Hungarian-French painter and printmaker Victor Vasarely is often hailed as the grandfather of Op art. His style is one of mesmerising optical illusions—either in black and white or full vivid colour—created by the precise arrangement of geometrical shapes in patterns of contrasting tones. There is no sense of stillness in his graphic prints, paintings and sculptures; they pulsate outwards and inwards, the smallest shift of gaze generating whole new images on drastically different planes. Vasarely’s practice has influenced Bridget Riley, Jesús Rafael Soto, Yaacov Agam, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Julio Le Parc and François Morellet, all of whom brought along their own ideas to this vibrant and technical style.
Vasarely studied at the Muhely Academy (the Budapest branch of the Bauhaus) in the late 1920s. There he was exposed to the teachings of the original Bauhaus artists—Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy and Paul Klee—and their formal language of abstract and geometrical arrangement. He was also heavily influenced by the efforts of the Russian Constructivists and Suprematists to produce kinetic art (art that moved or gave the illusion of doing so).
In the 1930s Vasarely moved to Paris to work in advertising as a graphic designer. It was there that the development of his signature style began. His first significant exhibition was of his graphics and drawings and was held at the Denise René Gallery in 1944. In this early period his works in print and paint were abstractions of real subjects. However, towards the 1950s he began producing fully abstract works based purely on the organisation of geometric shapes.
The hallmark of Vasarely’s 1950s style is a visually intense arrangement of contrasting hard-edged geometric shapes in black and white, set in complex orderly patterns. Not only does this style give the illusion of space and depth on an abstract two-dimensional surface, but it also contains a sense of highly dynamic movement. In 1955 Vasarely featured in another show at the Denise René Gallery: an exhibition of kinetic art entitled Le Movement. There he demonstrated his scientific theories of art-making, which were published simultaneously in his Yellow Manifesto.
Vasarely began to work with colour more in the 1960s. It was in this decade that he fully realised his concept of ‘plastic units’: placing different geometric shapes of varying colours and tones within an overall grid structure to create a contrasting push and pull effect. This methodology became the basis for much of his future work.
The 1960s also saw Vasarely’s arrival on the international art scene. At the 1965 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, The Responsive Eye, he exhibited alongside other younger Op artists such as Bridget Riley and Yaacov Agam. As well as bringing international fame and demand for Vasarely’s works, the exhibition led to the appropriation for several decades of Op art by fashion, advertising and popular graphics. Op art was well-suited to these industries as a style able to lend itself to mass production and hold broad universal appeal, requiring only the eye (rather than prior knowledge) to be enjoyed.
Beyond the 1960s, Vasarely continued working from his complex optical principles, creating mesmerising patterns and impossible three-dimensional shapes until his death in Paris in 1997.