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Mumok Vienna invites visitors to experience the confusing world of illusion

The exhibition Vertigo. Op Art and a History of Deception 1520–1970, at Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, is on display till October 26, 2019.

by Sukanya Garg Sep 19, 2019

Vertigo, in medical diction, means a sort of physical dizziness. Op art, subsequently, is a form of art rooted in visual stimulation not just physically, but also producing psychological and cognitive illusory effects on the viewer.

The exhibition Vertigo-Op Art and a History of Deception 1520-1970 at mumok - Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (Museum of modern art, Ludwig Foundation, Vienna), is the first of its kind to present optical or Op art from the 1950s and 1960s together with much older examples from art history.

Vertigo. Op Art and a History of Deception 1520–1970, mumok - Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Gianni Colombo, Spazio elastico, 1967–1968 | STIR
Vertigo. Op Art and a History of Deception 1520–1970, mumok - Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Gianni Colombo, Spazio elastico, 1967–1968 Image Credit: Markus Wörgötter © mumok/Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milano

Curated by Eva Badura-Triska and Markus Wörgötter, the exhibition Vertigo delves into the Op art movement that started somewhere in the 1950s. While it did not have a label to begin with, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965 led to its recognition as Op art.

The art, by itself, does not have a conceptual or subjective basis, but rather works as a medium to initiate intellectual, psychological or sensory feelings, perceptions or reactions in the viewer itself. It relies on individual interpretation and unlike many other forms of art, where there is a meaning ascribed to the artwork by the artist, the Op art works do not have a prescribed meaning. While sometimes the work itself is moving, changing form or appearance, other times experiencing the optical illusion requires the viewer to move around, changing the point of view, which subsequently changes the line of vision, the image and the reaction. 

Marina Apollonio Spazio Ad Attivazione Cinetica 6B, 1966/2015 Museo del Barrio, NY | Vertigo. Op Art and a History of Deception 1520–1970 | STIR
Marina Apollonio Spazio Ad Attivazione Cinetica 6B, 1966/2015 Museo del Barrio, NY Image Credit: Lauren Glazer © Marina Apollonio

Many of the Op art pioneers worked with grids and vanishing lines, playing with angles, space, depth and central perspective to  alter the final perception of the image. The phenomenon called anamorphosis is evident in Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1523/24).

Guido Reni Umkreis Jesus und Maria, Riefelbild Erste Hälfte 17. Jh. / first half of 17th century Öl auf Holz/Oil on wood 33,5 x 26,5 cm | Vertigo. Op Art and a History of Deception 1520–1970 | STIR
Guido Reni Umkreis Jesus und Maria, Riefelbild Erste Hälfte 17. Jh. / first half of 17th century Öl auf Holz/Oil on wood 33,5 x 26,5 cm Image Credit: © Sammlung Werner Nekes

Camouflage is another technique used in Op art to render invisible an image from its surroundings. Used initially for military purposes, artists used colours, patterns and forms to create works of illusion using camouflage, for example in Edward Wadsworth’s painting Camouflaged Ship in Dry Dock (1918).

One of the most famous optical art techniques, however, was the moiré effect wherein two grid patterns are laid on top of each other without exactly covering each other. The uneven distribution of darkness and light creates an effect of depth and the human eye connects focal points in the grid to imagine endless new structures and shapes from the original grid. Some of the famous renditions of this technique are artist Gabriele de Vecchi’s work URMNT (1962) and artist Jesús Raphael Soto’s work, Metal Vibration (1969–1970).

Vertigo. Op Art and a History of Deception 1520–1970, mumok - Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Julio Le Parc, Lumière en mouvement – Installation, 1962/1999, Edition 1/9 | Vertigo. Op Art and a History of Deception 1520–1970 | STIR
Vertigo. Op Art and a History of Deception 1520–1970, mumok - Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Julio Le Parc, Lumière en mouvement – Installation, 1962/1999, Edition 1/9 Image Credit: Markus Wörgötter © mumok/Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich/Bildrecht Wien, 2019

Flickering lights, periodic light flashes, spirals and infinite geometry, picture puzzles and ambiguous images were other ways to infuse optics in art, films, textiles or kinetic objects.

The exhibition design of Vertigo, then, draws on the idea of the labyrinth. Here, the labyrinth is the hinge between the visual experience of the Op art of the 1960s and optical experiments undertaken in the 16th and 17th centuries that aimed to playfully question the relationship between seeing and knowing in an age of transformation. Op artists advocated the idea of an ‘open work of art.’ The work is by definition unfinished - both in terms of its meaning and in terms of how it interacts with viewers - and the relations between art object, artist, and receiver become a field of opportunities undergoing constant change.

Bridget Riley Blaze 2, 1963 Dispersion auf Hartfaserplatte / Emulsion on hardboard 93 x 93 cm | Vertigo. Op Art and a History of Deception 1520 – 1970 | STIR
Bridget Riley Blaze 2, 1963 Dispersion auf Hartfaserplatte / Emulsion on hardboard 93 x 93 cm Image Credit: © National Museums Northern Ireland, Collection Ulster Museum © Bildrecht Wien/Bridget Riley, 2019

These ‘open works of art’, as the artists like to call them, can then be experienced at mumok until October 26, 2019.

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About Author

Sukanya Garg

Sukanya Garg

Garg is an artist and writer with a Master's degree in Public Policy from Duke University, USA. She has been involved in research, planning and execution of gallery exhibitions and external projects in collaboration with curators. Her writing has been published in several art magazines, journals and as part of curatorial notes and catalogues, and her work has been showcased at multiple exhibitions.

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