Op Art in the '90s
by Tom Moody (originally published in VERY Magazine #3)
Copyright 1998 by VERY Magazine and Tom Moody

"Op Art" is a term originally coined in the 1960s to describe paintings, sculptures, and electronic devices that dazzle or confound the eye. Resembling the "optical illusions" of experimental psychology, these flickering dots and undulating planes typified the heady atmosphere of that decade, when art and science promised to merge and yield new, ever-more-mind-blowing creations. For a time it appeared that kinetic sculptures, lasers, and holograms would supplant traditional media, as exhibitions with names like "Electromagica" and "Lights in Action" toured the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

What was arguably Op's greatest moment--"The Responsive Eye" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965--was also, ironically, its swan song. In the late '60s and early '70s, utopian claims for technology began to lose their gloss, and the winds of art fashion shifted. As artists embraced performance, photography, and texts as their principal media, Op came to be lumped in with the "color field" painting promoted by critic Clement Greenberg, who was reviled as a Richard Nixon-like figure by the conceptualist generation. Also, because Op caught on with designers, decorators, and psychedelic poster-makers, it quickly became tainted as kitsch.

After a long period of visual drought in the art world, Op had a second life in the '80s, during the heyday of "appropriation art." This time, it came with a thick layer of irony and critique. Reversing Marx's notion that history replays itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, artists such as Ross Bleckner and Philip Taaffe found it necessary to recast what had been wacky fun into a pathetic, "failed movement." In "Painting at the End of History," a 1982 essay on Bleckner, Peter Halley offered a sociopolitical explanation for Op's demise: that it "obeyed perfectly the principle of planned obsolescence of the modernity after which it was patterned." Nevertheless, Op motifs acquired an aura of polish and professionalism in the '80s that would have been unimaginable twenty years before. Bleckner's buff painting surfaces, Taaffe's elegant appliques, and Halley's 50 coats of searing Day-Glo gave collectors the highly-crafted objects they craved, while the artists lampooned their own marketability through the Marxist rhetoric of "commodification."

The 1990s, like the '70s, have been a decade of limits; even the current stock market frenzy has failed to pump the art world back up to its previous steroid-enhanced levels. The themes of this decade have been abjection, "otherness," and interiority, and thus we find Op art reincarnated in yet another set of clothes: from the thrift store rather than Armani or Carnaby Street. Current Op experimenters--including David Clarkson, Mark Dagley, Alicia Wirt, Ray Rapp, and myself--favor the plain-spoken over the artificial, the inept over the expert, and the tease over raw sensation. Our work tolerates, indeed encourages ambiguity, letting the viewer determine whether it is "good" or "bad," ironic or straightfaced, or even whether it is "Op." Aspiring to the tonality of Philip Glass and the idiosyncracy of lounge, it eschews the anger and lugubriousness of the permanent counterculture, yet stops short of escapism. Unlike the abstraction of the Greenberg era, it makes no claim to be divorced from the quotidian, political world.

For example, both Rapp and I use the computer as a tool, but resist its value-system of streamlined perfection. Rapp's video loops of spheres growing and shrinking, made on a simple animation program, bear the same relation to the "trip" sequences of Hollywood science fiction films as a Yugo does to a Mercedes--they're clunky but get the job done. Viewers can be momentarily transfixed by these pulsating mini-spectacles, and then walk away, in contrast to, say, the IMAX theater, where one is hemmed in and relentlessly bombarded for 45 minutes. Similarly, my own work treats the computer as a crude means rather than an all-encompassing end. Spheres and tubes are "painted" with a mouse, printed out in bulk, cut apart, and reassembled into giant quilts or mosaics, held together (from the back) with strips of linen tape. As aggressive as '60s or '80s Op, these rumpled sheets have an ephemeral, disposable presence.

Even more evanescent, Wirt's installation pieces tug at our neurotic desire for closure. What appear to be recessed lights on a chevron-shaped ledge give off a multicolored glow. They're actually painted bands of color, spewing reflections onto the white walls, but the height of the ledge keeps one on tiptoes, straining to know for sure. Clarkson, on the other hand, puts everything in open view, like Penn and Teller explaining a magic trick. Affixing plugged-in, 25-watt light bulbs to the surfaces of his monochromatic panels, he tweaks the mystical pretensions of Op and color field painters, who all too often substituted retinal trickery--afterimages, vibrating hues--for metaphysical experience.

In Dagley's work, a premise that could have originated in a late '60s art education textbook ("make a spiral of circles using primary colors") becomes a Herculean ritual of self-imposed labor. Thousands of dots growing from a few millimeters in the canvas's center to a mere inch and a half at its edge coil outward in an undeviating sequence of red-blue-yellow, red-blue-yellow, red-blue-yellow. Rocking the eyes like a Bridget Riley, the work has a temporal aspect--and edge of monomania--largely absent from '60s Op.

The sheer resilience of Op over the last three decades suggests that it is an unfinished project, rather the "failure" its '80s practitioners claimed it to be. Regardless of what form it takes, obviously it addresses some deep, ongoing need--for pleasure, the "magical," an understanding of what seduces us, and other fundamental but hard-to-talk-about things.

Tom Moody Jump 1997The preceding text accompanied the exhibition "Op at UP," appearing at UP & Co, New York, NY, in May 1998, featuring the work of David Clarkson, Mark Dagley, Tom Moody, Ray Rapp, and Alicia Wirt, organized by Tom Moody.

Photos, top to bottom:
Mark Dagley, Concentric Sequence, 1997, acrylic and pencil on canvas, 72 X 72 inches
David Clarkson, Afterimage Painting, 1996, lightbulb, enamel on wood, 24 X 18 X 2 inches
Ray Rapp, bubblemation, 1997, computer animation with TV
Alicia Wirt, Light Shelf, 1996, acrylic on wood, 3/4 X 24 X 5 inches
Tom Moody, Jump, 1997, photocopies and linen tape, 88 X 78 inches

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