Optical Impact, currently on view in one of HoMA’s Temporary Exhibitions galleries, is a dynamic exhibition featuring permanent collection works created during the Optical Art (or Op Art) movement, which developed as a segment of geometric abstraction in the mid-20th century. Concerned with perception and visual phenomena, images were intended to surprise the viewer and provoke visual confusion. Op Art artists generally employed hard-edge lines, chromatic relationships, tonal contrast, and figure/ground ambiguity to create optical illusions of movement and shifting spatial depth. Optical Impact includes paintings by Richard Anuszkiewicz, Karl Benjamin, Samia Halaby, Howard Mehring, Peter Sedgley, and Victor Vasarely.
We spoke with Katherine Love, HoMA’s Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, to find out more about the artists and artworks featured in Optical Impact, as well as some behind-the-scenes insights from her experience organizing the exhibition.
What inspired you to put together this exhibition?
I was looking for something visually dynamic for this gallery space as it is a gallery that gets a lot of foot traffic. HoMA has a strong collection of Op Art paintings that had not been on view for a while. I felt it was time to bring them out into the light for our visitors to enjoy.
Are Op Art works “about” anything other than perception and visual sensation?
Op Art works are generally purely abstract and therefore do not directly reference a figurative subject. Rather, they are intended to create a physical reaction based on the way the eye functions and how the brain interprets visual cues. It is interesting to look at these works in this current time when we are constantly exposed to the moving image as seen in video, film and television. Here, artists are exploring the effects of movement as achieved without the use of technology, and solely with paint on canvas.
How do you think the Op Art movement may have been influenced by the social, cultural, or political happenings of the 60s and 70s?
Op Art was influenced by previous movements in Western Art, including early 20th century approaches to abstraction including Russian Suprematism and Constructivism. Also notable to the development of Op Art are kinetic art, and later 20th century hard-edge abstraction. Op artists were also fascinated by scientific explorations into color theory and the process of vision. Op Art compositions created by these artists translated easily to the commercial world of advertising and design, and along with Pop Art, were an important part of the popular visual culture of the 1960s and 1970s.
As a way to better understand precursors to the Op Art movement, are there any examples of geometric abstraction in the HoMA collection?
Abstraction in Contemporary Art, currently on view in the gallery directly adjacent to Optical Impact, offers some wonderful examples of different forms of abstraction, including geometric abstraction. Here you can see contemporary paintings by Hawaii’s own Mary Mitsuda, along with works by Kathy Muehlemann, Judy Rifka, Ruth Root, David Simpson, and Pat Steir. Examples of pieces by earlier 20th century artists whose influence extends through today include Irene Rice Pereira (1902 – 1971) and Josef Albers (1888 – 1976). American artist Pereira developed a geometric abstract style, part mystical and part scientific, and was intrigued by the theory of relativity and the fourth dimension. German-American Josef Albers was a pioneer of geometric abstraction in the United States following World War II. His work was influential to many Op artists due to his examination of the psychological and optical effects of color in combination with mathematically proportioned shapes, particularly squares and rectangles.
Are any one of these artists considered to be more influential than others, in terms of the Op Art genre?
Two works included in Optical Impact are by Hungarian-French artist Victor Vasarely (1906 – 1997), widely considered to be the father of Op Art. Vasarely began his career as a commercial artist and graphic designer and explored different ways of manifesting movement in painting through the juxtaposition of shape, value and color. Vasarely would eventually merge his interest in graphic design, mathematics and art to explore the creation and use of optical illusions in order to direct the viewer’s attention on the act of seeing. This focus spurred his 1955 treatise Yellow Manifesto, which called for the employment of visual kinetics in art. Additionally, he created a “fine art alphabet” out of dozens of individual square units of colored shapes placed against a contrasting background. These building blocks, intended to be used by anyone, including designers and architects when forming visual compositions, can be seen in the work Vega Per (1969), on view in the exhibition.
Did you discover anything new about the works or artists while working on “Optical Impact”?
I wasn’t too familiar with the work of pioneering Palestinian artist, art historian, and political activist, Samia Halaby (born 1936), before organizing this exhibition, but during my research learned a lot about this important figure. She moved to the United States in 1951 and was the first full-time female associate professor at the Yale School of Art. Known primarily for her abstract paintings, she is well-respected internationally and at the age of 84 paints and lectures regularly. She is also active on social media both with her artwork and as an advocate for the rights of Palestinians to live peacefully in their homeland.
Not to play favorites, but do you find any of these works to be especially intriguing?
I often gravitate to works that surprise or defy my preconceived expectations, and I have really been enjoying Phantasmagoria (1966) by British artist Peter Sedgley (born 1930). When looking at a painted image, one generally expects to be able to bring that image into focus. However, with this piece, the blurry outlines of the round target-like shape and colored rings render this an impossibility. A target is generally used to help direct the eye in sports such as archery. If one is unable to bring it into focus, how does this change our expectations? For me, this work encourages not only an individual experience of the visual effects it produces, but a deeper contemplation of the nature of the image.
Peter Sedgley (British, born 1930). Phantasmagoria, 1966. Acrylic on linen. 60 x 60 in. (152.4 x 152.4 cm). Gift of The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, 2011, and gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward H. Nakamura (TCM.2002.26.2). © Peter Sedgley.