This February marks the 50th anniversary of MoMA’s 1965 show “The Responsive Eye,” the exhibition that formalized Op art as a movement, albeit a short-lived one. Curated by William Seitz, the show caused a media frenzy—mainstream publications covered the show’s dizzying art extensively, while art critics remained suspicious. By today’s standards, the show was also limited in its scope—it looked mostly at European and American artists, many of whom were also men. In honor of El Museo del Barrio’s “The Illusive Eye,” which seeks to rectify that, by looking at the history of Op art in Latin America, below is Thomas B. Hess’s essay about “The Responsive Eye,” originally published in the April 1965 issue of ARTnews. Hess’s mixed review, in which he calls the show a victim of “acute Exhibitionemia” (“a chronic international disease” in which shows lump together un-like styles), follows in full below.—Alex Greenberger
“You can hang it in the hall”
By Thomas B. Hess
Op art, in the Museum of Modern Art’s survey, looks friendly, cheerful, thrifty, reverent and clean in mind and body
In an exemplary display of what Harold Rosenberg called “the Premature Echo,” some forty or fifty-thousand Op-Art group shows in 1963-65 strewed flowers in front of the bandwagon of the Modern Museum’s recently opened smash survey of the mode à la mode [to April 25].
To one of these gallery openings came a silky blond newscaster named Jean Parr, who works for the C.B.S.-T.V. late-newsviewers; her chat with a middle-aged, recent covert to Op went something like this:
Parr: The colors in Op-Art are very very strong?
Artist: Yes indeed there is a tremendous amount of involvement, integrity, insight and powerful strength behind the colors, which makes them look strong.
Parr (presses fingers to the bridge of her nose): They give me a terrible headache.
Artist: Yes indeed when you pack that much involvement, integrity, insight and powerful strength behind colors they can, well, produce a headache.
Parr: So how can I buy one to hang over my mantelpiece if it gives me this horrible headache?
Artist: Well . . . You can hang it in the hall.
One striking thing about Op-Art: its return to modesty.
The Abstract-Expressionists (like the Cubists or the Impressionists) aim at a Grand Style, masterpieces, the Jackpot. Once a collector had the nerve to hang a (borrowed) painting by an Abstract-Expressionist genius in his hall; the artist broke into the collector’s house, knifed the canvas from its frame and drove away, the picture clutched to his chest, shouting at the bemused collector (who had just arrived on the scene): “This will teach you who is leading the Parade!” The anecdote may be slightly apocryphal, but its moral is exact, and I remember Barnett Newman complaining about a conversation which had veered to German Expressionism because he had “presumed that our dialogue is with Michelangelo.”
The dialogue of Op is with “The Responsive Eye” (the apt title curator William Seitz gave to the Museum of Modern Art exhibition)—that is, with the audience and through the audience to a responsive, indeed glad-handing Society. Why the Establishment has reacted so warmly to these images, despite the twinges of vertigo and migraine such hospitality entails, is one of the more interesting sociological aspects of the fad—which will be considered later.
The Museum show itself, despite Mr. Seitz’s evident scholarship and good intentions, is a mishmash which suffers from acute Exhibitionemia (a chronic international disease). It lumps together at least six totally different kinds of painting and sculpture, including: the mystical; belated hedonist Geometries; various continuations of New York and Paris abstract styles; revivals of Bauhaus and Constructivist ideas; purist paintings related to the works of Newman, Rothko and Gottlieb (none of whom, quite rightly, are in the exhibition); eccentric and/or hermetic deviations (one critic, a devout New Yorker, said, “Op is Out-of-Town Art”; he is right; Op is pursued as fanatically in South Dakota as in the South of France); and, finally, the exhibition presents a large group of works which might be called Hard-Core Op—shapes that provoke strong, often violent, “retinal” illusions, such as after-images, sensations of motion, of blinking, pinging, popping, glowing.
Exhibitionemia comes from a glossing over of significant differences while emphasizing superficial resemblances, like the shared preoccupation with color and edge and the common absence of explicit figuration which are the main characteristics isolated in Mr. Seitz’s category. Such cosmetic relationships blur the esthetic distance between approaches by insisting on coincidences which distract from crucial plastic distinctions. For example, many pictures use as a motif boxes-within-boxes or stripes or concentric circles (homage to Albers, Newman and, of all people, Jasper Johns). They resemble each other as much as a series of portraits of the same model by different painters might look alike, but this species of “literary” kinship veils rather than clarifies what the artists have been up to.
Mixed in with Op at the Museum are rugged-individualist visionaries, like Albers and Reinhardt, who, despite their massive (and valuable) theoretical dialectics, remain stubbornly dedicated to repeating one or two themes over and over again until the repeated acts take on a different quality, warping the image into something new and strange. The shimmering in Albers’ and Reinhardt’s pictures is not illusion, it is real fervor (like the flashes of light which Willem de Kooning recognized in Mondrian’s interstices as revelations of the intensity of Mondrian’s commitment).
(It may be that the only possibility for Op to become Art is through such solitary, dedicated disciplines. All that is needed is a sympathetic format—and about twenty years of selfless practice to make perfect.)
Tied by the exhibition to the mystics, such belated Geometric-Abstractionists as Vasarely or Cunningham look tamely academic. They have hotted-up their chromas for a bit of gentle eye-rocking or edge-glowing. But this extension of Kandinsky-cum-Futurism does not elevate their work to much more than conscientious painting-by-numbers.
Ludwig Sander and Paul Brach are well-known New York painters in the cool purist direction, a thoughtful, introspective manner which is most involved with nuanced ideas about paint stroked on to canvas. Their connection with Op’s characteristic jabbing effects are as slight as those of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, who also derive from New York painting (Pollock, Newman, Rothko), but who want their colors to act without the ambiguities of paint, so they stain raw canvas with simple forms whose banality hints at some kind of pentecostal symbols.
Stella and Feeley, on the other hand, seem positively anti-Op, opposed to illusion and insisting on numb, blunt qualities, as if they were erecting models for phenomenological speculations about Art vs. Object. All these, along with such established men as Ellsworth Kelly and Leon Polk Smith, are mixed with Echt-Op artists, mostly born around 1930—men and women disengaged from the esthetic subtleties of a Sander, or from the tremulous psyche that vibrates through Louis’ butterfly-wing stripes, or even from Albers, their old teacher at Black Mountain, Yale and in Bauhaus textbooks for “First-Year Design Laboratories”—Albers keeps talking about Perception as if it has something to do with old-fashioned quirks like Observation of Nature and How to make a Painting—not with avant-garde, cool soul-stuff.
Op is the art that the public flocks to see, and critic Jack Kroll reports they “bob and wave” in front of the exhibits, shake their heads back and forth, make little jumps, like penguins at a mating dance, to get the biggest retinal kicks. (Perhaps this peripateticism is due to one Op theorist—moiré variety—who was widely misquoted in the press as saying that certain optical illusions give a sensation of LSD, so hundreds of people innocently sway in front laminated black-and-white constructions, convinced that they are getting a cheap jag. This writer admits to feeling queasy after a long look at Op, but William Seitz assures him that it is a passing reaction, “like your first cigarette.”)
At the press-opening, it was noticed that one black-and-white Op panel by Bridget Riley had been dirtied in transit. The artist happened to drop by, and she volunteered to make repairs. I came across her cheerfully scouring the surface with Ajax, “The Foaming Cleanser,” while a staff carpenter stood nearby with the expression of an old baron’s retainer watching the new tenants install hi-fi in the clavichord. (Just a whiff of Ajax, he hinted, would melt a dozen of the Bonnards that had hung on these walls only a few weeks before.) Obviously this is all for the best; the Museum should install exhibitions now and then which shake the personnel. But the quick association from the episode is pure T.V.: Ajax’s commercial is an armored knight on a horse, both of them white-washed, galloping through playgrounds or oil-fields aiming a lance at fellows wearing dirty tee-shirts which, in an explosion of light, became snowy-white and beautifully laundered. The background music is a stirring Gaucho-Gothic chorus. The hectic rhythm, the white flash on the T.V. screen, the pinch of Dada salt, are, in a sense, the content of Op.
Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, suggests that the content of every new medium is another, usually older form. Thus the content of the movies is the novel. The content of television is the movies. Etc. The content of both Pop and Op-Art is advertising, especially display advertising. Pop used printed commercial art—magazine illustrations, billboards, packaging. Op uses T.V.—its image made up of hundreds of tiny dots which the eye reads by filling in the gaps; in times of distress the screen is covered with appealing moiré patterns. There is the same quivering glare to the light, the same ping effects, the radar blips. And there is the same immediacy. Like the T.V. viewer, the Op audience passively participates, conditioned into giving up critical faculties, or at least suspending disbelief. Peripatetic zombies. The threshold of interest is very low; almost anything can be amusing. And the image acts on and for the placid viewer. It lures him to watch. He easily joins.
Painting, on the other hand, is very hard to join; it is a difficult, serious, remote, aristocratic art. A painting keeps its distance from the spectator. There is an invisible but crystal-hard wall between the viewer and a Franz Hals or a Franz Kline, which causes many people to become impatient with art, especially when its style is new and it has not yet been assimilated in a body of accepted ideas. This may explain some of the critical success Op enjoys among the art-reporters for the mass-mediums, who always have felt the function of Art is to teach, or at least to divert, the People. They are exasperated by the aloofness of Abstract-Expressionism (which they interpret as snobbism and slyly diagnose as paranoia). In Op they sense that art, at long last, is not only meeting the audience half-way, as it did in the Socialist-Realist 1930s; Op will actually come down off the walls and shake your hand.
But perhaps this is to infer too much theory from an art-reportage whose dialectics are apt to be hopelessly visceral. And Op has a built-in appeal to conservatives because it is the first big step backwards to Naturalism since Andrew Wyeth’s in 1912—and Op has none of Wyeth’s uneasy pessimism.
Op techniques are like perspective, like painting which relies on planes receding to a single vanishing point for an illusion of three-dimensional depth, in that Op effects only function as they mesh with the physiology of the eye-brain system. In other words, Op works with what is already there, in your nerves. And just as perspective quickly developed out of art into complicated crafts that produced marvelous anamorphic and isometric trompe l’oeils, Op plays with increasingly complicated now-you-see-it, now-you-see-something-else illusions. One of the more refreshing things about the mode is its naïve sense of wonder in front of its own tableaux. Op is not complacent, rather it has the craftsman’s awe of craft secrets and the technicians relish of a good job neatly done.
Its intimate relationship to perspective also suggests something about the scientific aura which surrounds Op. Both are mechanistic, Newtonian disciplines. The content of Op may be T.V., but it is the amateur’s look at T.V., not its electronics. The ideas about color, after-images, moirés, etc. which attract certain Popular Mechanics coteries to the mode, are rooted in late eighteenth-century experiments which were exploited in the early nineteenth century by Central Europeans (especially in Austria), and reached France just before the mid-century in time for Chevreul and the experiences of Impressionism.
If Op is an alliance of Science and Art—Lord Snow’s Third Culture—Science is conceding only its obsolete apparatus (like the C.I.A. procures antique, propeller aircraft for our Congolese guerrillas).
Actually Op is not involved with science, but with pseudo-scientific crafts of display—show-window designs, textile patterns, eye-catching wrapping-papers—which in turn have salvaged a few techniques from the commercial labs. Op artists use the best and newest plastic emulsions, industrial glass, acetate film; they have efficient spray guns; their razorblades are secured in non-slip handles.
This is gadgetry, bitten by art, dreaming about science.
Another striking thing about Op-Art: it is very clean.
Walking into a show of Op abstractions, after having looked at Cézanne or Picasso or de Kooning, is a relief. Everything has been tidied up. No chunks of personality are exposed, no blood, no tears, the gallons of sweat are deodorized. Even the seamy side of Pop-Art has been cleared away: no sobs or giggles. It is relaxing–for a few minutes. But then the simplemindedness of most Op enterprises drives you back to painting. Anuskiewicz’ bright emblems are, after all, nothing more than the old First-Year Design Laboratory projects. Brighter of course, bigger, neater–but the discourse is stuck (how-ever cleverly) at an eighteen-year-old-level. And virtuous eighteen-year-old at that: Eagle Scouts.
But the decorous violence, which gave Miss Parr a headache, is new. It may be a little simple-minded to play with optical illusions, but it takes a certain ambition to want to drive the illusion like a needle through the brain. In this concept, Op artists seem to continue the tradition of American Abstract-Expressionism, trying for the big, positive impact that will stop the spectator in his tracks and proclaim the hegemony of a new art and its subversive values.
The Op sensation jangles through your nervous system, but it is, after all your nervous system. In order to make its point, the picture or sculpture must never revert to an assembly-line objectivity. Any Ego in Op would blur edges, set up unpredictable modulations, dirty the illusion. Thus Op must be disassociated from Art. The eye may be reeling, but the exhibit is cool as a cucumber.
A third striking thing about Op: it is programmed to the point of anonymity.
It is not irrelevant to note how many of the Op artists have been successful commercial designers–heads of advertising agencies, art directors, etc. This, of course, is no reflection on the men, but is does indicate a good deal about the limited aims, conscientious crafts and social orientation of the mode.
It is a relatively new intrusion. Art has been the domain of anarchists, rebels, Quixotes and forceful non-conformists ever since the middle class got control of patronage. The ideologies of every modernist movement in painting and sculpture since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has been violently against the status quo.
The middle class has not ignored the artists’ hostility, but has tried to change art to make it conform, to accept the situation that prevails, with two major tactics: success and failure, money and poverty.
When a subversive style imposes itself on Society, the middle class counters by attempting to encyst it in honors. But in the years before he can force his image on time, the subversive artist lives as an outcast.
The sociological phenomenon of the speedy official acceptance of Op, despite its unpleasant retinal effects, is a direct result of Society’s recognition that in the Op artist it has found a true conformist: a man who puts his technology in the service of the People.The sensations from Op are not the new frissons which Baudelaire defined as a trait of modernity. They are feelings in the spectator which he can ascribe comfortably to his own nervous system–just as when he drinks a martini or smells gasoline. Op becomes a commodity which can be used at will to produce predictable (and when habituated, probably enjoyable) feeling. Not only can you “hang it in the hall,” but I also see no reason why collectors should not keep Op in racks, like wine in cellars.
Good artists, of course, will make something out of it. Op has brought a heightened sensitivity to color and to edge into the scene, and Larry Poons, for one, works with after-images in something like the ways Rothko and Newman made big color areas expand into radiance. And Poons, unlike most Op artists, does not dodge his own personality or submerge his handwriting; the pictures have identity. Larry Bell of Los Angeles makes objects whose perfect finish adds instead of detracts from their intensity.
And the epigones, of course will continue their anxious search for style, like Greek farmers who plow fields after a rain with an eye peeled for gold coins–who knows where Alexander is buried?
Society will continue to pressure all artists to conform, to supply a cool, easily available entertainment. This year Op. Next year Ob-Art–constructions drained of the human presence: grey plywood boxes, lucite polyhedrons, foam-rubber that is not only as comfortable as a good armchair (Matisse’s Freudian-slip definition of painting), but you can really sleep in it. Then the “artists” will be free to do something else instead of art. Already a number of them have turned to movie-making and modern dance.
Left will be a few crazy geniuses who insist on painting, as the cavemen painted, or on making things out of clay and laboriously casting them in bronze (it is obvious that ancient Egypt had better foundries for sculpture than modern America). All of the rest will be… fashion. Eugenia Sheppartd, Women’s Feature Editor of the New York Herald Tribune, went to the “contributing members preview of ‘The Retrospective Eye’ at the Museum the other night” where she saw “… Geoffrey Beene’s skinny sheath and matching babushka, made of Luksus print–scattered black and grey circles on white silk organdy. Each of the Luksus prints is actually a piece of optical art that’s good enough to frame.”
And if it causes a headache, you can hang it in the Pentagon.
P.S.: The term “Op,” I am informed by the art critic of Time magazine coined by Jon Borgzinner, art critic of Time (Oct. 23, 1964).
“The Responsive Eye” has an illustrated catalogue with a useful essay by William Seitz. The show will travel to: St Louis, Seattle, Pasadena and Baltimore.