Essays on Perceptual and Op Art
Dave Hickey

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Perceptual Observer

Trying to See What We Can Never Know
The following essay by Dave Hickey was excerpted by permission of the Columbus Museum of Art.  The complete essay appears in the 200 page catalog titled Optic Nerve.  Please support the Columbus Museum and buy a copy directly from them (telephone: (614) 221 4848.)

In retrospect, of course, it is easy to see that the postwar American ideology of "expression" was more of a social metaphor than a psychological one. Social repression, after all, does exist, and it does, in fact, mitigate expression. It is also possible to see that the postwar insistence that art must provide us with conscious knowledge and insight was probably nothing more than a manifestation of intellectual insecurity about the philosophical credibility of postwar American art-an insecurity that was, in fact, totally justified. One may, in fact, trace the hostility that was exhibited toward optical art in 1965 back to the refusal of American art critics to deal with the optical foundations of Abstract Expressionism in the previous decade. Both Op and Ab-Ex, I would suggest, speak more directly to American ways of seeing than to European ways of knowing, being more visible and less knowable than we usually presume.

Unfortunately, the American art community, when first confronted with Abstract Expressionism, fell into willful, collective blindness and justified this blindness with a fictional mythology that centered on the "story" told by the artist's hand." The critical invention of the "artist's hand narrative" allowed us to read Abstract Expressionist paintings rather than look at them. More precisely, it allowed us to think, when we looked at these paintings, that we were actually reading the artists' opaque, encoded, gestural "handwriting." This opened the door to narrative interpretations of paintings that are. in fact. as resistant to narrative as optical paintings. Freudian narratives of repression and expression could be attached to the artist's purportedly unintelligible ecriture. Primitivist Jungian symbolizing could be evoked to justify its opacity, or, conversely, Marxist narratives about the ineluctable material destiny of painting could be invented to justify the marks' dissolution into abstraction and entropy.

            Today, of course, Abstract. Expressionist paintings may, if one wishes, be experienced as optical occasions. The handless, immaculate Op paintings that followed them could not be known as anything else, and this escalated level of control, I would suggest, does not so much represent an effort on the part of Op painters to critique Abstract Expressionist paintings, as an effort on their part to armor the Achilles heel that privileged their misinterpretation. In this sense, the flowering of handless-ness in American art may be taken as a conscious effort to elude or subvert the mythology of the "artist's hand" along with the problematic, literary interpretations that it made possible. Beginning in the late 1 960s, artists who would later be known as Pop artists, op artists, Kinetic artists, and Minimalist artists simultaneously abandoned the antique tradition of "mark-making," and set about replacing the European narratives of Freud and Marx with a new American brand of literalism….


…Op does its own work for whoever will look.  It dispenses with the repertoire of knowledge and experience that is presumed to be required to appreciate abstract art. It replaces the elite, intellectual pleasure of "getting it" with the egalitarian fun-house pleasure of disorientation; of trying to understand something that you cannot. By refusing to set us apart in our relative levels of visual mastery, Op Art makes us one in our anxious, enjoyable failure. More beneficially, as we stand before Op paintings that resist our understanding, we introduce ourselves to our unconscious selves. We become aware of the vast intellectual and perceptual resources that await our command just beyond the threshold of our knowing. These, of course, can only be inferred on the rare occasions when they fail to serve our purposes. Optical art provides those occasions.