Op Art: The Illusion Lover’s Movement

Science and the arts have much more in common than you might think. This is especially true when it comes to science and the art of human perception. From abstract paintings that can be left to the viewer’s imagination, to whether or not the Mona Lisa is really smiling… artists and scientists alike are trying to figure out the best way to understand how the world works. In the 1960s, the popular Op (optical) Art movement took the intersection of science and art literally. Artists became interested in the science of perception and influenced the world of optical illusions as we know it.

The movement is characterized by abstract, typically black and white pieces. They frequently give the impression of movement, pulsing, swelling, or hidden images. We have many pieces at the Museum of Illusions NYC that are Op Art-inspired. So, let’s talk about where it all began.

A statue Op Art installation by Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely, used by the Museum of Illusions NYC blog.
An Op Art installation by artist Victor Vasarely.

The Beginning of the Op Art Movement

The truth is, artists have long used optical illusion as a central focus in their work. Some of the most famous, such as M.C. Escher and Charles Allan Gilbert were creating some of the best-known literal illusions well before the Op Art movement took off. When the movement rose in popularity, it was in response to the increased interest in technology and psychology during the mid-to-late 1950s.

When Op Art was born, so was a movement called Kinetic Art. Op Art focused on perceived movement through optical illusion while Kinetic Art focused on actual movement. Both art movements were originally displayed in 1955 at Galerie Denise Renee in an exhibit called Le Mouvement. Both the Optical and Kinetic Art movements were perfectly aligned with the psychedelic colors and patterns of the 1960s. This is why the Op Art movement found rapid commercial success.

Key Optical Artists

A lot of the key artists in the movement actually resisted the Op Art label. This is because, although it had huge mainstream success, it wasn’t as popular of a concept among the art world. More on that in a minute. First, we want to mention a couple of the most influential artists of the movement. Some you may be familiar with, others not. Either way, their art is definitely worth getting to know.

Supernovae by Victor Vasarely for the Museum of Illusions NYC Blog
Supernovae by Victor Vasarley

Artists like Victor Vasarely, Frank Stella, and Bridget Riley were some of the most influential of the Op Art movement. If you take a look at some of their work (pictured above and below), you can see the stylistic similarities that characterized this psychedelic art movement.

Current by Bridget Riley for the Museum of Illusions NYC Blog
Current by Bridget Riley


The Reception of the Movement

Like we said earlier, the movement was a huge commercial success. But it was not as much of a hit in the art world. Much like the works of M.C. Escher, Op Art never found a place in any of the larger art movements, and therefore was never loved by critics. Because it was so “of its time,” critics often dismissed the movement as “gimmicky.” The movement was never truly able to shake this label, which is likely why it went in and out of style so quickly.

Because it existed simutaneously with pop art legends such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, it was easy to see the movement as just a passing craze.

Op Art Today

Although Op Art was a movement that was incredibly influenced by the scientific advances of its time, it does still have a lasting impression today. Though you may not find many galleries in museums dedicated to the movement, artists that participated in the style, such as Victor Vasarely are still widely celebrated.

Many of the illusions that hang in the galleries of the Museum of Illusions NYC are influenced by pieces from the Op Art movement. If you would like to come and see them for yourself, you can click here to book your tickets! The MOI is the perfect way to escape from the New York heat while spending an afternoon in the Meatpacking District.