Essays on Perceptual and Op Art
Robert S. Mattison

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Perceptual Observer

After Image: Op Art of the 1960s
The following essay was written for the exhibition entitled After Image: Op Art of the 1960s, which is curentlly at Jacobson Howard Gallery, 22 East 72nd St., New York, NY and can be seen until April 28, 2007.

During the 1960s, Perceptual Art, coined "Op Art" by the press, became an overnight sensation, a precursor to the way today's new art trends are quickly commandeered by popular culture. The rapid assimilation of Perceptual Art into the con­sumer environment of the sixties, however; has lim­ited full consideration of its genesis, its relationship to the historical moment, and the visual complexi­ty of its best works. These features, together with the influence Perceptual Art has had on a wide range of artists, make it right for reexamination.


By presenting stimulating optical effects as well as visual incongruities and puzzles, Perceptual Art urges us 10 explore a universal aspect of the human condition, the relationship between seeing and knowing, or the manner in which we assimilate and use visual information. Francis Celentano's Web epitomizes the questions asked by Perceptual Art.  While realizing that the painting's surface is flat we alternately perceive its center as projecting and receding. Additionally, we read each of its four quadrants as folds in space. Despite the painting's centralized pattern, we are unable to separate fig­ure from ground or even to determine whether its block or white lines are dominant. The "simple" design of Web leads us into a maze of visual ques­tions; the implication is that any aspect of sight requires the most careful analysis.


The roots of Perceptual Art lie in the intensive visu­al investigations undertaken by Paul Cezanne and Georges Seurat early in the modern period, a time when scientists were beginning to learn that sight

was not the passive transfer of data, but an organ­ic process that could initiate as well as record phe­nomena. A concern with perceptual effects can be found in the Futurist artists, particularly in Giacomo Balla's "Iridescent" paintings, and in such Dada works as Marcel Duchamp's mechanical Rotary Glass of 1920, but the most direct source for Perceptual Art of the sixties lies in the Constructivist tradition. At the end of the World War I in the face of a fragmented world, utopian thinkers imagined a new unity between art, science, and technology. In the arts, proponents of these ideas included Piet Mondrain, Ferdinand Leger, Naum Gabo, Le Corbusier and particularly artists associated with the Bauhaus like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Joseph Albers, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Based on color expertise first developed in his Bauhaus classes, Albers explored in Homage to a Square: "Go Ahead" the contradictions between tactile and opti­cal space. While the surface texture of the work indicates that the ochre square was painted over the two yellow ones, our predisposition to perceive high value colors as advancing and low value ones as receding creates the illusion that two lemon-yel­low squares are projecting in front of the ochre one.


Like their Constructivist predecessors, the Perceptual Artists of the sixties were attuned to the scientific and psycho-perceptual investigations of their day. Gestalt psychology, a major interest for these artists, was made popular in Europe and America during the 1960s through the writings of Rudolph Arnheim and James J. Gibson. Gestalt posits seeing and thinking, not as separate activities as they were traditionally regarded, but as fully inte­grated. Seeing actively involves speculation, correc­tion, selection, analysis, and problem solving, con­cepts germane to optical painting. The Perceptual artists experimented with Gestalt effects, including after-image, line interference, retinal fatigue, ambiguous figures, reversible perspectives, the moire effect, and chromatic vibration. The artists' interests also ranged widely from space exploration to atomic structures, electronic music, modular architecture, automation, and cybernetics. Victor Vasarely declared rather grandly, "Henceforth art will adequately express the cosmic age of the atoms and stars."


The universal relevance sought by Perceptual artists led them to collaborate beyond national bor­ders. Unlike Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art which were primarily American based, Perceptual


Art's beginnings lay with such organizations as the French Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel. Francois Morellet, a member of the Groupe, constructed both two- and three-dimensional works from ele­ments he called from "tirets" (hyphens). Sphere en metaux uses tirets to create an ideal geometric shape. The optical vibration of the sphere depends on viewer movement. Such spectator involvement is a constant factor in Perceptual Art. One of the Groupe's manifestos reads, "Our aim is to make you a partner...We depend on your active partici­pation." In America, Richard Anuszkiewicz, who had studied with Albers at Yale University, created Sacred Green. The vibrant green square at the painting's center is surrounded by a halo of alter­nating squares and diamonds. These consist of patterns of bright red, the compliment of green, thus assuring maximum optical vibration. The red, in turn, alternates with either blue or green stripes. Not only do the forms radiate, but they seem to spin and move forward and backward in space. In addition, while the same red is used throughout the painting, it appears as two different tones depending on the color of the stripes adjoining it. Has Anuszkiewicz created an optical parallel to the ecstasy that earlier generations felt in front of sacred paintings?


Like the radiating patterns in Anuszkiewicz's paint­ing, the visual discoveries of Perceptual Art extend­ed to a wide variety of contemporary artists. In a manner parallel to the investigations of Perceptual Art, Larry Poons dot paintings deliberately con­found our understanding, of figure and ground relationships. In addition, elements of optical vibra­tion may be found in the patterned paintings 'of Frank Stella, some Minimal sculptures, and even Pop art. Like the creators of Perceptual Art, these artists were influenced by the scientific and percep­tual investigations of their day.


But the 1960s was not only an age of scientific inquiry, it was a time of social and political unrest in Europe and America. The sixties saw the rise of the feminist movement, student riots in Europe, the Vietnam War, political assassinations, and the Civil Rights Movement. In contrast to such social fragmentation, Perceptual Art yielded visual explo­rations that were provocative but not chaotic. The paintings and sculptures, as well as the popular­ culture advertising and design elements derived from them, produced defined parameters within which the exciting visual stimuli occurred. Such experimentation thus provided reassurance during that age of uncertainty.


Optical art is currently experiencing a renaissance. The present exhibition is a companied by larger retrospectives that have occurred or are about to open at the New York State Museum in Albany, Columbus Museum of Art, and Pratt Institute. In addition, some younger contemporary artists are making optical works that have been dubbed "Neo-Psychedelic."  As mentioned above, Perceptual Art emerged as challenging, but con­trolled, experiments during a chaotic period. One wonders if the revival of interest today is related to our own age of uncertainty.


Robert S. Mattison

Marshall R. Metzgar Professor of Art History,

Lafayette College