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If you put "op art" into an image web search, you will come across many striking computer generated images that trick the eyes. I'm especially fond of Akiyoshi's illusion pages. The works are both psychological and psychedelic, making one aware of one's visual apparatus and hinting at altered states of mind. Joe Houston's Optic Nerve traces the artistic origins of this tradition in the 1960s. It is beautifully illustrated with many eye-gripping images and so it is a pleasure to browse. It is all too tempting to just treat op art as a gimmick, but Houston's book explains the ideological and artistic background of the movement too. The book is divided into eleven chapters, addressing the relation between art, topics and science, the historical foundations of Op, the different genres within Op (Black and White, Monochrome, and Full Spectrum), sculptures and other media, Op Art in the general culture, and the effects of Op Art. Houston writes clearly without relying on obscure jargon or convoluted rhetoric. He shows a comprehensive knowledge of the major and minor figures in Op Art, so while the chapters are quite short, they are very informative. Furthermore, the book has two appendices, one a collection of manifestos by artists and supporters of Op Art, and the other, longer one, 15 pages of short biographies of about sixty artists.
It is no surprise to find that different Op artists had different motivations. Some believed in the power of technology and saw their art as a celebration of mathematics. Others saw their work as a response to nature; this might be surprising at first, since this abstract expressionism seems to have so little connection to the natural world. Bridget Riley, one of the central figures in the movement, wanted her work to have a direct effect on the viewer, equivalent to an electric charge. Houston's book shows that the works in this movement consistently do have such an effect, and it is real pleasure to browse the pages. Houston's accompanying text helps the reader to understand the aims of individual artists, and to start to recognize their distinctive styles. Optic Nerve is a rare accomplishment, managing to provide scholarly examination of art in clear language with an enjoyable visual experience. One may worry that Op Art is intrinsically limited as a movement because the strength of the optical sensations overpower all other aspects of the work, and the range of emotions and ideas these works can provoke is limited. However, readers may come to question the truth of such a harsh judgment by the time they have read all through Optic Nerve.
Link: Columbus Museum of Art page for Optic Nerve exhibition
© 2007 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.
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