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Published: 3 November 2017

Vasarely’s Optical Kinetism

Now widely recognized as one of the pioneers of the ‘Op Art’ movement, Victor Vasarely first developed what he termed ‘Optical Kinetism’ in his studies of Checkerboards, Harlequins, Zebras, Tigers, Prisoners and Martians as early as the 1930’s. Within the parameters of these recognizable subjects, the artist developed his trademark contrasting shapes and patterns depicted in dizzying waves and undulations that created a jarring and instant impression of movement within the eyes of the viewer.

Critical to the artist during this period was the “aggressiveness with which [the subjects’] structures struck the retina.” This visual language of sharply contrasting forms and patterns devoid of shadow and tone was a metaphorical quest:  “I am opting for a world-view according to which ‘good and evil,’ ‘beautiful and ugly’ and ‘physical and psychological’ are inseparable, complimentary opposites, two sides of the same coin…. Therefore black and white means to transmit and propagate messages more effectively, to inform, to give.” 

Some 30 years later, Vasarely’s work was included along with over 100 other artists in the expansive 1965 exhibition, “The Responsive Eye,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show included works by dozens of emerging artists such as Yaacov Agam, Bridget Riley and Frank Stella, alongside established figures like Josef Albers, Wojciech Fangor, Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly. The show cast international attention upon opticality and kinetism and made ‘Optical Art’ the first broadly recognized art movement to follow World War II.  Vasarely is now widely credited with being one of the earliest to develop this movement that has so influenced contemporary art into the 21st Century.

Three works by Vasarely are currently on exhibition at Freeman’s for the forthcoming Modern & Contemporary Art sale on Nov. 7.

“Zepar” (Lot 73) was conceived as early as 1940, and is squarely placed in the artist’s early years of ‘Optical Kinetism’ in its composition, yet with its green background, hints at the colorful abstractions of the 1950’s forward. The overlapping and intertwined forms create a tangle of dizzying pattern and stripes that create a classic Op-Art tension between black and white, stability and motion, figuration and abstraction.

Even though this work was executed many years after its initial conception, it retains and reflects many of the central tenets of Vasarely’s early black and white paintings.  “Zepar” has been in the same private collection for nearly three decades, and is only the second oil on canvas of this subject to appear at auction in at least the last 20 years.

Also on exhibit by Vasarely is “Zurr” (Lot 74) and “Bohôtz” (Lot 75). “Zurr” was conceived in 1939 and executed in 1989 and utilizes acrylic on paperboard.  “Bohôtz” is dated 1986 and is also acrylic on paperboard.

View the Modern & Contemporary Art catalogue today.

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