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Visitors with Len Lye’s Fountain, 1963, at the opening of exhibition Art Today: Kinetic & Optic and The Buffalo Festival of the Arts on March 14, 1965. Image courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery Digital Assets Collection and Archives, Buffalo, New York.

Between the Lines: Highlighting Op Art in France and the United States

May 26, 2020

In the mid-1960s, Optical, or “Op,” art became a major international movement. Op objects typically feature bold geometric patterns that playfully (and sometimes painfully) trick the eye, prompting reflection on the nature of visual perception. The Op aesthetic quickly crossed over into interior design and fashion; to this day, it is still associated with the swinging, Space Age sixties. At the same time, its futuristic stylings have proved perennially popular and look newly relevant in today’s technological world.

While Op was created and enjoyed around the world, it was especially popular in France, where many of the most important Op artists lived. Their works were understood as part of a legacy of European geometric art that originated in the early twentieth century with Neoplasticism and continued through movements such as Constructivism and Art Deco. As one of the significant public collections of abstract art in France, the Musée d’arts de Nantes began acquiring Op art in the 1970s; one highlight is a work by Jesús Rafael Soto donated in 1978 by Jean Gorin, the leading French practitioner of Neoplasticism, and his wife Suzanne.

Victor Vasarely (French, born Hungary, 1908–1997). Alom, 1968. Serigraphed paper on plywood, 79 7/16 x 79 7/16 x 2 1/16 inches (201.8 x 201.8 x 5.2 cm). Collection Musée d’arts de Nantes, Purchased from Galerie Argos, 1971. © ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Gérard Blot/Agence photographique de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux—Grand Palais des Champs Elysées.

François Morellet (French, 1926–2016). Répartition aléatoire de 20% de carrés, superposée 5 fois en pivotant au centre, 1970. Paint on wood, four panels: 63 x 63 inches (160 x 160 cm) overall. Collection Musée d’arts de Nantes, Purchased from the artist, 1976. © ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Cécile Clos/Musée d'arts de Nantes. 

Jesús Rafael Soto (Venezuelan, 1923–2005). Untitled, 1971. Oil and India ink on wood, metal rods, and nylon threads, 22 5/8 x 43 5/16 x 6 5/16 inches (57.5 x 110 x 16.1 cm). Collection Musée d’arts de Nantes, Gift of Jean and Suzanne Gorin, 1978. © ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Alain Guillard/Musée d'arts de Nantes. 

François Morellet (French, 1926–2016). Deux trames de grillage superposées sur un bois fond noir inclinaison: -4° +4°, maille 5 cm, 1973. Paint and metal on wood, 39 3/4 x 39 11/16 x 1 5/8 inches (101 x 100.8 x 4.1 cm). Collection Musée d’arts de Nantes, Purchased from the artist, 1976. © ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Alain Guillard/Musée d'arts de Nantes.  

Vera Molnar (Hungarian, born 1924). Transformation, 1983. Vinyl on canvas, 59 x 59 1/8 inches (149.8 x 150.2 cm). Collection Musée d’arts de Nantes. © ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Cécile Clos/Musée d'arts de Nantes. 

Raymond Hains (French, 1926–2005). Hépérile éclaté, 1985. Serigraphs on Forex panels, three panels: 50 3/8 x 39 3/8 inches (128 x 100 cm) each. Collection Musée d’arts de Nantes, Gift of the artist, 1998. © ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Alain Guillard/Musée d'arts de Nantes. 

Angela Bulloch (Canadian, born 1966). Disco Floor—Bootleg 16, 2002. DMX module in wood, Plexiglas, metal and fluorescent tubes, electronic control unit, sound equipment, and light; 28 5/16 x 79 15/16 x 79 15/16 inches (72 x 203 x 203 cm), running time: 8 minutes, 2 seconds. Collection Musée d’arts de Nantes; Fonds national d'art contemporain. © Angela Bulloch. Photo: Cécile Clos/Musée d'arts de Nantes. 

Anish Kapoor (British, born India, 1954). Sister, 2005. Fiberglass, plaster, and paint, 70 7/8 x 70 7/8 x 19 7/8 inches (180 x 180 x 50.5 cm). Collection Musée d’arts de Nantes, Purchased from the artist, 2007. © ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Cécile Clos/Musée d'arts de Nantes. 

Op art was also popular in the United States, where it was introduced simultaneously in the spring of 1965 with The Responsive Eye at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and Art Today: Kinetic & Optic at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. Beginning with the acquisition of many of the works from its survey, the Albright-Knox developed one of the best collection of Op paintings, sculptures, and prints in the world, which it has featured in numerous exhibitions over the ensuing decades.

Acceleration #15, Series B

Jean-Pierre Yvaral (French, 1934–2002). Acceleration #15, Series B, 1962. Vinyl cords and painted wood, 24 1/2 x 23 1/2 x 3 1/4 inches (62.2 x 59.7 x 8.3 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1963 (K1963:19). © Estate of Jean-Pierre Yvaral / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. 

Structure permutationnelle (Permutational Structure)

Francisco Sobrino (Spanish, 1932–2014). Structure permutationnelle (Permutational Structure), 1963–66. Plexiglas, edition 1/3; 43 1/4 x 11 3/4 x 11 1/2 inches (109.9 x 29.8 x 29.2 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1969 (K1969:1). © Estate of Francisco Sobrino / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid. 

Drift 2

Bridget Riley (British, born 1931). Drift 2, 1966. Synthetic emulsion on canvas, 91 1/2 x 89 1/2 inches (232.4 x 227.3 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1967 (K1967:5). © Bridget Riley. All rights reserved. 

Convex, Concave I Dimensional

Richard Joseph Anuszkiewicz (American, born 1930). Convex, Concave I Dimensional, 1967. Lacquered plywood on mirrored base, 34 1/2 x 50 3/8 x 50 1/4 inches (87.6 x 128 x 127.6 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1967 (K1967:12). © Richard Joseph Anuszkiewicz / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. 

Kinetic Painting III

Francis Michael Celentano (American, 1928–2016). Kinetic Painting III, 1967. Acrylic on Masonite with motor, 48 inches (121.9 cm) diameter. Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1968 (K1968:8). © Estate of Francis Michael Celentano. 

Untitled (#E-111)

Tadasuke Kuwayama (American, born Japan, 1935). Untitled (#E-111), 1969. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches (152.4 x 152.4 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1969 (K1969:24). © 1969 Tadasky (Tadasuke Kuwayama). 

Vega-Nor

Victor Vasarely (French, born Hungary, 1906–1997). Vega-Nor, 1969. Oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 inches (200 x 200 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1969 (K1969:29). © Fondation Vasarely / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Free Standing Painting

Yaacov Agam (Israeli, born 1928). Free Standing Painting, 1971. Painted aluminum, wood, and stainless steel, 78 3/4 x 118 x 31 1/2 inches (200 x 299.7 x 80 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1971 (K1971:18). © Yaacov Agam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. 

Today, both the Musée d’arts de Nantes and the Albright-Knox are members of FRAME, the French-American Museum Exchange. In FRAME’s spirit of collaboration between cultures, curators from both museums highlight their Op art collections and the connections between them in this video.

Project Sponsor

This project is made possible through the generosity of FRAME—the French American Museum Exchange.

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