Mark Cole Associate Curator of American Painting and Sculpture
Blue Bloc c. 1967. Edwin Mieczkowski (American, born 1929). Acrylic on canvas mounted to board; 121.9 x 121.9 cm. Anonymous Gift, by Exchange 2010.261
During the 1960s, Cleveland emerged as a vital center for Op Art, an eye-popping style of geometric abstraction that tackles issues of visual perception. The city operated as training ground and residence to several renowned Op artists, including Richard Anuszkiewicz, Francis Hewitt, Edwin Mieczkowski, and Julian Stanczak, all of whom studied and/or taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Cleveland also fostered the birth of the Anonima Group (Hewitt, Mieczkowski, and New York artist Ernst Benkert), the only artist collaborative in the United States devoted to the movement. CLE OP: Cleveland Op Art Pioneers, a dazzling exhibition that opens this spring in our Cleveland gallery, showcases approximately ten works by these key figures from Op’s formative decade. Drawn primarily from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s permanent holdings and supplemented with loans from private collections, CLE OP celebrates important contributions made by Cleveland artists in the local, national, and international art scenes.
A pun on the concurrent movement of Pop Art and a punchy abbreviation for “optical art,” Op Art arose from these artists’ desire to stimulate and even confound vision. Taking cues from theories in perceptual psychology, Op artists manipulate figure-ground relationships and orchestrate color interactions (or stark contrasts of black and white) in order to enhance the act of seeing, or to investigate the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in the process. Most artists associated with Op Art dislike the term, which was popularized by the American press, instead preferring more descriptive designations such as “Perceptual Abstraction.” Nevertheless, the term “Op Art” forcefully entered the lexicon of art history and remains widely used today.
Works of Op Art often feature strikingly vivid hues and dynamic patterns executed with astonishing technical precision. This is certainly the case with Ed Mieczkowski’s Blue Bloc from 1967, a stunning painting recently acquired by the museum that features 1,316 (yes, we counted them!) three-quarter circles rendered in blues, greens, and yellows of gradually shifting intensities arrayed against a checkerboard background with gradations of black, gray, and white. Here the artist created the uncanny illusion that the painting is morphing in and out of focus across its surface while simultaneously pulsating from within. It is one of Mieczkowski’s most intricate and outright lively Op creations.
Filtered Yellow 1968. Julian Stanczak (American, born Poland, 1928). Acrylic on canvas; 182.8 x 243.8 cm. Contemporary Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art 1969.15. © Julian Stanczak
When experimenting with the parameters of vision, Op artists have a much desired goal in mind: to engage viewers on an unusually direct level. Op can be interpreted as an antidote to traditional art, which Op artists regard as prone to lull viewers into a passive relationship with artworks. Instead, Op artists seek to involve their audiences actively in the art viewing experience, effectively countering spectator passivity by making art that provokes physiological responses. In doing so, they downplay their own roles as perpetrators of the aesthetic experience: in the trenchant words of Julian Stanczak, “I am not important—the viewer is.” Emblematic of Stanczak’s late 1960s work, Filtered Yellow from 1968, purchased by the museum shortly after it was made, comprises hundreds (no, we didn’t count them!) of alternating red and green razor-sharp vertical bands systematically deployed across the canvas, further energized by a floating yellow plane that folds back upon itself in complex mirror symmetry along a diagonal axis. Highly disciplined in its application of paint and composed with a skillful economy of means, the work is a chromatic and spatial tour de force carefully calibrated for optimum retinal sensation.
By the early 1960s, exhibitions of nascent Op Art began to appear in Cleveland, including a show of work by the Anonima Group held in 1962 at a former dress shop on Euclid Avenue that had been converted into a gallery. The Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art also exhibited Op from its onset. New York galleries took notice as well, and subsequently during the decade Cleveland Op artists would exhibit across the United States and overseas in London, Paris, and Warsaw.
Prisma 1968. Richard Anuszkiewicz (American, born 1930). Acrylic on canvas; 182.8 x 274.3 cm. Gift of Katherine C. White 1977.193
Cleveland artists were also included in The Responsive Eye, an Op show mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York during the spring of 1965. This exhibition codified the international emergence of Op and proved enormously popular with the viewers—some would argue too much for its own good. Attendance records were broken, and journalists responded with unprecedented enthusiasm. In its wake, Madison Avenue accelerated its love affair with Op, seen as highly marketable because of its considerable graphic potential. Op motifs began to proliferate on everything from miniskirts to record album covers. As a result, Op increasingly was regarded with suspicion by a number of avant-garde purists who preferred an impermeable boundary between art and commerce, and ultimately Op’s reputation was tainted by substantial negative fallout. With the theoretical underpinnings of the movement essentially ignored during subsequent decades, Op tended to be regarded as a quaint and superficial visual curiosity of the so-called Psychedelic ’60s.
But in recent years Op Art has regained considerable critical momentum and been given its proper due. In fact, many now see Op as a crucial precursor to several contemporary trends in abstraction, particularly those launched by artists who embrace digital technologies and explore virtual realities. In addition, Op’s democratization of art—relegating the primary role of the art experience to the viewer—is today regarded as a highlight in modernist art history. Exhibitions held worldwide over the past few years attest to the rediscovery of Op, and perhaps not since Op’s heyday has there been a more apt time for the Cleveland Museum of Art to revisit this fascinating movement with strong Cleveland connections and international audiences.
Cleveland Art, March/April 2011