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Columbus, Ohio USA

Art: Elizabeth Ann James, Columnist
May 2007
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OPTIC NERVE served up with verve
Columbus Museum of Art

The Columbus Museum of Art, 480 East Broad St., is offering “OPTIC NERVE: Perceptual Art of the 1960s” through June 17, 2007. This exhibit is big, lovely, and fascinating. The “optic” in “OPTIC NERVE” refers to the science of light and to the actual workings of the human eye. “Op Art” is a phrase coined by one of the artists of this artistic movement.

Top: Alexander Liberman's Sun II, acrylic on canvas, 1962. Middle: Frank Stella's Line Up, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 1962. Bottom: Victor Vasarely's Vega Or, oil on masonite, 1969.

There are 100 paintings, drawings, and objects by 55 artists in this show which has been superbly arranged. Although I was drawn mainly to the middle galleries which showcase Op Art in color, I was also engaged by the more austere black-and-white offerings. Much in the show has a strong grid or “puzzle” effect. At first glance, some of the work resembles what might be called optical illusions; several pieces even resemble optometry charts. Yet, at second glance, one notices that these “geometric” objects, paintings, collages, and graphs have been meticulously executed, and some of them are quite complex – more complex than at first meets the eye. The exactitude and care evident in “OPTIC NERVE” imbue the exhibit with a pleasing, meditative aspect. Yet, it is a stimulating show!

Josef Albers
Josef Albers (German, 1888 – 1977) is a keystone artist in this exhibit and in the Op Art movement in general. He is a fascinating figure – look him up! Albers’ parents were artisans and his wife became a renowned weaver. As a teacher at the famed Bauhaus art school in Berlin, Albers’ emphasis shifted from abstraction and expressionism to constructivism, a discipline which was closer to mathematics, science, and architecture.
In 1933 when Hitler pillaged the Bauhaus school and harassed its artists, Albers and his wife fled to the U.S. Here, Albers developed a successful teaching career at Yale University and eventually became the first living artist to show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Albers’ respect for crafts, for design, math and the science of the eye (optics) is evident in “The Responsive Eye,” an exhibit which occurred in 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During an interview around that time Albers spontaneously coined “Op Art,” referring to art that uses optical illusions.

Albers’ visual series, Homage to the Square, along with his related writings, became a benchmark in the progression of art. Sentinel, executed in 1968, is a large, bright canvas depicting three sizes of squares. The work is painted in red and orange oil on canvas and mounted on masonite. It’s on loan from The Dayton Art Institute. Sentinel wakes us up, yet it’s a tilted square. Chosen, an acrylic on masonite painted in 1966, is on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Blowingate, from the 1940s, is a tempera on paper being loaned by the collection of Getulio Alviani, Milan, Italy. All three “paintings” by Albers reveal his homage to craftsmanship, to math and perspective, and to the human eye, as well as to simplicity.

Bridget Riley (British, b. 1931) executed her large black-and-white Current, an emulsion on composition board, in 1964. Riley was – and is – one of the first proponents of Op Art and whose work was part of the “Responsive Eye” exhibit. Riley’s Current is a large “painting” that consists of quavering black lines which manage to flicker, to form a kind of soft geometry. I’m not certain how she did it, but I liked it a great deal. (In fact, I liked most of the show a great deal). I could not help but think of many currents – in the sea, in electrical wiring and in patterns on the sand. After all, Riley grew up near the coast of Devon with shore lines and the ocean not far away.

Yes, Riley’s Current can be described as abstract, grid-like, and non-representational. For me, Current – and much of Riley’s work – packs an emotional punch through its finesse, its apparent motion, and through its feathery, wavy, black-and-white lines.

Cinematic Painting
In 1964, Wolfgang Ludwig (German, b. 1923) created Cinematic Painting, a big rectangular work, in which two spoked circles appeared to “spin” on reversed fields – the white circle against black, the black circle against white. Two perfect circles (two flared centers) erupt, like wagon wheel spokes, like the insides of black-and-white chrysanthemums. The exhibition list credits Ludwig as being from Columbus, Ohio – his work being shown “through the courtesy of the artist and Sabine Ludwig.” Cinematic Painting is neat!

In 1964, Andy Warhol was creating Campbell’s Soup Cans and images of Marilyn Monroe in multiples. That was a very big year, but 1965 – with its “Responsive Eye” show at the Museum of Modern Art – was even bigger.

The Columbus Museum of Art’s “OPTIC NERVE” is the largest, most complete exhibition of Op Art anywhere in the U.S. in over 25 years. A short video about “The Responsive Eye” shows continuously downstairs and is nice to watch before seeing the exhibit. A second, more informative video from the Museum of Modern Art is presented upstairs, and Josef Albers appears briefly in it. If you have to choose, watch the one upstairs.

Op Art at Home
With Joe Houston, associate curator for contemporary art, and Greg Jones, exhibit designer, the Columbus Museum of Art has done an outstanding job of explaining and enhancing this comprehensive exhibit which has been so pleasingly arranged. A variety of educational material – including audio-visuals, books, videos, puzzles, hands-on-objects, and cell phones – is available. Yet, they are never distracting.

In the gallery called “Op at Home,” where there is an emphasis on color, you can read about and savor Op Art while you sit on “plastic” chairs that resemble champagne glasses. (I asked first, and yes, you may sit in them.) In this gallery – you can’t miss it – many three-dimensional objects delight the responsive eye. For example, Paco Rabanne (Spanish, b.1934) designed and fabricated the delicious pink, green and white plastic Disc Dress in the late 1960s. Memories may come flooding back to some as they view this geometric delight. And, if you are a woman and wouldn’t like to try on fashion designer Adele Simpson’s Polychrome Striped Wool Coat, there’s something wrong with you! (Adele Simpson, American, 1903–1995).

Richard Anuszkiewicz (American, b.1930) designed the marvelous set of “enamel plastic cork” coasters in 1971. They are red, orange, blue, green, and yellow translucent squares of perfection and, ahhh – to own them! Anuszkiewicz also designed the black-and-white grid scarf displayed with the coasters. Everywhere you look is another delight.

Both the “OPTIC NERVE” exhibit and the Op at Home gallery, especially stirred surprising personal memories for me. In the mid-1950s my aunt, a quilter and fabric artist, and my uncle, Dr. James Carter, an optometrist, retained an architect to build a solar house into a hillside in Fostoria, Ohio. They furnished their home, bit by bit, with tube lighting, glass brick, a rock fountain, and colored mosaics. Geometry and abstractionism were in vogue. Minimalism was also in, as were designs mimicking optometry charts. They owned at least one string chair, since the natural look of nature was also trendy. And because one side of their solar home was glass, we could look out onto the creek and the elm trees when we visited.

My aunt liked to read magazines about art, architecture, and fashion. She designed and sewed quilted geometric jackets for my cousins. She even fabricated metallic yarn wall hangings; they were simple, “modern” abstracts. My uncle, who knew how to solder, welded mobiles from optical lenses and frames, and a necklace from a steel fixture. My aunt knew all about Frank Lloyd Wright and Adele Simpson, Andy Warhol’s Camp-bell’s Soup Cans, and Danish furniture. She probably knew about Josef Albers, too, because at that time optometrists were discussing new ideas about the brain and the human eye. For a long time my aunt and uncle refused to buy a TV; they thought it would take up too much time. But they seemed to know what was going on anyway.

They would certainly have enjoyed “OPTIC NERVE” and would no doubt have seen it more than once. They would also not have missed “Give and Take: Education and the Quilt-maker,” opening at the Riffe Gallery on May 3, and would have savored the “Ohio Designer Craftsmen: The Best of 2007” exhibit opening on May 6 at the Ohio Craft Museum. Like “OPTIC NERVE,” these shows will honor craftsmanship and the human eye.

In conclusion, before I actually saw this exhibit I expected the art to be more “startling” and “in-your-face” than it turned out to be. I wasn’t aware of the exhibit’s 1965 predecessor, “The Responsive Eye,” and its impact, either.

I was also warned that I might get dizzy if I looked too long at certain works, but that didn’t happen. As a neo-romantic I feared I might find “OPTIC NERVE” to be cold and sterile, but instead found the pieces precise and mathematical, yet filled with emotional resonance and a spirit of adventure. I loved the show – a definite “Do not miss”!
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