Monday, April 11, 2011

Vasarely - Post-Modernist Abstraction For the Future

Victor Vasarely occupies a unique place in the history of 20th Century painting. Beginning as a kind of late-comer to the Surrealist camp, his works of the 1930's suggest Miro, Ernst, De Chirico, Gris. But his work showed tantalizing qualities which would later blossom into a full-blown preoccupation. In the 1940's, he continued to work with familiar shapes and arrangements, rather in the manner of a soft Surrealist. His work had always shown a tendency toward geometric linear plaiting or layering. By the early 1950's, he had begun to experiment with pure linear abstraction, rather in the manner of Esher--even employing nested mirror imagery and trick perspective. This tendency towards illusionary space eventually came to dominate his work, and in his mature period, during the 1960's, he became identified with the Op Art movement. During this period his glowing, shimmering grids, distorted into bulging or twisting convexities and concavities, became familiar images to a growing public.

An early work from the mid-1930's

Vasarely's work hovers uncertainly between playful, geometric abstraction and eerie, psychedelic transport. In the 1960's his work, like Esher's, was often associated with hypnotic or hallucinatory states of mind, or with far-out dazzling scientific fantasy. These associations were purely gratuitous, but Vasarely benefited from the publicity. There's something very satisfying about Vasarely's imagery. It demands very little of the viewer in terms of understanding or context, and can be appreciated by people of all ages, especially children. But when I first looked at it, I thought it meretricious and bland.

Like Esher's work, I thought it rather "game-like" or trivial. But the more you see it, the more you realize that Vasarely's concentration upon geometry and illusion is genuine and not mere trickery. It isn't merely a "light show" or an innocent flowery indulgence (like a Peter Max design).

The work displays a classical balance and symmetry which may suggest calmness and serenity, or frenetic, percolating activity. Obtruding, flowing forms roll forwards or intersect across space like kaleidoscopic Chinese checker-boards, or immense spinning disks of colored polka-dotted mechanisms.

[Copy this image to your desk-top and expand it to full scale for best effect]

No one had ever mined the possibilities of geometry in quite this way, before Vasarely began to explore them. He wasn't making arithmetical statements, but the equations that could express his works numerically were undoubtedly elegant indeed. On an intuitive level, these kinds of imaginative spaces and designs might be accompaniments to visionary propositions about the behavior of matter in space, or the ways in which we might visualize concepts too abstruse to get a handle on.

Vasarely's elaborations included sculpture, architecture, commercial furnishing design. He even went so far as to develop permutations of specific shapes and colors, whose proliferating variations undermined the meaning of the unique created object, much as Duchamp had done with his Rotoreliefs:

There is much more to be said about Vasarely than this momentary glimpse. His work seems to point to a future in which the very large scale and the very minute scale, are commonly available and can be perceived. In my mind, these two worlds are different versions of each other, and intersect or co-exist simultaneously. Like the balletic movements of the space stations in 2001: A Space Odyssey, conducted to the oompah-pah, oompah-pah of Strauss Waltzes, Vasarely's work may seem like the perfect accompaniment to Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata, or Steve Reich's Six Pianos--or even like the dancing white spheres in Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. These are all apt comparisons for further study.


curtisroberts said...

Thank you for this. It's great to read someone writing about Vasarely.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I second the comments of curtisroberts. Only I'm meeting Vasarely for the first time.

J said...

Perhaps would work as pleasant "therapeutic Ahht" at some mental institution...maybe with pastelly colors added, and decorating the Atascadero "beatnik" wing: There, there, Kirby, Ed, Curtis, McMurphy, Anny, and the rest: time for yr medicine.

Charles Shere said...

To see those rotoreliefs do their stuff, check out Duchamp's Anémic Cinéma at YouTube.

Kirby Olson said...

Another painter working in a similar vein is Bridget Riley. I like her work better because it's pretty. Pretty is kind of a bad thing in a lot of art circles, but I like prettiness. Riley's paintings have sold for several million dollars a pop. She's about 70 now. Wallpaper companies stole her designs and infuriated her. It's the prettiness. Vasarely's stuff wouldn't do, because it's more industrial, and bleak, I think. Riley did the same kind of work, but it remained within a canon of classical prettiness.

Curtis Faville said...


Your nice and mean, hot and cold, pretty and bleak dichotomies are rather inadequate to describe the effects of serious art.

Lots of things are indeed pretty, or pretty nice. Distinctions can be pretty, and nice. I don't see any art as "bleak." You might say "empty" or "dry" but I never see anything as bleak. Maybe destroyed cities are bleak, or a prospect is bleak. Bleak art might transcend bleakness to be interesting. I think that about a lot of post-Modern art and literature. Beautifully bleak.