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By Joe Houston

In the 1960s, a variety of artistic practices sought to engage the audience more wholly as participants in the aesthetic experience. Vanguard movements emerged to challenge the conventional, static relationship between object and viewer. Along with performance, installation, and conceptualism, which sometimes dispensed with the art object altogether, there arose an equally radical movement in perception-based art, which gave renewed vitality to the traditional medium of painting. Perceptual art, a term that best encapsulates various tendencies of optical, kinetic, and concrete art, challenged audience passivity through a profoundly visual experience, making the physiological and psychological process of vision a central subject of the art work.

Popularly characterized as Op Art, the work of the most publicized adherents of perceptual art, such as Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, and Richard Anuszkiewicz, can trace their lineage in Constructivist practices born in Europe in the early 20th century. The renewed exploration into abstraction and visual phenomena resonated with the idealism of a postwar generation of artists who shared a belief in the democratization of art and society, a worldwide evolution aided by advances in science and technology. The zeitgeist of perceptual art was indeed global, as evidenced in the simultaneous emergence of likeminded work in cultural capitals throughout Europe and the Americas. International publications and exhibitions enhanced the spread of ideas and images on a global scale, leading artists at a remove from the art capital of Manhattan to create progressive work.

Ohio, which had a history of support for geometric art, proved to be a particularly fertile ground for emerging perceptual artists. The educational institutions there formed a nexus for a number of experimental artists. Two leading exponents of perceptual art, Richard Anuszkiewicz and Julian Stanczak, met as students at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the early 1950s. After pursuing graduate study at Yale University in 1956, Anuszkiewicz remained on the East Coast, while Stanczak returned to Ohio, teaching in Cincinnati and later at his alma mater in Cleveland. Hailing from diverse backgrounds, Ernst Benkert, Francis Hewitt, and Edwin Mieczkowski formed the artist collaborative Anonima in Cleveland in 1960 and focused their activities in Ohio before moving their enterprise to New York four years later. Hewitt and Mieczkowski also maintained roots in Cleveland teaching and lecturing at local universities. Working at the margins of the art world had its benefits. “Decisions about what to do were easier at a distance.” Stanczak noted, “In Cleveland I could address myself more completely to my private, creative life.”1

Although Anonima, Anuszkiewicz, and Stanczak pursued separate paths, by the mid-1960s they were exhibiting in many of the same venues and were together included in seminal museum exhibitions of new abstraction. In 1965, each gained national attention from The Responsive Eye, the Museum of Modern Art’s popular and controversial exhibition of perceptual art. William Seitz’s prophetic exhibition gathered a wide variety of artists into one comprehensible perception-based movement, which the press quickly dubbed Op Art. While defining their achievements somewhat narrowly at the time, The Responsive Eye gave Anonima, Anuszkiewicz, and Stanczak considerable exposure and acknowledged each as pioneers of an experiential abstraction. Even reproduced in garish half-tones in the pages of Life magazine, their paintings of reverberating lines, intertwining patterns, and electric color contrasts communicated a systematic logic and visual excitement. Theirs was clearly an art that eschewed tradition, befitting a new technological era. Their emphasis on structures, systems, seriality, research, and communal practice has more in common with the concurrent trends in Minimalism and Conceptualism than has been previously acknowledged. Beyond its specific historical and cultural context, perceptual art remains a testament to the viability of painting and the visual splendor it can achieve. The work of Anonima, Anuszkiewicz, and Stanczak prove the potential for a viewer-centered experience that transcends the material object of art.

Anonima

The Anonima Group accounts for one of the more fascinating chapters in the chronicle of the 1960s art world. Founded in Cleveland as an artist collective by three abstract painters, Ernst Benkert, Francis “Frank” Hewitt, and Edwin “Ed” Mieczkowski, Anonima systematically investigated formal principles in painting and the complex visual phenomena they elicit. Through a structured regimen of research, writing, and studio practice that lasted roughly a decade, the three artists produced a body of closely related work that advanced the notion of the viewer’s own perceptual process as the central subject of the aesthetic experience.

Ed Mieczkowski and Frank Hewitt first encountered each other in 1957 while students at Carnegie Institute of Technology, whose program, influenced by the Bauhaus, emphasized technical and scientific concerns. Hewitt’s grasp of visual theory made a deep impression on Mieczkowski, who, seven years older, was more fully developed as a painter working in an Abstract Expressionist manner. Upon graduation Hewitt left Pittsburgh to pursue advanced study at Oberlin College in Ohio where he met Ernst Benkert, a fellow graduate student who had once studied with Oskar Kokoschka. The two debated the merits of the self-emotive gesture then paramount in painting and determined that prewar forms of geometric abstraction held more promise for them. On a visit back to Pittsburgh to view the 1958 Carnegie International exhibition, Hewitt introduced Benkert to Mieczkowski. The three young artists bonded over their mutual distaste for the informal art that dominated the exhibition, but found assurance in the De Stijl paintings of Mondrian concurrently on display at the museum. The following year, when Mieczkowski settled in Ohio to teach at the Cleveland Institute of Art, the three formed a mutually supportive circle. Their shared concerns about what Hewitt regarded as the “cult of the unconscious hand” in recent art gave impetus to new approaches in their individual painting, which now embraced the principles of European Constructivism that had lay dormant since World War II.

Anonima’s discussion of a more structured approach to art was grounded in Hewitt’s ongoing research in the psychology of perception. The theories of psychologists J.J. Gibson and Edwin Boring, in particular, provided an attractive connection between science and art for the group. Such ideas were beginning to expand the discourse of art history in general, as evidenced in the publication in 1960 of Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, another major influence on the three young artists. Hewitt believed that the application of perceptual phenomena to painting could take abstraction beyond the formal experiments of the past. Such techniques — for instance, the appearance of spatial paradox — would not merely result in superficial illusionism, but could provoke a real psychological and physiological response in the viewer. In his essay “Reassessment of the Surface and Subsequent Implications for Contemporary Painting” Hewitt proposed that “the existence of the elements of visual perception…is as substantial and ‘physical’ as the experience of any external object.”2 Our reality, in other words, is that which we perceive.

When in 1960, Mieczkowski and Hewitt teamed together to design a course in Dimensional Drawing for the Cleveland Institute of Art, they codified these ideas into a curriculum of exercises that investigated the spatial possibilities of the 2-dimensional plane. Although Benkert had relocated to New York, the three artists discussed the idea of collaboration. In a meeting in Cleveland they formulated their group as Anonima, taking the name from the term Societa Anonima, Italian for “corporation.” The name suited the concept of a cooperative relationship, while paying homage to the old Société Anonyme for the advancement of modern art. Anonima also suggested anonymity among its members, to the extent that they relinquished individual egos—leaving their work unsigned, for instance—for the advancement of their ideas. Hewitt reasoned that the establishment of such a “program” was an alternative to the status quo, and offered “the framework for a set of criteria that a group of painters might bring to bear on existing work.”3 They would further define their goals to include the establishment of a gallery space, publication of artists’ writings, coordinated communication and cooperation between artists, and organized research, particularly in the psychology of visual perception.

The very concept of such group activity may have seemed heretical in American art in 1960, which was defined by singular voices of modern “masters.” However, at stake was a means for the three men to escape the aesthetic impasse they encountered in postwar painting. This hinged upon a reconsideration of painting not as autographical document, but as a dynamic catalyst for viewer experience. This shift from personal expression to group research resonated with the larger cultural belief in science and technology as a means towards social and economic progress then gaining momentum at home and abroad. While Anonima was unique in the United States, such collaboratives were springing up throughout Europe and Latin America at precisely the same moment. The German Zero Group, which formed in 1957, perhaps provided a model for groups that followed. Among the perception-centered groups to emerge at the time were Equipo 57, formed by Spanish expatriates in Paris in 1957; the Italian Gruppo N and Gruppo T, both formed in 1959; the French group Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV), founded in 1960; and the Dutch NUL, founded in 1961. Such artist groups initially emerged in cities where socialist ideals were prevalent, and while their members contributed to common projects, each maintained their distinct voice within the group. The artists of newly formed Anonima were unaware that they were part of this growing international phenomenon.

Although Hewitt and Mieczkowski maintained their teaching positions in Cleveland while Benkert taught in New York, their work gained momentum in the summers of 1960 and 1961, when all three worked together at Benkert’s home in East Hampton. In their individual drawings and paintings they explored perceptual issues that Hewitt had elaborated in his writings, joining together daily to discuss their work. Hewitt’s wife Karen, a student of experimental psychology at Oberlin, contributed to the dialogue. The fruits of their labors were exhibited in Recent Development in Visual Design: Perception and Constructs in 1962 at a temporary gallery they established in Cleveland. Among the works exhibited were Benkert’s series of De Stijl-like works in black and white and primary colors that had been executed to order by a professional sign painter. Such experimental work underscored art as a conceptual process, rather than one of labored craft, while neatly echoing the notion of anonymity the group implied.

When Anonima gathered at the studio of Benkert’s father in Mill Spring, North Carolina the following summer, work continued with focused energy on a structured program of studio work, readings, lectures, discussions, and group activities.4 Their work schedule was attended by a more defined program of investigation, which culminated in the group’s first publication In-Out. In 1964, they held their first exhibition in New York in a rented space on West 56th Street. The group’s first exhibition there was their most ambitious and cohesive thus far and included kinetic work by Karen Hewitt. On opening night, the group held a panel discussion on “Geometry and Art,” which included museum director Charles Parkhurst, Constructivist Anthony Hill, and Donald Judd, whom Benkert had befriended in 1960 when they taught at the same school.5 After a favorable review in The New York Times, the show was extended to accommodate the increased number of visitors. The success of their initial outing in the center of the art world was confirmed when dealers Martha Jackson and Denise René engaged Anonima for exhibitions in New York and Paris, respectively.

Anonima’s partnership with Martha Jackson Gallery and their inclusion in Galerie Denise René’s seminal exhibition Mouvements II led to their inclusion in the first significant exhibition of the new perceptual art then being curated by William Seitz for the Museum of Modern Art. The group was among the more than 100 participating international artists and collaboratives selected for The Responsive Eye. Months before its debut in 1965 the exhibition became newsworthy, inspiring the newly coined term Op Art, a snappy retort to the recent trend of Pop Art. A colorful article appearing in Time magazine promoted the tantalizing new work of artists such as Richard Anuszkiewicz, Bridget Riley, Julian Stanczak, as well as the collaboratives Equipo 57, Gruppo N, and Anonima, who—unlike their European counterparts—were individually identified. The article “Op Art: Pictures that Attack the Eye,” noted that Anonima “believe that the rule and compass are proper artist’s tools. Like other op artists, they dislike artistic preciousness, the expression of prima donna personality on canvas, and the psychic plumbing into the meaning of art.”6 This was followed in short order by further exposure for the group in Life, Newsweek, Arts Magazine and elsewhere in the months leading up to the exhibition.

Anonima was represented in The Responsive Eye by primarily black and white works that in divergent ways explored the tension between contradictory visual cues. As Frank Hewitt noted in the Time article, “The quality and depth of the experience (of their work) depend on the willingness to perceive and persistence to overcome certain levels of frustration.”7 Such visual paradox is generated in Hewitt’s Abe’s Box, 1964, through delicate shifts of value and hue. Ed Mieczkowski’s Fuseli’s Box, 1964, creates similar levels of perceptual frustration within a prison-like structure that appears to collapse and expand simultaneously. Ernst Benkert’s Black and White Op-Tickler, completed in the wake of the Time article, satirized what was fast becoming an international fad. Despite its irreverent title, the painting provokes an undeniably palpable sensation of optical flicker, making it difficult for the eyes to rest on any one spot of the composition. It was just such spectral phenomena that made Op so fascinating to the public. Unlike anything that had been seen in America before, such works orchestrated visual events in the viewer, generously leaving room for what Hewitt called “the beholder’s share.”8

In the tumultuous wake of The Responsive Eye, Anonima continued their work with renewed urgency. They were soon included in exhibitions of the new abstraction throughout the U.S. and abroad at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London, Galeria Foksal in Warsaw, and in the pivotal New Tendencies 3 in Zagreb. Despite commercial interest, the group remained ambivalent of—even antagonistic to—the art establishment. They severed ties with Martha Jackson and redoubled efforts to present and publish their own work outside the commercial system. Privately they relished the notion of exhibiting behind the Iron Curtain, where Constructivism had deep roots. On their travels abroad Benkert and Hewitt conversed with Constructivist masters George Vantongerloo and Henryk Stazewski and initiated personal contact with likeminded collaboratives including Gruppo MID from Milan and the Paris-based GRAV, with whom they promoted their hope for international collaboration.

At its inception Anonima demurred from associating itself too directly with political concerns. However, they had admired Mondrian’s wish for a New Society and held many beliefs in common with their neo-Constructivist counterparts overseas. As Hewitt would later admit, “To address oneself to perceptual issues in the early ’60s was to say that every person is a democrat, an everyman. We were saying that slight increases in perception, or direction in perception, would maybe recreate a new kind of sensibility in the world.”9 While the group maintained an analytic purity to their formal investigations, they became politically active around 1967 in response to the war in Vietnam. In their endeavors in and beyond the studio, they found support and friendship in Ad Reinhardt, who they admired for both his art and activism.10

The Anonima Group moved into a new space on West 28th Street where they alternated periods of studio practice with exhibitions—their own and guest artists—and a schedule of publications and public events. Their program reached full clarity with the initiation in 1966 of a four-year plan to systematically explore key methods of evoking dimensional space on a flat surface: overlap, relative size change, brightness ratio, and light and shade, each to be addressed in successive years. Mieczkowski and Hewitt relocated from Ohio to New York, in 1964 and 1967, respectively, to devote themselves more fully to the program. The first year’s work was exhibited in 1967 at the Anonima Gallery in an exhibition objectively titled Perceptual Inquiry 1: Overlap, followed the next year by Perceptual Inquiry 2: Relative Size Change, each accompanied by publications expounding the Anonima philosophy. Without commercial representation, their exposure continued in significant exhibitions through 1969, including New Tendencies 4 in Zagreb. Their work, which had for a time limited itself to black, white and gray, now embraced the full spectrum of color, which the three intuitively applied to their gridded structures, offering a further element of instability to purposefully ambiguous compositions. Their works conveyed increasingly divergent solutions to common problems. Benkert’s Overlap No.3 (Crimson and Blue), 1966 , complicates our reading of its interwoven lattice pattern with wildly vibrating hues, while Hewitt’s Overlap Series, 1966, employs more subtle system of hues within horizontal and vertical lines, making the color and value shifts difficult to discern. By contrast, Mieczkowski’s Blue Bloc, 1967 is comprised of a nearly digital array of interrupted dots that appear to fade in and out of focus, while simultaneously summoning uncanny effects of illumination within the canvas.

After completing the third year of their plan with the exhibition Brightness Ratio, the group began to lose its coherence due to increasing family obligations, antiwar protests, and a waning interest in the overall program. Work on the fourth year’s exercise Light and Shade was abandoned when Mieczkowski returned to his teaching positing in Ohio and the Hewitts relocated to Vermont, effectively ending the most productive chapter in the group’s history. With the final Anonima exhibition at the State University of New York at New Paltz in 1970 and retrospective the following year at the University of Vermont, the group had reached the status of a historical movement. Benkert, Hewitt, and Mieczkowski remained close friends, offering continued support for each other’s solo careers. Upon the dissolution of Anonima, each artist drew on the group’s experiments in future work: Benkert refocusing his attention to drawing; Hewitt to a more intuitive approach to painting up until his death in 1992; and Mieczkowski to ever more elaborate investigations in dimensional painting.

Richard Anuszkiewicz and Julian Stanczak

Although two very singular artists, Richard Anuszkiewicz and Julian Stanczak share a common background and parallel careers as preeminent colorists of perceptual abstraction. The two met in the early 1950s as undergraduate students in Cleveland, where they gained a typical academic training. In 1954 they enrolled in the progressive graduate program at Yale University, where they roomed together for a time. There they studied with Josef Albers and discovered the writings of gestalt psychologist Rudolph Arnheim, whose Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye—published the year they entered Yale— influenced their preoccupation with visual phenomena. Albers’ theories of color interaction and Arnheim’s explanation of visual phenomena were synthesized by the two young artists, who upon graduation quickly developed radical, and closely related, approaches to abstraction. After obtaining a further degree in teaching at Kent State University in Ohio, Anuszkiewicz returned to the East Coast, settling eventually in New Jersey. Stanczak, however, returned to Ohio to teach, first in Cincinnati and later at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

While Anuszkiewicz and Stanczak remained in contact, they each devoted themselves independently to the development of their own work, each exploring in different means the powerful effects of color on human perception. Anuszkiewicz applied his knowledge of color theory and principles of visual perception to measured, geometric compositions comprised of precise linear patterns, which often emanate outward from the center of his canvases. Gridded structures and square formats provided the firm footing for increasingly dynamic experiments with complementary colors. In color he found a subject that was ever contemporary, noting “The ideas I work with are essentially timeless… and if color or form is visually exciting in any profound sense, it will be that way ten or twenty years from now also.”11 Complementary Forces, executed in 1964, proves the point. In this diamond-like composition a dynamic network of turquoise lines throbs against a tomato–red ground, its arresting effect transcends historical or cultural specificity, remaining ever fresh to our eyes.

By the time his work appeared in The Responsive Eye, Anuszkiewicz had already been included in important museum exhibitions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Geometric Abstraction in America, as well as in galleries in New York and Paris. His uncanny work gained him wider admiration as one of the “new wizards”12 of Op, as identified by Life magazine and found easy favor with the press and the culture at large.13 Having established his reputation early (MoMA bought their first painting by him in 1960), Anuszkiewicz transcended the category of Op with his participation in major exhibitions of contemporary art throughout the 1960s, including the Carnegie International, Whitney Biennial, Corcoran Biennial, and Documenta. His continued association with perceptual artists is evidenced in his curation of the exhibition The Square in Painting in 1968, which included the work of Anonima and Stanczak.

In contrast to Anuszkiewicz’s scientific approach, Julian Stanczak found inspiration for abstraction in nature. The undulating hills, rippling river, and bending grasses of the Ohio landscape found their parallel expression in his rhythmic paintings of wiggles and crosshatching lines. After gaining attention in museum exhibitions throughout Ohio, including a solo show at the Dayton Art Institute, Martha Jackson invited him to exhibit at her New York gallery, giving him his first significant exposure outside the Midwest. Julian Stanczak: Optical Paintings opened in 1964, prompting review by Donald Judd in Arts Magazine, who snidely characterized the work “op art,” the first occurrence of the term in print. Despite his dissatisfaction with the label, Stanczak quickly became a reluctant ambassador to the new movement, garnering attention in the popular press and earning his place in museum exhibitions on the new abstraction throughout the 1960s and beyond.

Stanczak’s paintings of the decade generate radiant energy and internal illumination through complex interactions of contrasting hues. Quintessence, painted in 1969 demonstrates his deft handling of color to create a palpitating visual field that seems to extend beyond the borders of the canvas. In this composition overlapping linear elements appear to dissolve, summoning phantom forms and colors that are not actually painted. The sequencing of highly ordered elements prefigured advances to come in the union of technology and art, as one critic of his 1965 show at Martha Jackson noted, “While quietly laughing at the notion of computer art Stanczak dazzles with a super-computer human virtuosity.”14 With a combination of technical rigor and creative intuition Stanczak’s paintings exemplify a belief in the centrality of the viewer in the experience of painting, which finds its completion not on the surface of the canvas, but in the mind’s eye. As he stated so eloquently, “I am not important—the viewer is.”15

1 Stanczak interview with Dave Hickey, Julian Stanczak. New York: Danese, 2008.

2 Hewitt, Francis, “Reassessment of the Surface and Subsequent Implications for Contemporary Painting.” Mimeograph typescript with notations by Hewitt. Collection of the author.

3 Hewitt, Francis, “A Program for Painting,” 1961 excerpted in Anonima Group Retrospective 1960-1971, Robert Hull Fleming Museum, The University of Vermont, Burlington, 1971.

4 In a letter to Benkert, he noted “I would like to have a schedule typed, even with dates, say. Mon. Wed. and Fri. or Sun eve. sessions, with preplanned and prepared talks.” Hewitt, Karen, editor, Francis R, Hewitt, p. 17, The Institute for Progressive Painting, 1994.

5 Benkert recalls Judd provocatively remarked that he admired Pollock “because he put the whole idea of painting to rest, once and for all.” [Phone conversation with the author, March 2010].

6 Borgzinner, John, “Op Art: Pictures that Attack the Eye, Time, October 23, 1964, p. 85.

7 ibid 3.

8 Gombrich, Ernst, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Princeton University Press, 1960.

9 As quoted in: Oren, Michel, “The Anonima Program for Perceptual Re-education,” 1960-70, Cleveland Studies in the History of Art, Vol. 5, 2000 pp. 49-50.

10 This culminated in 1969-1970 when the Anonima Group joined the Art Workers’ Coalition. At the same time, Hewitt, Benkert, Mieczkowski and their former student Gerry Herdman formed a splinter group called Minority A that, among other things, protested meetings of the Art Workers’ Coalition because of some of its members’ ties to commercial galleries and institutions.

11 As quoted in: Lunde, Karl, Anuszkiewicz, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1977, p. 80.

12 “OP ART,” Life magazine, December 11, 1964, p.133.

13 A salient example of this occurred when collector and garment manufacturer Larry Aldrich used his work — along with Bridget Riley, Julian Stanczak, and Victor Vasarely — as patterns for dresses without his consent. Later Anuszkiewicz partnered with a furrier to produce hand painted coats of his own design.

14 Berrigan, Ted, “Exhibition at the Jackson Gallery,” Art News, October 19, 1965.

15 McClelland, Elizabeth, Julian Stanczak: A Retrospective, 1948-1998, Butler Institute of American Art, 1998, p.36.

 

 

Joe Houston is curator of the Hallmark Art Collection and author of OPTIC NERVE: Perceptual Art of the 1960s, published by Merrell in conjunction with the 2007 Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio exhibition.
© Joe Houston, 2010

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