Op art: not a printing error or an onomatopoeic expression used in comic books but rather a genuine artistic movement that enjoyed some success in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s a movement that has come back into fashion, for a number of reasons that possibly escape the grasp of art critics and have more to do with taste, fashion and sensibility. Ours is also the era of “vintage” (the term comes from wine where a vin d’age – an old wine – is particularly prized). We need to constantly call on the past, as if confessing to present-day feebleness when it comes to saying or doing anything new.
Op art is an abstract art movement based on the principle that at the heart of the matter is not just the work of art, but also the audience. Or rather, through the perception of our gaze, the painting is no longer simply a fixed two-dimensional surface, but a field of tensions that between them produce an illusion of movement, instability and change. It’s no accident that people speak of optical illusion: I’ve seen what does not exist, I’ve imagined seeing what does in fact exist. After the great period of post-1945 abstraction, characterised by spontaneous gesture and automatic mark-making, painting was confronted with the necessity of going further, towards the object, under pain of its own natural extinction. The first person to consider this problem was Lucio Fontana, theorist of Spatialism, which puts forward the idea that there should be something additional in relation to the painting, that the stillness of its surface should be disturbed, perforated, slashed.
His insights gained followers in the early 1960s, above all in Milan, where young painters investigated surface and form by painting in black and white. It was in this atmosphere that the practice of “programmed art” developed (art that was regulated like a mathematical theorem and a scientific and kinetic procedure), that implied movement. Some have seen in these “experiments” the last flowering of the avant-garde before the upheaval of postmodernism. It was an avant-garde that mixed rebellion and law, utopia and rules. But to fully understand the significance of op art it is necessary to travel outside Italy, to France, to find the stateless artists (nowadays we would call them “global”) who did not fear confrontation with the modern world of mechanisation.
The Vasarely Affair was a representative one in the definition of op art (“op” stands for “optical”, in the same way “pop” stands for “popular”). When the Franco-Hungarian artist was creating the works that were to give him eternal fame (from the mid-1950s onwards), and before the movement became widespread, he already had a good 20 years of experience. Victor Vasarely’s career began in 1929 when he was 23 years old (he was born in 1906 in Pécs, Hungary), with enrolment at Budapest’s Mühely School, an establishment clearly inspired by Bauhaus principles, and only ended with his death in Paris in 1997. One simply has to review a few of the striking periods in this long career to realise the extent to which his insights are more than ever contemporary. The hub of Vasarely’s theory lay in “programmes”. Prefiguring the minimalist sensibility that denies subjectivism, Vasarely formalised the artist’s pictorial distance from the painting, using collaborators who applied plans which contained detailed instructions for painting. These plans have grids, figures and numbers corresponding to colours and shades. Paradoxically, with a “programme” anybody could replicate their own Vasarely without recourse to the hand of the artist himself. The reasons for such a turn are bound up with the debate on the future of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, in the almost exactly contemporaneous discovery by pop artists, with Andy Warhol in the vanguard, of the screen printing process. Screen printing opens up the way to the multiple perception of the work and consequent loss of meaning of the unique piece.
Ultimately, the reason for the “Vasarelian” choice was also to pursue the far from negligible ambition of a dialogue with a wider public. Vasarely wrote in his notes of feeling himself to be a popular artist because he pursued the dreams of a utopian socialism, which was also borrowed from Bauhaus.
In any event, these theoretical reflections on the future of painting were ahead of their time. They came before the “wall drawings” by Sol LeWitt, who sold collectors his designs for mural projects; once an agreement was made, LeWitt sent his assistants to create the work, authorising by contract any possible replicas of them. Vasarely’s ideas came even before Peter Halley, who would execute the definitive painting after the purchaser or commissioner had chosen the design on paper, which was then entrusted to Halley’s studio assistants. Not to mention Damien Hirst’s dot paintings, an example of optical works mechanically repeated with small but significant variations that make each canvas unique. In 1955, Vasarely organised the exhibition Le mouvement at the Galerie Denise René in Paris, inviting future leading figures in op art: the Belgian sculptor Pol Bury; the Bolivian artist Jesus Rafael Soto, a specialist in kinetic installations; and the “grand old man”, Marcel Duchamp, with his “Rotoreliefs”. Thus the provocation of an art that was no longer static garnered the enthusiasm of a younger and fiercer generation, represented by Daniel Buren, who moves his painting into a dimension of public art to be displayed outdoors and in relationship with architecture. A significant role has also been played by a woman, the English painter Bridget Riley, a refined colourist who pushes to its limits a kind of painting that is capable of producing genuine feelings of confusion in its viewers. In front of her optical-illusionistic legerdemain (and this is also true of Vasarely and the Israeli artist, Yaacov Agam) we experience the same feeling of vertigo and disorientation on which (and not by chance), Alfred Hitchcock constructed the theory of his film Vertigo, which was first released in 1958.
Nor should we deny the importance of M.C. Escher, the Dutch genius who translated the principles of Op Art philosophy into graphics and before the grandeur of science fiction and fantasy. In the 1960s, Vasarely named a number of worksafter stars and constellations, precisely at the time man was exploring the possibilities of space before making the ultimate voyage that took him from Earth to moon.
An interesting coincidence: the rock star painting as background for the cover of his second album, Space Oddity (originally released as David Bowie). This was in 1969, a year after Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. A similar ambition of Vasarely’s was to “contaminate” himself with the world of fashion, thus influencing the style of the era. In 1968, Paco Rabanne designed a collection inspired by Vasarely’s op art, while the cinema, with Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, quoted his kinetic paintings. The power of icons was of no interest to him. He sought to enter into dialogue with industrial production, to establish a relationship with modern design, or update Bauhaus teaching in an age of consumerism. Together with design, there was a significant relationship with architecture, a relationship in which Vasarely was a total pioneer.
How we re-imagined contemporary Ferrari models as op art masterpieces
Wolfgang Seidl, German designer and art director, wanted to transmit the theory and ideas of op art on to contemporary Ferrari models. To help him in his quest, he collaborated with Florian Drahorad, creative leader of RTT, a partner with shared interests and common goals. RTT is a marketleading company, specialising in professional high-end 3D visualisation in realtime, developing it into a key process-changing technology for its clients. As a strategic partner, RTT enables companies to explore innovative ways for anemotive digital product experience across the entire product life cycle, from design and development to marketing and sales applications.
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine 16 issue March 2012