Historically, Op Art and kinetic art has always been a bit of a headache for art critics. For what was all this anyway? A new branch of Modernism? Avant-garde? Fashion? Aesthetic research? Retinal banalities? The enchanting, flickering multi-stability of the genre’s cultural status is interesting from a sociological as well as from an art historical point of view. And it beautifully reflects the devices used in the art itself, which tilts, flickers and flips over in front of our eyes.
The exhibition Eye Attack – Op Art and kinetic art 1950–1970 at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is supposedly the first major presentation of Op Art and kinetic art in Scandinavia for more than 50 years. And the main surprise of this exhibition is to see how Op Art, usually so trivialised and monomaniacal, appears highly diverse and varied here – in method and in form. From the stringently mathematical and de-personalised style of effortlessly cool, methodical artists such as Francois Morellet to the warm, earnest and cosmic idioms of artists such as Alberto Biassi, Wojciech Fangor and Richard Joseph Anuskiewicz. Op Art and kinetic art are, quite simply, a gloriously wide-ranging cluster headache that connects the most peculiar contrasts and opposites in an unbroken flow of thematic shifts and slides. Adorably awkward and carnivalesque reliefs delight with their hypnotic powers of fascination. Deadpan demonstrations of optical effects parade a scientific sombreness. Prettily psychedelic acid kitsch sounds the clarion call of sexual liberation and unrestricted use of intoxicating substances. What is the common denominator here? Perhaps it isn’t really the “Eye Attack” announced in the exhibition title, but rather a broadly based and fundamentally interdisciplinary willingness to experiment with issues of body, consciousness and movement evident during the period, 1950–70, covered by the exhibition.
THE ECSTATIC LONER AND THE SOCIAL EDUCATOR
The exhibition format of Eye Attack calls little attention to itself. There is a somewhat Louisiana-conservative tendency towards privileging paintings and wall objects, while the film media is, regrettably, entirely absent. Overall, however, the exhibition progresses with a cleanly honed focus, and the selection of works is well-balanced and well disposed. Only a few of the large installations sit a bit awkwardly in an otherwise well-composed presentation. Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely hold central positions in the exhibition. And even though Op Art claims to have rid itself of subjectivism, this juxtaposition nevertheless testifies to significant differences in terms of aesthetic sensibility.
Bridget Riley is an ecstatic freethinker who, having put down roots that tap deeply into modernist painting, pulls herself entirely free of language and the social realm. Her black-and-white pictures sparkle and fizz with such ferocity that it is impossible for us to achieve perceptual dominance over them. Absolutely repulsive. Absolutely alluring. Spending just one minute staring directly at works such as current (1964) or climax (1963) creates a sense of physical discomfort and hallucinatory effects. Nowhere is the eye attack more astoundingly intense, extravagant and elegant than in Riley. But what does this attack on the eye actually mean? It is definitely an attack against a possessive, dominating and totalising gaze. It constitutes a sublime shift in the observer’s power over the observed, for Riley’s works neither can nor wish to be appropriated by the human eye, but they still want to be seen!
Victor Vasarely, by contrast, is the constructive collectivist of the movement. A great socio-educational builder who wishes to create a new vein of planetary folklore. The differences are not biographical, but formal: Vasarely’s picture plane can be reminiscent of a board game. It is full of fun and games, of educational prompts to fill in specific fields of colour. It is a retinal Sudoku puzzle solved within a wider linguistic community. The sci-fi-like Vega Or (1969) may be the exception that proves the rule. But Bridget Riley’s pictures beat out them all because they constitute a single, cohesive, vibrant force field. Their intensity remains unbroken. By comparison, Vasarely is essentially a humanist doing picture puzzles.
“Just look! You don’t really have to know anything – your eyes will tell you more as you go,” says the accompanying text on the wall. This urging message seems both naïve and counterproductive given that fact that this is a phenomenon from the past annals of art history; a field about which we already know a lot. It is true that we see with our eyes. But we perceive and understand the world through our gaze. The eye is a physiological mechanism. The gaze, however, is an interpretative entity, governed and conditioned by culture and affected by a plethora of codes – language, gender, history, culture and technology.
Thus, the key question we must ask in our encounter with Op Art and kinetic art at Eye Attack is this: can the codes of the gaze be changed through a simple attack on the habits of the eye? If not, the attack on the eye is nothing but a titillation of a physiological mechanism. This is precisely the point made by the negative, culturally conservative criticism of this genre: it is mere retinal entertainment, banal, flat and empty. It has no real substance. And it brought us Olafur Eliasson.
Such familiar criticism is, in fact, in itself quite flat and empty. It is often blinkered, too. Unquestioningly, it reproduces the notion that planes are always surfaces and that true meaning and substance resides in the depths – in what lies beneath. This notion about reaching something that lies behind what you see is based on a logic of penetration and deflowering that makes the act of seeing encoded with strongly masculine traits. Supporting such thinking means that you will completely miss the structural ambitions of the genre. For Op Art rejects the discriminating perceptual hierarchy that privileges foreground over background, subject over object, masculinity over femininity and essence over absence.
Op Art is, more than anything, retinal queerness. It cheerfully and lustily fucks up straight-laced desire. Instead of straight lines it introduces pulsating force fields, pure visual attractors, vibrating planes and energy formations. We get liberated, free-flowing deluges of desire, dancing a mathematical gavotte in a retinal no-mans-land. The effect is druggy. We trip and freak out, constantly oscillating between desire and exhaustion, ecstasy and triviality. Op Art offers the ultimate ambience: where else can we find such a strange link between visual didactics and hallucinatory sexiness, such a heady brew of mathematical logic and orgiastic visuality?
So is this the reading of Op Art presented at Louisiana? Far from it. On the one hand we can only applaud the museum for being able to present such an impressive selection of some of the fundamental examples of Op Art. But on the other hand, Louisiana is also engaging in some rather frustrating art historical hemming and hawing.
The texts on the wall offer a jovial message to visitors who arrive with no preconceptions – a move that may be excused in the name of presentation – but we also find the following lines in the catalogue itself: “Serious academic art critics despaired at the apparent banality – in terms of concept and content – of Op Art, and at its far too popular and gimmicky entertainment value … Quite simply, poppy banality won out in the end, and the lack of academic interest is clearly evident in the rather short chapters found on this issue in various works of reference.”
But why on earth does Louisiana not, then, grab reception history by the horns instead of simply reiterating it? Why does it not strike out to create new facets of interpretation that can be experienced and read directly in the curatorial orchestration of the works selected, their juxtaposition and their modes of presentation?
At Eye Attack Op Art and kinetic art become enshrined as an art historical category that already has a firmly established framework in terms of its interpretation, while the catalogue texts make passive references to a reception history that tells us the exact opposite. The repeated references (on the walls) to the human eye, body and sensory apparatus are made in terms that are bland and neutered. Here, neither the body nor eye, nor our movements in this space are gendered. But surely gender ought to be a major, even inescapable perspective here in 2016? For any attack on the eye is always also an attack on its genderedness. The Op Art penchant for moiré patterns is an excellent example of this.
The moiré patterns seen in artists such as Toni Costa, Ludwig Wilding, Alberto Biasi and Carlos Cruz-Diez appear when you take two sets of straight lines – for example the kind found in the grids of cartography – and displace them in relation to each other. This creates a space full of curves, energy flows and tonal vibrations. The fixed co-ordinates of rigid geometrical order slip and slide happily in all directions, annulling the possibility of locking the object of desire in a single, definitive position. In other word, this is a clear, implicit critique of a Western patriarchal gaze. The moiré pattern is a fucked-up queer space that appeals rather more to a gleefully abandoned exploration of the surfaces and inner geographies of bodies than to a militarised dominance over the external world. Thus, the war of the eye is always also a geometrical war concerned with the symmetry and relationship of the genders.
Eye Attack is a gem of retinal queerness, but its appeal to an essentially empty naivety is counterproductive. All it needs is for its readings and interpretations to be thrown wide open. These works simply beg us to take them with everything we’ve got: eyes, gender, gaze, mind, our entire body.