Op Art descended out of geometric art of the 50’s and the Bauhaus movement in Germany, which I have previously written about in the Origins of Flat Design. The 60’s was a period of discovery in science, psychology and new technology. This type of art reflects the experimental mood of that era. The pieces normally feature patterns with stark contrast between the background and foreground that dazzles the eyes and the senses. The sensation of movement in the pieces is both appealing and disconcerting.
The Responsive Eye Exhibition
Op Art had its watershed moment during the Responsive Eye Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965. This featured 123 paintings and sculptures by artists such as Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesus-Rafael Soto, and Josef Albers.
In the 1960’s, Op Art made a huge impact on the popular consciousness. In the mid 60’s the movement infiltrated popular culture and was featured in clothes design and also in movie posters of the time, like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’. Although, Op Art has always been overshadowed by its more commercially viable and kitschy cousin – Pop Art. This emerged at the same time and had the ultimate poster boy and advocate, Andy Warhol.
How Op Art Works
Pattern and Line: By creating discord between the figure and background, it makes the two planes have a tense and contradictory relationship. The background and figure seem to float and move in the eyes, popping out of the picture and fighting for attention.
Grisaille: This effect is created by using black and white wavy lines close together that create a volatile and strong relationship, looking at these pictures soon becomes hard, as the eyes begin to feel dazzled and sore.
After Images: After viewing the image, a negative is briefly burned onto the retina, before disappearing.
Splashes of Colour: In 1966, there was an explosion of colour in Op Art, with artists Bridget Riley and Richard Anuszkiewicz leading the way. Contrasting colours brought different effects to the eyes. For example in Anuszkiewicz’s ‘temple’ paintings, two high contrast colours are used to create a sense of depth. This gives the illusion of three-dimensional space, as though a pyramid is popping out of the picture.