Richard Anuszkiewicz, the pioneering American Op Art painter who manipulated color and light to mesmerizing results, died on May 19. He was 89. The news was first reported by Artforum.
The term Op art, short for optical art, had yet to be coined when Anuszkiewicz began his formal experiments into the effects of vibrant color and geometry on the human eye in the 1950s. It was a lifelong project for the artist, and throughout his career he assembled increasingly hypnotic compositions with a mix of mathematical precision and poetry.
“I’m interested in making something romantic out of a very, very mechanistic geometry,” he once said.
He was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, to Polish immigrant parents in 1930. Having shown an early aptitude for drawing, he began his art studies at a technical high school before earning a bachelor’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art. During his graduate studies at Yale University, he studied under Josef Albers, whose emphasis on color theory and abstraction was the antithesis of Anuszkiewicz’s early realist practice. But, after graduation, he found new appreciation for Albers’s teachings.
“Now that I was no longer fighting the strong Albers image, I was able to fully accept all this wonderful knowledge that I acquired without any prejudice,” Anuszkiewicz told the Guggenheim Museum in the 1970s, “and instead of going back to realism, I went completely in the opposite direction.”
Anuszkiewicz’s eye-popping abstractions earned him a following among his artist cohort, but gallery representation initially proved more elusive. At his first solo show at the Contemporaries gallery in 1959, not a single work sold for two weeks. Eventually, Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, bought a work for the museum collection.
Critical and commercial success followed. His works were included in the Whitney Museum’s 1962 show “Geometric Abstraction in America” and the MoMA show “Americans 1963.” His paintings were featured in Time magazine, and by the late 1960s, he was represented by the esteemed Sidney Janis Gallery in New York.
Critical opinion eventually turned against Op Art, but Anuszkiewicz had never been overly attached to the term or its associations, and later in life he grew inclined toward less extravagant colors. “People thought that I always wanted to shock the eye,” he once told the New York Times. “I didn’t want to shock the eye. I wanted to use colors together that had never been used together before. I’m still doing what I was doing, but in greater depth.”
Anuszkiewicz received a Lee Krasner Award for lifetime achievement in 2000, and today his artworks are held in over 70 institution collections worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.