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Victor Vasarely: Planetary Folklore

Words by
Christopher Schreck

The Centre Pompidou recently presented the first major retrospective of the work of Hungarian-French artist Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), a leading figure of the Op Art movement.

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.

Vasarely’s fame was built on a self-developed, scientifically grounded approach to geometric abstraction that generated sensations of depth, perspective and movement through precise arrangements of line, color and shape. Even in early proto-Op canvases like Oet Oet (1955) and Vega (1957), we see Vasarely’s signature strategies firmly in place: high contrast, dense patterning, axonometric perspectives, destabilized figure-ground relationships. Casual viewers will always find pleasure in the work’s funhouse optics, of course, but for a more dedicated audience, the promise of a show like “Sharing Forms” is two-fold: first, that it might offer a deeper understanding of the artist’s project by clarifying (or, indeed, complicating) our perspective; second, that in the act of rediscovery, we might also confirm the work’s relevance, connecting past strategies to present concerns. Both prove true in this case. It’s fascinating, for instance, to see Vasarely developing his techniques as early as the mid-‘30s, with semi-figurative works like Zèbres (1937) and Tigres (1938) turning patterned pelage into eye-popping design. Equally intriguing (if mainly for context) are a group of works created between 1947-51 in which Vasarely drew inspiration from the details of real-world locales: the cracked tiles of the Paris subway, the pebbled beaches of the French coastline, shadows and sun on buildings in summer.
Although he went on to translate his approach to various modes and media over the years, what’s perhaps most striking in viewing Vasarely’s work altogether is the realization that a single underlying precept had guided him each step of the way: his faith in the radical potential of accessibility. A student of Bauhaus philosophy and long-time admirer of Malevich, Vasarely believed aesthetic principles had social implications; where some criticized his work for being impersonal or decorative, Vasarely saw his approach as building towards a kind of “Planetary Folklore”: direct, non-exclusive, empirical, even programmable. Confirming an original aim of abstract art, this ideal of universality is neatly embodied in the work on view. Op Art was, after all, participatory by design, activated by viewer engagement and defined by individual perceptions; rational but relative, the mode was collective, its means open-source, its meanings open-ended. That Vasarely’s project seems here to anticipate the principles that define today’s digital methods of image-making and circulation speaks, ultimately, to the prescience of his vision: a visual culture centered in user experience, enabled by technology and available to all.

Victor Vasarely (1906-1997) was a Hungarian-French artist.
Image courtesy of the Centre Pompidou and Fondation Vasarely.

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