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THE RESPONSIVE OTHER EYE: OPTICAL ABSTRACTION IN AND OUT OF MOMA
By Peter Frank
“The Responsive Eye,” the New York Museum of Modern Art’s controversial 1965 survey of a new kind of “optical” abstraction, was not the instigator, or even definer, of this abstraction, but merely its critical and popular apotheosis. I say “merely” because the MOMA exhibition – a result of several years of research and travel by curator William C. Seitz – served neither to define nor to spur the movement (such as it may have been), but only to summarize, and give establishment approval to, a tendency whose prominence was already assured. The controversy stemmed from the fact that the museum, an august presence in modern art internationally, was giving credence to an aesthetic attitude regarded by many as superficial and solicitous of its audience (and, for some, already played out). Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth: the artists included in “The Responsive Eye” were, to a man (and occasional woman), gravely serious about their investigations and productions. The collection of retinally provocative paintings and objects on view came from widely varied places, cultures, theories, and practices, and the show in fact grouped together several discrete national and international movements whose diversity was apparent even then.
But its breadth was, or was perceived as, a weakness as much as a strength of “The Responsive Eye.” Rather than a neatly packaged presentation of Op Art per se, the exhibition roamed all over non-objective practice, gathering what Seitz considered artworks exemplary of a very broadly defined tendency. Color-field painters, geometric abstractionists, “hard edge” painters, artists working with optical illusions, artists working with patterns and sequences, and various other experimentalists – and, if you would, experimental traditionalists – hung and stood cheek by jowl in MOMA’s special exhibition galleries, grouped less by style than by medium or format. Seitz had similarly surveyed the practice of “junk sculpture” several years earlier; but in “The Art of Assemblage,” a better received show, he had been able to provide an overview of collage and assemblage throughout the 20th century, while in “The Responsive Eye” he felt compelled early on to abandon what had been an ambitious historical/didactic component.
This gave “The Responsive Eye” an implicit commitment to the “new and now,” an implication that proved a hindrance to its reception. Having begun work on the show in the fall of 1962, Seitz found that, by time he mounted it in late winter 1965, the art world had caught up with, and in a certain sense passed, him. The American (mostly East Coast) painters of “post-painterly abstraction” had already found their niche in galleries and museums around the country. European and Latin American “concretists,” not least several artistic “teams,” had been active since the early-mid 1950s, had been interlinking since at least the first “Nouvelle Tendence” show in Zagreb in 1961, and were beginning to break up and evolve. The “true” Op artists – certainly the North American ones – were more recent arrivals on the scene, but even they had been enjoying successful shows in New York for a good year or so, received (rightly or wrongly) as a kind of Pop Art without subject matter. Seitz and MOMA seemed to be a day late.
And, arguably, a quart short. Surveys as expansive and polemical as “The Responsive Eye” must invariably exclude many artists, usually at least as many as they include. The entire museum could have been filled to its rafters with artwork appropriate to the rubric of “perceptual abstraction,” if widely varied in more precise terms of style. But such stylistic variation required that Seitz only sample this style or that, relying on a relatively few artists in each case to argue for their style’s principles and the appropriateness of those principles to the larger polemic. As a result, any number of artists active and relatively well known at the time had to be passed over in favor of others who were, admittedly, no less well known, but no more so, either.
“Op Infinitum,” then, imagines a follow-up to “The Responsive Eye.” It is, of course, a different kind of follow-up than was our previous Op show. If “Post Op” embellished “Responsive Eye” artists’ seminal work with their later work, “Op Infinitum” takes the “Responsive Eye” roster and adds to it. All the work in “Op Infinitum” dates from the 1960s or thereabouts; many pieces here could have been in the MOMA show. But in a good third of the cases in “Op Infinitum,” nothing of these artists’ work, Op and/or color-field or concretist or whatever, was seen at MOMA at all. Painters of “shaped canvases” such as Chuck Hinman and Leo Valledor, straight-ahead color-field painters like Larry Zox and Leon Berkowitz, proto-minimalists such as Ward Jackson and Tadaaki Kuwayama, or opti-color painters like Mario Yrisarry and Rakuko Naito – all these missed inclusion in “The Responsive Eye” for reasons other than the relative “opticality” of their work itself or its presence on the New York gallery scene, reasons unknown to us now. In conjunction with works by friends and colleagues of theirs who happened to be included in the MOMA show, the art of these eight painters looks right at home. Together, this selection makes as strong a case for the continuing – perhaps even renewed – vitality of optical abstraction as our last selection did.
This is not to beleaguer or even second-guess poor Bill Seitz from beyond the grave. Indeed, this series of “Op” shows honors the MOMA show as a ground-breaking phenomenon, if not in the art world per se, then among the wider public, bringing to their attention an artistic approach that was having an impact in galleries – and, heavily as a result of “The Responsive Eye,” would have an impact on popular taste for much of the next decade. We only wanted to speak up on behalf of those Op-worthy artists who, for whatever reasons, didn’t make Seitz’s cut. No less celebrated in their day, they are no less worthy of reconsideration in ours; and, seen with their peers’, their art seems entirely of a piece.
Los Angeles May 2015