OP SPRINGS ETERNAL: “THE RESPONSIVE EYE” FIFTY YEARS ON
By Peter Frank
Exactly half a century ago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York — the fount of authority for contemporary American art (and, it was supposed in America, for art around the world) — mounted a large survey of art designed to stimulate the eye of the beholder simply and directly, without reliance on extra-visual content. Here, the exhibition proclaimed, was a kind of art, practiced worldwide, that worked upon the conditions of vision itself. The forms it took — patterns, moirés, spirals, targets, contrasting and complementary colors — and the illusory and disorienting effects it conveyed as a result were its raison d’être; it depicted nothing, symbolized nothing, referred to nothing, and suggested nothing, at least any sooner than it acted upon and exploited the peculiarities and limitations of the eye, the brain, and the connection between the two.
“The Responsive Eye” and the kind(s) of art it featured were already popular, and controversial, by the time of the show’s inception, and remained so for the duration of its travel to four other venues in the United States. Dubbed “Op Art” — by both a frenzied mass media tired of Pop Art and a scornful art media tired of the mass media’s invasion of its territory — the art collated in “The Responsive Eye” proved a relatively easy sell to a public wary of (if no longer antagonistic to) new art but always ready for a spectacle. Like most spectacles, the Op Art craze faded fairly quickly, melting into art and cultural history within three years. But what passed for one brief, shining moment as “Op Art” in MoMA and various galleries a short walk away — and in fashion and interior design magazines across the nation — had deep roots in Europe and Latin America, where it was taken quite seriously by intellectuals and academics. And certain of those roots had already been transplanted here. There was more to Op than met the eye.
Outside the United States — indeed, in Buenos Aires and Montréal no less than in Paris, London, or Zagreb — this kind of perceptually based art, devoid of extra-referential content, was regarded as a critical extension of prewar non-objective abstract painting and sculpture. Its employment of a basically geometric formal vocabulary, its preoccupation with design and the effects of color, and its optimistic regard for and exploitation of modern technology all harked back to the research and pedagogy of movements such as De Stijl in Holland and the Bauhaus school in Germany. The post-World War II era saw the re-convening of like-minded art and design schools and movements throughout the continent, especially in reaction to the initial prevalence of a far more expressionistic abstraction. By 1960, just as abstract expressionism was giving way in the U.S. to hard-edge painting, European art informel was also yielding to a much less passion-driven, far more rationally devised abstraction.
Where the new geometric abstraction differed from the old was in its emphasis on scientific rather than aesthetic logic. Geometric abstraction before the War had relied on compositional values, on asymmetric balance and classical poise that allow the eye to travel gracefully and come to rest. The new forms of abstraction — appropriating the restless, dispersed, all-over composition of so many gestural abstract paintings — gave the eye nowhere to alight, but kept it moving, darting, bouncing from element to element. The frailties of human sight constituted the playground for these new geometricists — and provided the opportunity to bring the spectator in as an active, if perhaps reluctant, participant. The viewer, as per Duchamp (whose mid-1930s “Roto-Reliefs” anticipated much Op Art), “completed the work of art” — almost against his or her will.
American Op Art hijacked viewers’ eyes no less than did Op Art from Italy or Brazil. But, as opposed to the quasi-scientific procedures of so many international artists, American Op was normally produced through trial and error, by artists working in isolation from one another. (Indeed, while the international perceptual-art scene produced any number of collaborative teams, only one, the Cleveland-based Anonima Group, was active in the U.S.) As well, American Op artists tended to rely more on painting media than did their compeers in their investigations into optical activation and slippage. “The Responsive Eye” notably included a number of New York painters who had been identified as “post-painterly abstractionists,” inheritors of the abstract expressionist aesthetic who nevertheless rejected its ethos for a far cooler spirit. (Similarly, the show featured several California artists who soon after were given the labels “finish/fetish” and “light-and-space.”)
Despite their exposure to new and traditional concepts in color theory and perceptual psychology – and the tutelage provided certain of them by Bauhaus and Bauhaus-related teachers such as Josef Albers (also included in the MoMA show) — the Americans represented in “The Responsive Eye” took a largely non-polemical and even impulsive approach to their artistic production. Where their counterparts elsewhere declared ideological (indeed, socialistically tinged) commitment to neutrality of expression and universal accessibility, American Op artists focused on perception itself and the (continuing) autonomy of both artwork and artist, irrespective of whatever “tricks” art or artist might be playing. Such optical frissons were not created in a spirit of fun and novelty, as the mass media might have it, but in a spirit of sober experiment. In fact, American perceptualists were as discomfited by the “Op Art” label stuck to them as were their detractors in the art press — detractors such as Donald Judd, whose own Minimalist artwork shared with theirs a reliance on rational formation and the objecthood of the artwork. Both Minimalists and Op artists, after all, embodied the contemporaneous dictum of Frank Stella (another “Responsive Eye” participant): “What you see is what you see.” The Minimalists, however, reinterpreted the declaration as “What you see is all you see,” while the Op artists took it as, “What you see is what you think you see.”
Op artists, here and elsewhere, were no less serious, even fervent, about artmaking than were their non-Op peers. But they got engulfed in a craze, at least in the U.S. The Op eruption echoed the Stateside frenzy surrounding the Beatles, who first landed on these shores a year, nearly to the day, before “The Responsive Eye” opened. Like the Fab Four, the Op dozens had been building up a following in the previous couple of years, earning admirers among those who didn’t “know much about art” even while gaining the disdain of other artists and art people. Pop Art had confounded outsiders and insiders alike, but its readily recognizable quotes from the landscape of consumerism put outsiders at ease intellectually and its irony and scale came to appeal to art-worlders. Op Art, by contrast, was grasped quickly by the masses, as it was designed to be — only adding to the consternation of art-world insiders. Interestingly, Op Art, no less than Pop, anticipated and even shaped the cultural landscape of its era. If Pop reflected the consumerist optimism of the 1960s and helped disseminate the ironic, distanced cultural regard to which the Beatniks had had exclusive claim in the previous decade, Op questioned the integrity of objective sight and valorized illusion, contemplation, alienation, and loss of a sense of self — all conditions that a burgeoning youth culture was even then beginning to seek through drugs and music. (The catalog to “The Responsive Eye” cites the research of at least one participant into the effects of then-legal LSD and mescaline.) Before Op itself disappeared from popular culture it was already recrudescing in Psychedelic Art and rock-and-roll poster (and, by extension, album cover) design, both of which adapted the coloristic and linear effects associated with Op to basically figurative imagery.
Artists identified with the Op Art movement in the United States, as elsewhere, remained committed to the principles that put them under that rubric long after the rubric itself had faded from the pages of Time, Life, and Vogue. Their sensibilities, oriented towards systematic investigation and the evolution of coherent form, maintained throughout their careers whether or not their later practice diverged from Op Art or even from geometric abstraction in general. Some went back to the exploration of perceptual stimulation after working in other (if related) styles. A few even became more “Op” in certain ways than they had been at the time of Op’s apotheosis. And succeeding generations of artists — notably but not exclusively painters, and notably but not exclusively Americans — have referred to Op mannerisms or even returned to Op practices, interested all over again in what can be done to stimulate the eye beyond the expected, beyond the quotidian, beyond the prosaic. Op Art stays stubbornly fresh, as long as the human eye stays gullible and enchantable.
Los Angeles February 2015
Houston, Joe. Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s, Columbus and London/New York: Columbus Museum of Art and Merrell Publishers, 2007
Seitz, William C. The Responsive Eye, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1965
Weinhart, Martina, and Max Hollein. Op Art. Frankfurt and Cologne: Schirn Kunsthalle and Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2007
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