Optical art (or op art) was an art movement that emerged in the mid-twentieth century as an extension of the pop and conceptual art movements. It exploits the mechanics of human visual perception to create imagery in the viewer’s mind. Op artists used line, shape, flat planes of color, and a two-dimensional format to create works that appear three dimensional and occasionally convey a sense of movement.
Optical or op art emerged as an extension of the pop art and conceptual art movements, both of which represented the transition from modernism to postmodernism, during the middle of the twentieth century. From a theoretical perspective, modernism rejected the accepted and established art forms but eventually became formulaic, prescriptive, and predictable, while in response, postmodernism became characterized by a more pluralistic, eclectic, diverse, and somewhat more unpredictable approach to art.
Op art “exploits the workings of perception to create a virtual reality in the viewer’s mind” (, p. 178). Op artists aimed to create optical illusions using line, flat planes of color, and a two-dimensional format to create works that appear three dimensional and occasionally convey a sense of movement. Characterized by an emphasis on geometry, simple forms, and a strategic color palette (often black and white), op art also represented “geometric precision, emblematic not only of the Space Age but… (also the) technological revolution” of the 1960s (, p. 73). Color and light–dark contrast are dominant visual elements in op art and used strategically to create three-dimensional visual illusions from two-dimensional formats. In addition, the strategic use of color was also used to create a sense of movement across the canvas, and in this way, op art paintings represent outcomes that are more than the sum of their parts in terms of paint on canvas.
Although she does not like the title “op art,” Bridget Riley’s works are closely associated with this movement as well as “the spirit of the mid-sixties”; and Victor Vasarely’s works are also closely aligned with the op art movement (, p. 72).
Victor Vasarely (1906–1997)
Bridget Riley (Born 1931)
The art movements of op art as well as minimalism and pop art had a strong influence on popular culture as well as many areas of applied design in the late 1950s and 1960s [4, 5, 6, 7, 8]. Design output by Mary Quant, André Courreges, Pierre Cardin, and Terence Conran and firms such as Marimekko are imbued with design characteristics drawn from op art and pop art. In addition, op art influenced graphic design at the time as evidenced by the International Wool Secretariat logo by Francesco Saroglia (1965).
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