Op Art

Op art is the short form for the art movement known as optical art. Time magazine described Op art as “Pictures That Attack the Eye” in October 1964; consequently, the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan created an exhibition of Op art in 1965 that boasted 123 paintings and sculptures from 100 artists of 15 nations (Spike, 2008).

The optical art movement has been especially common in American art since the1960s, but the style really traces back to the year 1839 and one French chemist, Michel-Eugene Chevreul. He studied the effect of pairing complimentary colors, and his influence spread importantly to the father of Op art, Georges Seurat, the inventor of pointillism (Spike, 2008).

Optical art is concerned with creating optical illusions. The style typically favors abstraction over representation because observers must really focus their eyes and comprehend what they see. An illusion might suggest one thing at first, but a closer look reveals something different in the picture. Many Op art pieces are completed in two colors—black and white. The optical illusion creates different responses in observers through patterns, flashes, contrasts, movement, and hidden imagery. The observer is pulled into the picture in the same way that he or she is attacked by the image.

Philip Taaffe (b. 1955) was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and trained at Cooper Union in New York. He has studied and exhibited internationally, and his works appear in museums such as Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Taaffe demonstrates the concepts of Op art in works like Eros and Psyche and Pine Columns. Eros and Psyche (1993-1994) is a vivid abstraction with bold colors of red, white, black, and orange. This painting reflects a similar style to some Abstract Expressionist works of Jackson Pollock.

The British artist, Bridget Riley, was born in 1931in London. Her art from the second half of the twentieth century offers many examples of optical illusion. One beautiful work is done in the traditional black and white—Movement in Squares (1961). In this piece, Riley shows that a simple geometric pattern of checkerboard squares when arranged in a compelling way can create motion and illusion. A colorful piece, Shadow Play (1990), uses many colors to create a geometric pattern that inspires strong emotions in the observer. For example, the use of bright and warm colors creates a happy feeling. Riley notably represented her country in the Venice Biennale (1968) and became the first British contemporary painter and female to garner the Biennale’s International Prize in painting.

Op art offers something in post-Modern and contemporary art for people who love powerful use of concepts like geometry, line, color, and pattern.