Looking at Op Art can be a mind-blowing experience, tricking our eyes into seeing the unbelievable and impossible. An important strand of art history since Renaissance times, the strange and illusory world of optics continue to fascinate today’s artists, who have created some truly astonishing works of art. Some have branched out into the city streets to create epic, sublime optical illusions of depth and space, while others transform gallery spaces into immersive and all-encompassing environments. Mathematical precision and an understanding of the science of optics underpins the practice behind many of these works of art, which continue to be expanded in ever more adventurous and astonishing directions. Here we examine 7 of today’s most outstanding illusions of the Op Art movement, but first, let’s take a look at the art history that continues to inform the practices of today.
A Brief History Of Incredible Op Art Illusions
The dazzling and wonderous Op Art movement has roots in the Renaissance period when the discovery of linear perspective led artists into greater levels of depth and realism than ever before. But it was during the Mannerist period that optical effects were really pushed in daring new directions, as artists began exaggerating optical illusions and foreshortened effects for dramatic and emotional impact.
Giulio Romano’s stunning Sala dei Giganti (Room of the Giants), 1530-32, was painted onto the domed ceiling of the Palazzo del Te, creating the astonishing illusion of infinite space crowded with angels and warriors that ascend upwards through the clouds to heaven. Other artists began to experiment with anamorphosis, or optical illusions which can only be seen from a certain angle, such as Guido Reni’s 17th century Jesus and Mary, which can either depict Jesus or Mary, depending on which angle it is viewed from.
In the early 20th century, various Surrealist artists began to experiment with the psychological impact of optical effects in the mind of the viewer. Salvador Dali explored an uncanny, Freudian language where ordinary objects are distorted or set amidst strange lighting to challenge our perceptions of reality. His late paintings looked back to the dramatic foreshortening and exaggerated perspective of the Mannerist period, with haunting scenes viewed from strange, unsettling angles, as seen in Christ of St John of the Cross, 1951.
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The Optical or Op Art movement arose as a fully-fledged art phenomenon throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Artists associated with the movement explored clean, precise and mathematical arrangements of color, pattern and light in both two and three dimensions, exploring how a rational, scientific understanding of patterns could be applied in art to create an array of bizarre and unsettling visual effects. British painter Bridget Riley played with dizzying zig-zagged, circular or wavy lines and how they could induce the sensations of movement, swelling, warping and after-images in the eye. British artist Peter Sedgley went a stage further, displaying his canvases of concentric circles in a darkened room lit from behind with changing colors to disorient the viewer.
Op Art faded from view throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but in recent times there has been a resurgence of interest in the field, reflecting the advanced technology and slick styling of our increasingly digitized world. Both the dazzling perspective and dizzying patterns once associated with the Op Art movement have been brought to the fore by a new generation of artists working in a wide range of disciplines and contexts. Let’s take a look at just some of the movement’s most mesmerizing optical illusions from recent times, from artists all around the world.
1. Edgar Mueller, The Crevasse, 2008
German street artist Edgar Mueller’s The Crevasse, 2008, stunned audiences with its technical ingenuity, as freezing ice seems to fall away into a terrifyingly huge crater in the ground. Made for the Festival of World Culture in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland in August 2008, Mueller spent 12 hours a day for five days straight painting his design onto a flat stretch of pavement. Mueller employed the Renaissance and Mannerist trope of anamorphosis, which allows the illusion of deep space to be created on a flat surface when seen from a certain angle. Once complete, he persuaded festival visitors to pose as if teetering on the edge of a giant ice crevasse and looking down into oblivion, making the photographic evidence all the more lifelike.
2. Regina Silveira, Abyssal, 2010
Brazilian artist Regina Silveira’s Abyssal, 2010, is one of the most technically impressive Op Art installations of all time. Made for the Atlas Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art in Poland, the work deploys anamorphosis techniques to suggest the flat gallery floor falls away into a labyrinthine ground of windows, but only when seen from an oblique angle. She explains, “successive lines of windows in great perspectival compression provoke the perception of a space in depth, which will function as a virtual hole able to provide uncanny spatial distortions.” The old-fashioned style of paneled windows and classical pillars were made to resemble the building’s former traditional design before it was modernized into a clean gallery space, adding a ghostly and ethereal quality to her spatial intervention.
3. Richard Wright, The Stairwell Project, 2010
British artist Richard Wright’s Op Art masterwork The Stairwell Project, 2010, might appear delicate and subtle, but close inspection reveals a fascinating and dizzying feast of activity. On the ceiling of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Wright painted a frenzied flurry of black shapes that could be a swarm of insects or birds. Look closely and they seem to swell in and out of the wall space as if moving through a wide-open sky, recalling the great depth of Renaissance and Mannerist ceiling frescoes. Even more impressive is the fact that each black mark is made from the exact same motif, an abstract shape based on one of the holes in the ceiling’s floral decoration.
4. Peter Kogler, Dimensions, 2011
Austrian artist Peter Kogler’s dizzying, futuristic room installation Dimensions, 2011, completely transforms flat walls and floors with pulsing and swelling patterns. Kogler’s complex and repetitive designs are based on gridded networks of lines, which are stretched and distorted on a computer before being printed into large-format wall works. Much like Bridget Riley, Kogler works with the high contrast of black and white patterning for maximum visual impact, while clever linear distortions trick our eyes into believing the patterns are actually three-dimensional forms moving in and out of space.
Kurt Wenner, Dies Irae, 2012
American street-artist Kurt Wenner’s Dies Irae, 2012, was made on a stretch of pavement in Mantua, Italy, stunning passers-by with its technical brilliance. Like many artists of the Op Art movement, Wenner explores the anamorphosis technique to create an unbelievably real sense of depth and space. Based on the 13th-century Catholic poem titled Dies Irae, this work illustrates dead people crawling out of a huge hole in the earth on the final day of judgment to have their fates decided. The astonishing level of detailed realism employed by Wenner in both brick-work and figures recalls the great Renaissance and Mannerist masterpieces that inspire his work, inducing the same spectacular qualities of awe and wonder.
6. Jim Lambie Zobop, 2014
Scottish artist Jim Lambie’s iconic, iridescent ‘Zobop’ installations bring prismatic displays of color wherever they go. Inspired by his mutual passions for music and visual stimulation, Lambie’s brilliantly colored floor works are made with vastly long reams of electrical tape, which are stretched into dazzling geometric patterns across the ground. Made in an improvisatory manner on-site, they respond to the shapes and patterns of the architecture around them, sometimes covering huge expanses of floor or meandering their way up staircases. Much like his Op Art predecessors, Lambie’s art unites geometric patternswith eye-popping colors to transform our perception of space and light.
7. JR, The Secret of the Great Pyramid, 2019
French street artistJR’s impressive intervention The Secret of the Great Pyramid, 2019, completely reinvented the site around the famous Louvre Pyramid (Pyramide du Louvre) outside the Louvre Museum in Paris, with a giant optical illusion. JR enlisted an army of 400 volunteers and amassed over 2000 pieces of paper to bring his incredible vision to life. With strips of printed paper collaged onto the ground, JR was able to create the illusion of a vast construction site opening up in the ground, while the glass pyramid appeared to be the top of a much larger structure hidden deep within the ground. Sadly, this incredible visual trick was only installed at the Louvre for a weekend, but the artist noted, “The images, like life, are ephemeral.”
The Ongoing Legacy Of The Op Art Movement
The great legacy of the Op Art movement lives on today as artists continue to experiment with the fascinating science of optical illusions. Digital screens and computer technology have expanded the scope of today’s Op Art, with many artists deliberately recreating the world of screens and computer programming in digital art that responds to the ever-changing virtual world surrounding us. American artist Tauba Auerbach explores the boundaries between art and graphic design with rippling, flickering patterns that resemble digital screens, and lively, Op Art patterns made from tech-style grids. American artist Xylor Jane creates vast webs and networks of precise marks based on the languages of mathematical codes and algorithms to create unsettling and disorientating effects.