Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week, on what would be his 106th birthday, the father of op-art: Victor Vasarely.
“The art of tomorrow will be a collective treasure or it will not be art at all.” – Victor Vasarely
It wasn’t considered “op-art” when painter, sculptor, and innovator Victor Vasarely began creating in the 1930s. In fact, the term wasn’t coined until 1964 by Time magazine, thirty years after the artist began cultivating, shaping, and pioneering a movement that would go on to influence 20th century art in unimaginable ways.
Victor Vasarely was born in Hungary on April 9, 1906, and spent his childhood wandering throughout different countries in Eastern Europe. He enrolled at the University of Budapest in 1925 to study medicine, lasting a wimpy two years before transferring to study traditional academic painting. After brief stints at the private Podolini-Volkmann Academy and Sándor Bortnyik’s műhely, Vasarely entered the highly acclaimed art institute Bauhaus in 1929, the same year he married fellow student and artist Claire Spinner. Working as a graphic designer and poster artist for a ball bearings company, the artist used organic shapes and chromatic patterns that contained the rudimentary elements of the optical and structured geometric themes that would eventually follow.
Vasarely and his wife fled Budapest for Paris in 1930 to work as a creative consultant for advertising agencies Haves, Draeger and Devambez. Over the next thirteen years, the artist became infatuated with graphic studies, and experimented with textural effects, perspective, shadow, and light. By creating multi-dimensional works of art via superimposing patterned layers of cellophane atop one another, Vasarely combined painting with sculpture to create the illusion of depth.
In 1947, Vasarely began to understand his role as an artist, concluding that “internal geometry” was the pinnacle of his inspiration. Over the next 20 years, Vasarely developed what would be informally dubbed as the Black & White period, a style that marked a groundbreaking shift in the artist’s career. Vasarely noticed that by superimposing acrylic glass panes over kinematic images, the work moved depending on the viewpoint.
The artist combined the frames into a single pane by transposing photographs in strictly black and white, resulting in a culmination of a few different approaches. Additionally, Vasarely released a series of manifestos on the use of optical phenomena for artistic purposes, coinciding with the Black & White period. It is throughout his writing we can understand the recognition of inner geometry of physical nature that birthed Vasarely’s style and the op-art movement.
Riu Kiu C, 1960
Between 1960 and 1980, the artist pioneered his version of the Alphabet Plastique, frequently revered as Vasarely’s greatest contribution to 20th century art. Throughout these works Vasarely established the fundamental units known as the unités plastiques, permutations of geometric shapes differentiated by specific colors and forms. Vasarely’s alphabet provided infinite possibilities for creative works, with the ability to remix and rework “letters” to speak to different subjects.
Alphabet VR, 1960
In 1965, Varsarely’s work was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s “The Responsive Eye” exhibition. The exhibit included a vast array of established artists like Frank Stella and Alexander Liberman, and focused on the perceptual aspects of art that result from the illusion of movement and the interaction of color and form.
Composition Double Bleu et Rouge, 1980
Vasarely died in Paris at the age of 90 on March 15, 1997, responsible for the spawn of arguably one of the most important movements in 20th century art. His work is featured in a number of prominent museums throughout the world, and, along with his manifestos, continues to influence the work of countless artists today.