The Abstract Language of Op Art and Op Art in Vancouver
Along with recently celebrating its 89 birthday, The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) has re-opened its doors to the public after a brief hiatus. The VAG is the largest public art museum in Western Canada, and it is dedicated to supporting, collecting, and exhibiting the art practices of Indigenous, Vancouver based, and international artists.
The VAG mandates that its “growing collection of over 11,600 artwork represents the most comprehensive resource for art in British Columbia and is the principal repository for visual art produced in the region, as well as related works by other notable Canadian and international artists.” In recent years, the gallery has presented large scale exhibitions of influentially global artworks alongside regional artwork chosen explicitly from their collection. The VAG’s newest exhibitions include Victor Vasarely and Op Art in Vancouver. The two exhibitions work in tandem to express Vasarely’s influence on the abstract movement of Optical art (Op art) and Op art’s influence in Vancouver in the late 1960s.
According to the organizers of Victor Vasarely, the VAG houses the most extensive collection of Vasarely works in Canada, and its vast collection “reflects the long-standing interest in Vasarely’s art in this community.” The exhibit also presented works on loan from the Simonyi Collection in Seattle. It was made possible through the support of the Centre Pompidou, Musée National D’art Moderne in Paris –– the French museum, was home to the large scale Vasarely retrospective, Sharing Forms 2019.
Victor Vasarely and The Op Art Movement
Originally from Pécs Hungary, Victor Vasarely moved to Budapest as a young adult to study painting and Bauhaus design. By 1930, Vasarely moved to Paris, where he worked as a graphic designer and poster artist. In 1965, he was a contributing artist in the acclaimed exhibit, The Responsive Eye, at the MoMA in New York. After the exhibit, he became known as the grandfather of Op art. Using his knowledge of design and painting, he made art that could exist inside and outside the gallery. “Merging artworks and commercially printed multiples,” Vasarely created accessible art by branching his medium of painting and sculpture into graphic design, textiles, and architecture (Vancouver Art Gallery). He sought to champion op art as a form of art that could use perceptual language to speak universally to broad audiences.
Throughout the history of Modern art, various aesthetic movements determined popular approaches to artistic figure and style, which influenced artists to challenge the definition of what art could be. By the 1960s, numerous artists turned to abstract aesthetics to conceive their paintings and sculptures. In addition, Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg looked to everyday commercial items and media –– studying designs, colours, advertisements –– for inspiration.
The movement of Op art followed a similar trajectory, utilizing bold shades and colours, geometric figures, and abstraction. Unlike other art movements, Op art is known for creating perceptual abstraction by forming “irregular patterns and chromatic tensions.” In other terms, Op art uses illusion to deceive a viewer’s eye; these artworks combine specific figures and forms to create perceptual experiences that play with “how the eye and brain work together to perceive colour, light, depth, perspective, size, shape, and motion.” Despite the static 2-D nature of Op artworks, their compositions generate illusions of movement, warped perspectives, and distortion. Their visual natures insight different neurological and perceptual experiences for diverse viewers. Because of these alternating responses, Op art intended to offer broad audiences unique and new encounters with conceptual and abstract art.
Op Art influence in 1960s Vancouver
In a 2016 interview with a Canadian Art reporter, executive director of Art21, Tina Kukielski expressed about Vancouver that “Artists are interested in history there, but also in reframing the world around them. By recreating historical moments, staging photos of vernacular scenes, and crafting intricate sculptures that trick the eye, artists reveal how everyday images and moments from the past are not always what they seem.” Vancouver has a long history as a city with a vibrant, conceptual, and active arts community. Home to various universities and arts programs, the community includes abstract artists, photographers, painters, ceramicists, and designers. According to Henry Rappaport, Vancouver’s arts community in the 1960s was “consciously and intensely experimental and collaborative.” The Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art and Design) educated and built many leading Canadian artists, including the Op inspired artists Michael Morris and Joan Balzar.
Op Art in Vancouver at the VAG highlights multiple abstract works from the VAG collection by Morris, Balzar, and others. The curators of the exhibit articulate that it is difficult to historically pinpoint a specific reason as to why the Op aesthetic emerged in Vancouver. Instead, many artists likely had ties to the experimental influence of the European Avant-Garde and West Coast (or California) artists. In 1959, Hard-Edge painting emerged in California. The style had similarities to Op Art but focused on visuals of stark and clean-edged colour as opposed to illusions.
Perhaps the emergence of Op Art in Vancouver differed from Vasarely’s, and other European Op influencer’s, manifesto of the style. It would seem that through a network of ties, Vancouver artists took inspiration from various art regions and movements across the globe –– reflecting off of Op Art, Hard-Edge painting, and other abstract aesthetics to create their own style and representation of a conceptual art language specific to Vancouver.
Victor Vasarely and Op Art in Vancouver will be on view from October 17, 2020 to April 5, 2021. Tickets can be reserved online in advance at https://etickets.vanartgallery.bc.ca/Info.aspx?EventID=3.