EVERYTHING OP IS NEW AGAIN: The Persistence and Recrudescence of Optical
David Richard Gallery
2015 October 10
“Re-Op: ‘The Responsive Eye’ Fifty Years After”, currently on view at David Richard Gallery is the third in a series of presentations co-curated by Peter Frank, critic, curator and historian and David Eichholtz, gallerist, curator and historian that critically examines and reconsiders “The Responsive Eye”, the seminal exhibition organized by William C. Seitz at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1965. This particular installation explores contemporary artworks by artists who were included in the exhibit at MoMA as well as their contemporaries and later generations of artists. All of them share an interest in exploring optical art and visual perception.
Following is the catalogue essay written by Peter Frank.
Matthew Kluber, No Place Like Utopia, 2011, Alkyd on aluminum, custom software, computer, digital projection, 44 x 96 "
EVERYTHING OP IS NEW AGAIN: The Persistence and Recrudescence of Optical
Art Practice, 1970-2015
By Peter Frank
Op Art, treated in its day as a craze or phase, has proven far more durable than its original detractors and even supporters anticipated. For one thing, many of its practitioners viewed it far more seriously than did those commenting upon it; the original Op artists have always considered Op an approach grounded in credible aesthetic evolution and substantive scientific research. For another, they recognized from the beginning that the formal language of Op allowed it to be attractive to the relatively unsophisticated viewer at the same time as it proposed radical extensions of established modernist practice. This was a great part of Op’s appeal, especially in the wake of Pop, a style that had set a tone for its time with its playful character. Similarly, Op could engage a non-professional as well as professional audience in matters of serious physio- and psychological as well as aesthetic investigation. While Pop could be assessed as a socially inflected art (indeed, as a social phenomenon), Op could be assessed as scientific inquiry. From the start – and even more than with Pop – Op Art’s most enthusiastic audience drew from a relatively casual viewership, while the art world often regarded it with suspicion and disdain. In the intervening years, that suspicion and disdain gave way to grudging respect, and certainly to an acknowledgment of Op’s historic pedigree. But the crowd-pleasing aspect of the practice remained irksome in the eyes of the mainstream art world – at least until a younger generation of abstract artists, in its search for new means of invention (especially within a newly forged post-modernist stance), began exploiting Op’s funhouse quality, not simply for its affront to “good taste” (although certainly with that in mind as well), but for its ever-fresh, ever-startling revelations about the vagaries of human visual perception.
This exhibition completes the stylistic (if not yet the historic) arc being traced by the series of shows comprising David Richard Gallery’s “Fifty Years After” series. “Re-Op” looks at later work by various American participants featured in “The Responsive Eye” and their contemporaries and near-contemporaries, and pairs these with works by younger artists – also American – who for various reasons and to various ends have re-employed the languages and effects brought together by William C. Seitz at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Even though the show traveled to four additional venues around the country, most of the latter generation represented here were too young to have seen or even known about the show – if they were even alive at that moment. But a number of them were fortunate enough to study with participants in the broader Op movement, and, clearly, all of them display a keen awareness of what many of the movement’s protagonists achieved and the rigor and discipline they exercised in that achievement.
“Re-Op” affords us a comparison between the works of the original Op generation, even as those works postdate the “Op moment,” and the achievements of a younger generation (or two). Indeed, that the fact that the older artists are represented here by works that are arguably more mature and more stand-alone than those of the “Op era.” allows us to distance them from the tumult of the mid-1960s and to evaluate these Op stalwarts, whatever their other allegiances (color-field, hard edge, kinetic, finish/fetish), as individuals. This, in turn, clarifies the independence-minded self-possession so many of the younger artists evince. They do not form, certainly not consciously, a “neo-Op” tendency. The formal languages they employ are even more diverse than their elders’, and their purposes, while clearly sharing a preoccupation with human vision, are even more disparate.
Still, it could be argued that the younger artists here together establish something of a neo-Op idiom. Their way of working may honor their teachers’ and forerunners’, but it also embraces the technological – and especially the material – advances of their time. To be sure, in their day the older artists were themselves pioneers of new means and materials, driven equally by curiosity and necessity. In that regard, the younger artists inherit and perpetuate their elders’ spirit. But the materials, processes, and supports employed by the artists born after World War II (and even the Vietnam War) reflect a profoundly changed world, one in which image projections are stable, reflective sign materials are commonly available, and there is a general presumption that, at some point along the development of an artwork or series, digital means are engaged. Steel, aluminum, collage, airbrushed paint, stencils, and, certainly, plastics recur from older generation to newer. But by now, the advice imparted in The Graduate – “Plastics!” – is retrospective rather than predictive.
Christian Haub, Float for Gilberto Perez, 2015, Cast acrylic sheet, 24 x 24 x 2.5"
Jack Slentz, Blue Tube, 2015, Aluminum sign material (outdoor reflective aluminum sign material), 24 x 24 x 24". Left: ambient light, Right: spot light.
It should be noted that the younger artists represented in “Re-Op” not only follow the original Op generation, but follow (or just overlap with) an intervening generation whose critique of “art” as an expression of “visual culture” gave them license to return to the questions posed and means proposed by Op Art. The emergence of the militantly post- modernist “neo-geo” trend in the mid-1980s, for instance, re-valorized the language of geometry while freeing it of its modernist responsibilities to utopian goals. The impulse to investigate visual phenomena for their own sake – which had impelled most of the original Op artists, and for which the art world had scolded them – was restored to a dignified status in artistic discourse. The neo-geo artists, in turn, had taken a few cues from the pattern painters of a decade previous – some of whom had themselves emerged in the context of Op.
Robert Swain, Untitled, 6x7-5A 15 B3-Five, 2001, Acrylic on canvas, 72" x 84"
Of course, some of the younger artists here – as, indeed, certain of the older – maintain extra-visual concerns in their work, addressed to theory and/or wider, non-visual praxis. But the appearance of things, and how audience reception of that appearance changes under modified circumstances, is at the heart of all the work on view. In the 1960s Op artists were hard pressed to claim the same contrarian sources that had given rise to Pop; if Dada grandmaster Marcel Duchamp could opine that “the viewer completes the work of art,” Op artists of the day had to explain such subjectivity in analytical terms, or be dismissed as visual entertainers. Today’s Re-Op artists, younger and older, are not burdened with that onus: if they work with optical illusion, they are concerned with both optics and illusions, and that suffices.
Beverly Fishman, Untitled (Full Spectrum), 2012, Enamel on polished stainless steel, 60.5" x 84"