, or that, in our preponderantly post-Warholian artistic weltanschauung, curators no less than artists and starlets think that fifteen minutes are no longer enough.) One explanation for this sudden reappearance of Op, in other words, is that it is a past moment that all too clearly anticipates our present, distinguished by the heretofore unimaginable mainstreaming of contemporary art, its vastly increased visibility to the general public, the star status of more artists than ever, the art world's attraction for the fashion and glamour press, and the fascination with money, so much money.

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Such was, at least, my initial thinking. Pressed on the subject of Op art before seeing these shows, I would probably have passively sided with Clement Greenberg, who dismissed Op as yet another misshapen species of "Novelty art" or "Good Design"--memorable put-downs that he also directed at most art of the '60s, whether Pop or Minimalism or myriad other manifestations of retrograde or plain phony aesthetic phenomena. (Greenberg either missed "The Responsive Eye" or deemed it beneath his notice; I can find no reference to it in his published writings.) But now I am compelled to reconsider the Op-is-junk bias. Op, regardless of its numerous contemporaneous detractors and of the dim fate usually accorded it by art history, is, in its best moments, a movement of keen visual, intellectual, and historical interest. That is what makes both the Columbus and Frankfurt excavations terrific: They restore Op as a subject of genuine fascination; they might even rescue forgotten careers, e.g., those of Carlos Cruz-Diez, Wojciech Fangor, Wolfgang Ludwig, Jesus-Rafael Soto, Julian Stanczak. Sure, some of this work in disparate mediums does look like junk, but some of it looks really hot. In Columbus, Bridget Riley's Current, 1964, which was featured on the cover of the "Responsive Eye" catalogue, still stands out as an extraordinary (and extraordinarily bizarre) achievement, a work of tightly controlled formal invention--"Modernist painting," really, despite Greenberg's indifference--and, notwithstanding Riley's protests to the contrary, one that shimmers and shivers torturously, an event no less than an object. …