What is Op Art?

A closer look at the 1960s art style known to trick the eye

Black and White Line Pattern. Abstract Design
Raj Kamal/ Stockbyte/ Getty Images

Flashback to 1964. In the United States, we were still reeling from the assassination of our President, escalating the Civil Rights movement, being "invaded" by British pop/rock music and, in general, pretty much done with notions of achieving idyllic lifestyles (despite that which was touted in the 1950s). Given the circumstances, it was a perfect time for a new artistic movement to burst on the scene.In October of 1964, in an article describing this new style of art, Time Magazine coined the phrase "Optical Art" (or "Op Art", as it's more commonly known).

The term referenced the fact that Op Art is comprised of illusion, and often appears - to the human eye - to be moving or breathing due to its precise, mathematically-based composition.

After (and because of) a major 1965 exhibition of Op Art entitled The Responsive Eye, the public became enraptured with the movement. As a result, one began to see Op Art showing up everywhere: in print and television advertising, as LP album art and as a fashion motif in clothing and interior decoration.

Although the term was coined and the exhibition held in the mid-1960s, most people who've studied these things agree that Victor Vasarely pioneered the movement with his 1938 painting Zebra. M. C. Escher - whose style has sometimes caused him to be listed as an Op artist - created works with amazing perspectives and use of tessellations that certainly helped point the way for others. And it can be argued that none of Op Art would've been possible - let alone embraced by the public - without the prior Abstract and Expressionist movements that de-emphasized (or, in many cases, eliminated) representational subject matter.

As an "official" movement, Op Art has been given a life-span of around three years. This doesn't mean, though, that every artist ceased employing Op Art as their style by 1969. Bridget Riley is one noteworthy artist who has moved from achromatic to chromatic pieces, but has steadfastly created Op Art from its beginning to the present day.

Additionally, anyone who has gone through a post-secondary fine arts program probably has a tale or two of Op-ish projects created during color theory studies.

It's also worth mentioning that, in the digital age, Op Art is sometimes viewed with bemusement. Perhaps you, too, have heard the (rather snide, in my opinion) comment: "A child with the proper graphic design software could produce this stuff." Quite true, of a gifted child, with a computer and the proper software at his or her disposal, in the 21st century. This certainly wasn't the case in the early 1960s, and the 1938 date of Vasarely's Zebra speaks for itself in this regard. Op Art represents a great deal of math, planning and technical skill, as none of it came freshly-inked out of a computer peripheral. Original, hand-created Op Art deserves respect, at the very least.


What are the key characteristics of Op Art?

  • First and foremost, Op Art exists to fool the eye. Op compositions create a sort of visual tension, in the viewer's mind, that gives works the illusion of movement. For example, concentrate on Bridget Riley's Dominance Portfolio, Blue (1977) - for even a few seconds - and it begins to dance and wave in front of one's eyes. Realistically, you know any Op Art piece is flat, static and two-dimensional. Your eye, however, begins sending your brain the message that what it's seeing has begun to oscillate, flicker, throb and any other verb one can employ to mean: "Yikes! This painting is moving!"
  • Because of its geometrically-based nature, Op Art is, almost without exception, non-representational.
  • The elements employed (color, line and shape) are carefully chosen to achieve maximum effect.
  • The critical techniques used in Op Art are perspective and careful juxtaposition of color (whether chromatic [identifiable hues] or achromatic [black, white or gray]).
  • In Op Art, as in perhaps no other artistic school, positive and negative spaces in a composition are of equal importance. Op Art could not be created without both.