Essays on Perceptual and Op Art
Robert C. Morgan

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Perceptual Observer

Reviving the Edge in Optical Painting


The following essay was written for the catalog for the exhibtion entitled The Optical Edge which is taking place at Pratt Manhattan Gallery, 144 West 14th Street, New York, NY,  from March 8-April 14, 2007

Long before Modernism, there were a vast array of early optical experiments in painting, dealing with color, light, and form. They ranged from the perspectival topologies of Masaccio to the triangular compositions of Raphael, from the spatial geometry of Durer to the color stratifications of Grunewald, from Tiepolo's ceilings of infinite space to the convex optics of Ingres, from the color contrasts of Chevreul to the divisionism of Seurat. Through a multitude of discursive, highly pragmatic, and experimental forms of research, these artists set the stage for the advanced optical developments that would reach an apogee in twentieth century art, specifically in optical painting. Early Modernism saw the burgeoning chromatic fantasies of Frantisek Kupka, the radiating discs of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the pronounced "synchromism" of Morgan Russell and Stanton MacDonald-Wright, and the theosophy of Emma Kunz and Hilma af Klint.


While the awakening to optical effects of color was a primary concern for these Modernist pioneers, there were other artists more focused on questioning the principles of formal perception. A curious contrast would be the search for unity in art in the work of De Stijl artists Theo van Doesburg and Georges Vantongerloo, who paralleled the "chance operations" of the Dadaists Hans Arp and Marcel Duchamp. Specifically, Duchamp's experimentation with optics, which began in 1918-19 with his Stereopticon Slide, and continued with his "Rotary Glass Plates" (1920), "Rotary Demisphere" (1925), "Anemic Cinema" (1925-26), and "Rotoreliefs" (1935), attest to the artist's strong desire to bring the optical experience into both art and aesthetics by raising questions of temporality in relation to perception, thus offering a new phenomenology to the presumed beliefs about the role of painting in modern life.


This exhibition concentrates on the work of 15 artists whose orientation moves in the direction of optical painting. There are essentially three categories of work. The first' relates to a selection of five artists who were included in the important exhibition "The Responsive Eve," curated by William Seitz and held at The Museum of Modern Art in 1965. The artists in this section include Victor Vasarely, Josef Albers, Julian Stanczak, Bridget Riley, and Richard Anuszkiewicz.


The second includes another generation of painters who have worked primarily in New York and have, in many ways, developed, extended, and formalized the principles of concrete color and form in relation to the phenomenon of surface. They include Sanford Wurmfeld, Robert Swain, Gabriele Evertz, Gilbert Hsiao, and Rakuko Naito. Whereas Wurmfeld, Swain, and Evertz focus primarily on the construction of systemic color relationships, Naito focuses more on black and white interactions and Hsiao' deals with the optical tension between the complex layering of color and reduction of form.


The third group of painters comprises Soonja Han, Michelle Hinebrook, Ryszard Wasko, Beverly Fishman, and Jon Groom. While functioning at various' stages and levels in their careers, these artists continue to evolve through a kind of allegorical opticality. In general, they exceed the limits of formal content as optical information challenges them to pursue unstable realms of representation that include surveillance, information media, irony, displacement, and multicultural forms of de-institutionalized spirituality.


As a curator, I am generally interested in the kind of aesthetic issues that are seldom given priority in the media-driven art market of the moment. The paintings of these 15 artists suggest a certain energy and commitment that is not always present among the predictable "cutting-edge" artists so aggressively being promoted today.


My first effectual introduction to optical painting occurred in 1971 when I decided to travel from Paris to Dusseldorf on the night train to see a Kurt Schwitters retrospective. Upon arrival that morning, I discovered that the exhibition had ended two weeks earlier. I its place was an exhibition by a British painter named Bridget Riley, whose work was holly unfamiliar to me at the time. It made a great impression, however, and I realized lat maybe optical painting was something more significant than I had been led to believe by the New York critics. Now, of course, Riley has been fully resurrected as a serious painter' after more than two decades of neglect (at least, in the United States).


To cite Baudelaire, my position in relation to the politics of art is one of relative disinterestedness, an equivocation between passion and distance. From a historical perspective, I am not intrigued by the application 'of "Op Art" (as it was called in the ties) to illustration, graphic design, interior design, or fashion. Although, in retrospect, such applications appear inevitable, at the time they were an unexpected d unwelcome spin-off from the journalistic attention being given to exhibitions in rope, South America, and the United States. It is curious that much of the criticism leveled at "The Responsive Eye" in 1965, as in the case of Riley and Vasarely, was less about the exhibition itself than about the perceived commercialization that followed in wake. For the most part, the journalistic and critical media completely distorted the seriousness of optical art as a "movement" (if one can call it that), not only as it pertained to individual artists, but to the exhibition as a whole.


In contrast to the cultural milieu of four decades ago, "The Optical Edge" offers an alternative point of view: one that is less about the appropriation of graphic design, popular culture, and hallucinogemc effects, and more about the importance of optical painting as a means toward enhancing "the phenomenology of perception" as introduced by the philosopher Merleau-Ponty in the fifties. Through this process, corporeal and spatial awareness are not isolated from the temporality of social and I political reflection, but inextricably bound to it. This point of view was widely accepted by' many of the optical artists, particularly in Europe and South America, who were active in the fifties and sixties.


A leading practitioner of this approach and a major spokesman for optical art, was the Hungarian born, French painter Victor Vasarely. Vasarely was interested in developing a kind of picture-language through his series of paintings, alternatively called "Alphabet' Plastique" and "Folklore Planetaire," which would communicate from one culture to another and break through the barriers of class difference. Although they came from differing perspectives, Julian Stanczak and Richard Anuszkiewicz, who were less directly I influenced by French philosophy, saw their paintings as extending the possibilities of systemic form and color. The optical experience was thought to offer a transitory mode of reflectivity, whereby the viewer might reflect positively on existence in the everyday world as opposed to being subjugated by it.


There are three points worth considering as one engages in the process of looking at the paintings in this exhibition: First, optical concerns have a distinct place in the history of painting. They relate not only to concepts, calculations, and the processes by which paintings are made, but ultimately to how paintings are perceived. Second, opticality is not merely visual. Rather, it deals with the way a surface is made to appear illusory, virtual, or intangible. While we may refer to painting as a visual form of art, not all painting is conceived or made with the strict intention of eluding the surface. Opticality is one of the means by which color and form come to exist in relation to one another. Third, color in itself is not form, and it is not a tautology of aesthetic formalism as some artists and critics would have us believe. Even so, as Goethe stated nearly two centuries ago, color does have the ability to produce effects of light, and it is these effects that become part of our engagement with the optical experience of painting. Color is a formal component in a work of art, that is, in relation to form.


As the philosopher Wittgenstein once argued, our reading of color depends on something like an optical syntax where the various parts and particles come together to produce an effect. One of the most important artists to come to terms with this argument was Josef Albers. He made the syntax between colors visible in his "Homaqe ­to a Square" series, beginning in the late forties. By painting three or four squares, symmetrically on top of one another, as if they were receding towards the lower edge of a quadrilateral surface, Albers revealed the illusionistic properties of chroma, hue, and value through a keen optical awareness of how these components work in terms of an optical phenomenon.


"The Optical Edge" is about the edge in two ways: It is about the literal edge of the painting as if to pose the question: Where does the eye travel once it reaches the framing edge that isolates the painting from the rest of the world? The edge is also about the vernacular expression of "having an edge"-that is, an edge of certainty that goes beyond the mundane, that leaps outside the inside or vice versa. Both meanings are accurate in that they reflect the two sides of painting: the concept and its presentation, the material tactile surface in relation to the virtual "floating" surface. Each of these painters offers the eye/brain mechanism something beyond the predictable, liminal experience of stasis. These paintings are never static, at least, not in the optical sense. They are in motion or, as Vasarely insisted, they are ultimately kinetic to the extent that the eye never stops registering information about what it's taking in, what it's absorbing into the mind's eye.


The edge is both fantastic and real, but most of all, it is a threshold to move through and beyond the superficial non-edge of digital existence. There is something tactile in the opticality of these paintings that offers a complement to their surface movement.


@ Robert C. Morgan


Robert C. Morgan is an artist, curator, art historian, international critic, and lecturer, as well as the author of several books and essays. Dr. Morgan was a Fulbright Scholar in 2005 in the Republic of Korea, where he did research on the traditional arts of Korea as a source for the Korean avant-garde. Among the many exhibitions he has curated are the retrospective exhibitions of Allan Kaprow (1979) and Komar and Melamid (1979 - 80) at the Ulrich Museum of Art, Kansas; "Six Artists and the Visual Score" (1985) at the Pyramid Art Center, Rochester, New York; "Samadhi" (2002-03) at the Chelsea Art Museum; and "The Sign of Paradise" (2005) at the Mike Weiss Gallery, New York. In 1999, he was given the first Arcale award by the municipality of Salamanca (Spain) for his achievement as an international art critic. He is currently an adjunct professor in the Graduate Fine Arts Department at Pratt Institute.