The 1960s was a rich period for geometric art in America. The presence of Bauhaus trained teachers in American art schools, new understanding of how the brain perceives color, and post-war advancements in plastics and paint lay the foundation for Op art, which questioned how we perceive space and movement. Op artists used an investigative approach to create new models for depicting space using only color and line to achieve movement that projects and recedes. The viewer’s participation in an active visual dialogue with a painting was fundamental; the ultimate goal being heightened awareness of what it means to see. The Museum of Modern Art’s 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye identified Op as an international style. Our exhibition focuses on the Americans in The Responsive Eye, including six painters and two sculptors: Richard Anuszkiewicz (b.1930), Francis Celentano (1928-2016), Francis Hewitt (1936-1992); Bill Komodore (1932-2012), Mon Levinson (1926-2014), Reginald Neal (1909-1992), Julian Stanczak (b.1928), and Tadasky (b.1935). Celentano, Komodore, and Neal are newly represented by D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc and featured in the exhibition. Works in black and white are emphasized in the exhibition to show the diverse ways Op artist created movement through compositions focused on positive and negative space, without color adding another element of push-pull. In today’s computer age, the artworks in our exhibition appear calculated and mapped out, but all these composition resulted from experimentation and intuition in the artists’ studios.
Constructivist and Bauhaus attitudes to art and industry freed 1960s artists to explore new materials and plastics suited the enthusiasm for technology brought on by the Space Race. The plastic quality of new fast-drying acrylic paints allowed painters using tape to execute fine lines for complex compositions and color interactions with an oil-like richness. The two sculptors in our exhibition, Reginald Neal and Mon Levinson, used plastic in sheet form in their wall-mounted constructions because of its transparency and luminosity. Neal and Levinson both became interested in the moiré effect that occurs when two sets of parallel lines overlap for the effect’s simulation of movement as each change in the viewer’s sightline generates new patterns as the eye unconsciously ties together new points of intersection. In the 1950s Reginald Neal was an established artist and printmaker credited with advancing the development of color lithography. In the 1960s Neal’s work became more abstract as he considered the concept of time. In 1964 he merged lithography and sculpture by cutting his prints into symmetrical patterns faced with a layer of printed lines on Plexiglas, which he placed in plastic boxes to create spatial separation. In Hexagon Moiré, c.1966, a clear sheet of Plexiglas with printed white lines in a hexagon shape is mounted about an inch from a blue Plexiglas backboard with white concentric circles printed over black parallel lines. The effect is mesmerizing with new patterns of circles and shading created with the viewer’s movement. While Neal came to his constructions through printmaking, Levinson developed his constructions out of an interest in plastics. In 1964 Levinson started to make Plexiglas construction in black and white to examine how the intensity of the moiré effect could be controlled by the width, tone, and distance between the sets of lines, which he investigated with a series of construction between 1964 and 1967, as seen in Lateral Flow, 1966. In 1968 Levinson simplified his compositions to focus on the reflective properties of plastic using formal geometry to consider light as a raw material in his work.
Celentano, Hewitt, and Tadasky used optical blending to create a blur effect that suggests speed as colors meet and melt into one another. In Celentano’s work from 1965 to 1968, he repeated, rotated, and mirrored patterns in black and white to dizzying effect as seen in Zilos, 1966. In 1968 Celentano formulated a strategy for color and began his first color series titled Alpha using an airbrush to soften color transitions within ruled lines. In Alpha Reverse in Black and White, 1970, bands of gradient colors alternate with bands of constant color, giving the impression of pistons in motion. Celentano aimed to create visual instruments of dramatic tension by orchestrating color interactions within the confines of patterns and structures that control the perception of these forms. After spending four years developing his technique to execute perfect circles within a square canvas, Tadasky had mastered his craft by 1965. In C-182, 1965, Tadasky used optical blending to create a color shift from orange to white across a black circle that suggests the sun’s heat and light. He achieved this fading effect by applying an additional layer of yellow and then white as he worked his way to the center. Frank Hewitt was one of three artists who formed The Anonima Group in Cleveland in the early 1960s. Along with Ernst Benkert and Ed Mieczkowski, the group investigated the psychology of perception by setting a program of limits each artist would explore separately. In 1965 Anonima’s project was titled Black/White and Gray 24” Square with each artist contributing ten paintings for a New York exhibition that traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London and Galeria Foksal in Warsaw in 1966. Hewitt was the most painterly of the group with beautiful transitions from light to dark in his compositions. Though he set the program for the group, he broke the rules to incorporate touches of color like the maroon edges in Munchin’ Henries at Shaky Heights, 1965 to make the black and white composition pop.
In different ways, Anuszkiewicz and Komodore explore the tension between the center and edges of a canvas to address the ambiguous sense of space that results from an abstract painting no longer having the traditional figure-ground relationship of representational painting. With the rise of abstraction, the canvas’s surface became a dynamic space of indeterminate depth. Komodore addressed this by creating a single central field activated by the contrast of light and dark along the canvas edge as seen in Meander, 1967. All four 1967 paintings by Komodore in our exhibition explore the ambiguity between movement and stillness and closed and open spaces in an overall minimal composition. Richard Anuszkiewicz considered the edge’s ability to define an infinite center depth or projection, pinching and expanding the space by changing the density of the lines as seen in Unit, 1966. Anuszkiewicz embraced his teacher Josef Albers’s theories on color interaction and applied that understanding to measured, geometric compositions of precise linear patterns within gridded or square formats.
Stanczak also studied with Josef Albers at Yale and is unique with the American Op artists for his use of curved lines to provide organic rather than geometric movement. In Stanczak’s compositions of wiggles and juxtapositions of curved and angular forms, the paintings radiate energy and internal illumination, like Concurrent Oppositions, 1965. Stanczak’s method of taping challenged him to examine how the density of lines produced the sensation of measured space and unlimited movement. Because color is difficult to control, Stanczak would periodically turn to black and white to investigate the function of line in new ways.
The significance of Op Art as a movement is its fundamental shift from art as object to art as experience. A change that remains relevant today as a new generation of artists engage viewers through immersive approaches in painting, sculpture, video, and installations.