Magic Eye: Op Art At Mixed Greens
“They may be cold, they may be as objective as a laboratory experiment, they may say nothing about the spiritual goals that have concerned great art of the past. But they are at least an art, or a craft, truly of our time,” John Canaday wrote in 1965 of MoMA's op art exhibition “The Responsive Eye.” Mixed Greens’s present show “Post-Op” (on view through August 17th) seems to second that thought for 2012, but this time, without the punch. Since being written-off by many critics, Op’s life has, for a while, popularly been linked more to drug culture andadvertising than the art world. Mixed Greens’s handful of work instead documents the movement’s silent, pervasive seeping-into highbrow culture. - Whitney Kimball, NYC Contributor
The group show presents a handful of the usual tricks, but with less of the “Responsive Eye’s” pulse and more of a subdued shimmer. (Interns, for instance, won’t need the sunglasses which MoMA’s museum guards wore in 1965.) Most are very familiar, but not-quite-placeable. Rebecca Ward’s horizontal bands strung between walls make moiré patterns; Emilio Gomariz’s “Invisible “O”bject”-- an illusion of an invisible spinning donut-- references a Photoshop canvas; Suzanne Song’s three-dimensional-looking paintings on wood panel are impeccable. It’s seductive, if a worn bag. As always, the interest wears off once you know how it’s done.
Technically, though, they’re not all Op, but more “Op-adjacent,” as termed by David Rimanelli in a May 2007 issue of Artforum. Rachel Beach’s wood block sculptures resemble one facet of an impossible drawing; Jay Shin’s light projection simply layer geometric shapes; Peter Demos’s grey strips on black paintings bow slightly, but don’t elicit an optical effect. They recall everything from Kusama to “Ghosts in the Machine” to various emerging shows the Lower East Side. While you might have suspected that Op is an island, decisively Op or Not Op, with little discernible path beyond, this show sketches an entire progeny of “Op-adjacent” parents like Josef Albers, Frank Stella, or Agnes Martin. Just to give a sense of the term’s breadth, “Op-adjacent” could encompass contemporary artists from Virgil Marti or Thomas Bayrle, Tomma Abts, Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson, or Doug Wheeler, and on, and on.
It’s possible that the moderated Op FX came from critical response. Greenberg deemed it “novelty.” Rosalind Krauss, finding it didn’t fit her rubric (it “tricks the eye,” like trompe l’oeil), deemed it gimmicky. Critics were troubled by the physical response which Op demanded, some even calling it an “assault.” As Pamela M. Lee notes in her book “Chronophobia,” Op may have been associated with recent trends in fashion of mimicking televised effects, [p 187] or, as she quotes Max Kozloff from the Nation, the “deceiving” “search to untap resources within the impersonal, almost computerized, geometries and visual artifacts of an automated age.” [p 191] Further pushing Op into the “Low” culture realm, Lee writes, it was often associated with fashion and textiles; artist Bridget Riley was frequently discussed in terms of her feminine nature, a “pretty, smiling Irish girl,” according to one reporter.
Artforum linked Op’s recent revival to two major exhibitions from 2007, "Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s" at the Columbus Museum of Art and "Op Art" at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt. Since, we’ve seen them in art fairs and galleries, like Carsten Nicolai’s “Moiré” at Pace in 2010, or even Yayoi Kusama’s present exhibition at the Whitney. Much of the work at this year’s New York art fairs could have been confused with Bridget Riley or early Frank Stella.
So why now? If Op came out of televised effects, as Pamela Lee suggests, then the same could be said now of digital effects, as evidenced in net Op-- to cherry pick just a few, work by Laura Brothers, Travess Smalley, Nicolas Sassoon, Rick Silva, Brandon Jan Blommaert, the aforementioned Emilio Gomariz all come to mind. It helps that physical Op-adjacent works are also very collector-friendly, like dependably beautiful Op-inspired Aeurbachs and Guytons, or even Mark Barrow, Phillipe Decrauzat, and Garth Weiser. Unlike the fun, popular Op, though, these exude emotionless, self-obsessed beauty: the magic combination of utter narcissism and extreme sensitivity only possible from an artist’s touch.
Meanwhile Op’s less collectible brother, kinetic sculpture, has yet to make the same return to Chelsea. The two were closely linked as art forms which, often, weren’t reproducible in photographs and depended on movement. But you can’t exactly pack a Calder in a suitcase; the more masculine kinetic sculpture is clumsier and more breakable, often with a “don’t touch” wall label. Today’s Op maybe be delicate, but it’s anything but clumsy. Decades after Riley’s press descriptions as “eas[y] on the eye,” one can’t help but think of the ethereal snapshots of Tauba Auerbach, which often accompany writing about her work.
But at Mixed Greens, there’s something else which doesn’t translate in a photo: Ken Weathersby’s paintings of minute blue, red, and yellow grids. In one, he’s cut a diamond out of the canvas and rotated it once, so that only the slim edges reveal tiny, mismatched squares. In another, he’s cut out a circle and rotated it slightly. It’s a whisper of a protest: a small change becomes an utter transformation, asking us to stop in our tracks. Instead of wearing a digital aesthetic as fashion, it prescribes a tiny rock in a massive system of cogs. Maybe reticent, and even objective-- but that act feels far from cold.
Whitney Kimball is a New York-based painter and art writer.