THE ANTI-HISTORY OF OPTICAL ART by Thomas Micchelli In 2007, the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio, held an exhibition called Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s, which was the first major American museum survey in more than twenty-five years of Op Art—the upstart hybrid of Pop, Minimalism, Color Field painting, graphic design, and carnivalesque illusionism pioneered by such artists as Bridget Riley, Edna Andrade, and Richard Anuszkiewicz. The critic Dave Hickey wrote the introduction for Optic Nerve’s accompanying book, an essay titled “Trying to See What We Can Never Know,” in which he makes the following assertion: Under the auspices of optical art, the single prerequisite for looking at art resides in our willingness to try and see it.1 The simplicity of this statement masks the complexity—and radicality—of its sentiment. Like Werner Herzog, who once famously said, “Film is not the art of scholars but of illiterates,”2 Hickey is telling us that we need to know nothing about art—its history, techniques, or social context—in order to receive what perceptual art has to offer, even if we would prefer that it were otherwise: Optical art introduces us to an order of experience that is less voluntary and less dependent on education and conscious knowledge than one might wish.3 That sentence demands a brief bit of parsing: The experience of Op Art is “less voluntary” and “less dependent on education” and knowledge “than one might wish.” We may first want to ask “What can be voluntary or involuntary about viewing a work of art?” before we grasp the obvious, which is that to take in a painting or sculpture almost always entails an act of will. Whether our eyes are entering the deep space of a Paolo Uccello fresco, feeling out the bulges and voids of a bronze nude by Auguste Rodin, or tracing the calligraphic brushstrokes across one of Willem de Kooning’s abstracted landscapes, we are actively seeking the unique pleasures that visual art holds in store. The snap and buzz of Op Art, on the other hand, grab us as soon as we glance in its direction — its effect is immediate and irrepressible, like a strobe light flashing in our eyes. opposite: Gilbert Hsiao, Lucky Strike, 2013 1 Dave Hickey, “Trying to See What We Can Never Know,” in Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s, ed. J. Houston (London, New York: Merrell, 2007), p. 12. 2 Leticia Kent, “Werner Herzog: ‘Film Is Not the Art of Scholars, But of Illiterates,’” The New York Times, 11 September 1977. 3 Hickey, op. cit., p. 12.
Published on Sep 22, 2014
Published on Sep 22, 2014
Twenty seven artists from the US and Europe use geometry and color to explore the illusion of difference between two- and three-dimensional...