The “op” in “op art” refers to optical illusion and op art paintings, such as Bridget Riley’s Metamorphosis (1964), are composed of precise, geometric abstractions. Op art paintings pulse with an energy created by a strategic alignment of color and form, creating a blurring after-image, similar to the experience of looking at a bright light for too long, or looking into a funhouse mirror. Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely (1908—1997) was a pioneer of op art. His commercial paintings of zebras (and their repetitious black-and-white stripes) served as early optic experimentations while works such as the black-and-white Supernovae (1959—1961) are dynamic and restless. Vasarely linked these works to free-moving kinetic art by artists such as Alexander Calder. The viewer is an essential part of the op art experience because without the viewer—specifically the viewer’s perception, there can be no optical illusion. Op art serves as an inquiry into the very nature of optical perception—the experience of seeing things.
Op artist Bridget Riley experimented with visual illusion in her work. Firebird (1971), a screenprint on paper, is made up of vibrating bands of vertical color. (Art courtesy The Bridgeman Art Library, © Bridget Riley 2012. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.)