To say Op Art hasn’t aged well would be true but not quite right. While time has found the style largely relegated to a historical footnote, its flickering optics the stuff of smoke-filled dorm rooms and Magic Eye posters, it’s easy to forget that in its time, Op was not only a logical extension of progressive art narratives, but also a genuine social phenomenon, reaching beyond high art confines to galvanize consumer fields of fashion, product design and advertising. Synonymous with Swinging London and foreshadowing motifs of the psychedelic era, Op was pop before Pop came to pass; what it lacked even then in critical approval, it made up for in cultural impact.
Still, for all its popularity, Op’s moment was short-lived, peaking with MoMA’s blockbuster 1965 survey “The Responsive Eye” before being eclipsed by Pop and Minimalism and descending into kitsch. Of the artists included in that breakout show, a choice few were able to transcend the affiliation, their work staying in favor even as Op fell out of fashion (see: Bridget Riley). Others weren’t so fortunate. Case in point: Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), the style’s prolific main progenitor, whose work evolved even as its prominence diminished, his name tightly anchored to the movement he’d inspired.
But of course, art’s reception moves in cycles, and recent years have seen a renewed interest in Vasarely, who is currently the subject of an illuminating survey at Centre Pompidou. “Vasarely: Sharing Forms” presents the artist’s 60-year career as a sequence of distinct phases, situating his signature Op canvases amid sculptures, multiples, graphic designs and architectural integrations. In tracing Vasarely’s path from Parisian ad man to abstract pioneer, the exhibition reveals an artist whose ambitions went beyond mere illusion, the scope and significance of his output each greater than tends to be credited.