Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on May 6, 1998. All rights reserved.
In New Brunswick, A Visual Workout
In its Victor Vasarely retrospective New Brunswick’s
Museum of the American-Hungarian Foundation offers gymnastics for
the eye. Stare at these works by the father of Op-Art even briefly,
and their elements refuse to stay put. Instead — pulsing and throbbing
— they leap out of their frames. Cubes turn themselves inside
out, protuberances grow and recede, and luminous surfaces reach out
to the viewer. While Op-Art is the style most associated with Vasarely,
the show provides a wider perspective on his work by including non
Op-Art pieces from various periods of his career. With works dating
from the 1930s through the 1980s, the show alights on several representational
works, including self-portraits, and cartoon-like pictures. It also
hints at the range of his interests by including jewelry, sculpture,
and a chess set.
Curator Patricia Fazekas has enhanced the 67 items in the exhibit
by deploying them effectively. The first piece to meet the visitor’s
eye is "Caldor," a painting measuring almost six feet in each
direction. By tricks of perspective, the piece suggests a tunnel tiled
in vivid reds and luminous blues that extends back beyond the walls
of the room. Fazekas has also shown the transparent and black acrylic
"Zebras" to advantage by mounting the piece in front of white
vertical blinds that add their own pattern to the two planes of the
Challenged to select three or four paintings for some innocent culture
seeking a quick fix on Vasarely, Fazekas would start with "Caldor."
She would include "Harlequin," one of the earliest pieces
in the exhibit; the faceless figure in this painting is composed of
colored quadrilaterals of varying proportions, against a background
of squares. "Vasarely had already discovered that you could take
a grid, and move the lines to create a sense of movement and three-dimensionality,"
"Les Amoureux" ("The Lovers"), a black and ivory painting,
would also make Fazekas’s short list. In this Picasso-like 1940 painting,
the head and hands of a man and woman are intertwined. The negative
space of one of the figures is the positive space of the other. The
first move of the viewer standing in front of the piece is to decipher
its components. Then, gradually, the closeness of the relationship
between the chunky man and the delicate woman emerge.
Finally, Fazekas would include a black and white piece. She names
the jumpy serigraph "Nora Dell," which happens to be number
247 of an edition of 250, and says, "He didn’t need color to make
the optical work."
Among my favorite items in the show are a clutch of witty pieces,
the trompe l’oeil sculptures, for instance. From across the
room the colors of the vividly colored cubes, balanced precariously
on each other, arrest the eye. Up close, one finds that all the sculptures
have flat surfaces. Entertainingly, a 1936 pencil self-portrait shows
Vasarely’s torso and head in a mirror above a wash basin, his striped
clothing asserting itself against the squares of the bathroom tiles.
One of the few emotion-filled items is the funniest picture in the
show. I laughed aloud at "Diarrhee." The swift, laconic line
of the 1935 pencil sketch, framed in thin, brightly-colored paper
strips, conveys the agonized resignation of a person, yet again, on
Born in 1908 in Pecs, Hungary, into a privileged family,
Vasarely as a child liked to draw trains and animals in motion and
to experiment with the three-dimensional effects of drawings on superimposed
pieces of tracing-paper. During his childhood he drew on the panes
of fogged up window glass with his finger, observing the effect of
the double windows on the image. When he injured his arm, he was intrigued
by the grid of the gauze bandages.
In 1925 he began his academic studies in medicine at Budapest University.
Two years later, in the midst of political upheaval, classes were
suspended and Vasarely never returned to the university. Instead he
entered the Poldini-Volkmann Academy of Painting. The American-Hungarian
Museum will amplify its Vasarely exhibit by showing a selection of
Poldini-Volkmann works, beginning June 6, for its annual June Hungarian
festival, and running concurrently with the Vasarely show until September
After studying with Alexander Bortnyik at the Muhely Academy, informally
known as the Budapest Bauhaus, Vasarely left for the liberated atmosphere
of Paris in 1930. He remained in France until his death in 1997, and
took French nationality in 1959. Vasarely began to gain affluence
after 1935 when he designed graphics for a French advertising agency
that specialized in publicity for pharmaceuticals. His work extended
also to architectural installations.
After experimenting with various styles of painting, he arrived at
the conclusion in 1955 that painting was outmoded, and that the modern
world required a scientifically controlled exploration of forms and
colors free of all psychological references. He favored organization
rather than spontaneity, and invented the phrase "plastique cinetique"
for what he did. The term "Op Art" came into use in 1965 with
an exhibit called "The Responsive Eye" at New York’s Museum
of Modern Art.
Fazekas, who was an undergraduate art major at the time, remembers
that she and her colleague "aspired to the hard-edged stuff that
Vasarely typified. It was before computers," she says, "and
his work was stunning in the regularity and precision of its details."
By the 1970s, Vasarely had become a multi-millionaire. According to
Claude Marks’s book, "World Artists 1950-1980," he employed
assistants to execute his paintings, prints and sculpture in large
editions, explaining that he rejected "the old egocentric philosophy"
of such artists as Picasso and Dali. Some of those close to Vasarely’s
work reject the idea that he delegated work to others.
During the 1960s and 1970s a group of institutions devoted
to Vasarely were founded. They have not all fared well. The three
museums devoted to his work — in Pecs, his birthplace, in Budapest,
Hungary, and in Gordes in the south of France — seem to be stable.
The Vasarely Foundation near Aix-en-Provence, France, whose mission
was to explore the application of Vasarely’s theories to urban development
and to promote a "Polychrome City" to replace the drab suburbias
of the world, was closed for 15 months beginning in January, 1997.
A recent article in Germany’s newspaper of record, the Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung, reports that its doors have reopened after the
payment of 18 million francs ($3 million) in taxes to French fiscal
authorities following the "disappearance" of art works worth
43 million francs (more than $7 million), and supposedly sold. The
Vasarely Center in New York closed in the middle 1980s. The bulk of
the exhibit at the American-Hungarian Museum comes from that collection,
which now belongs to a single individual.
The pieces lent for the American-Hungarian Museum exhibit are all
for sale. Prices range from hundreds of dollars to close $100,000,
with many stops along the way. Potential purchasers might consider
a typical "Op Art" Vasarely, or think about acquiring one
of the atypical pieces that show that the artist could really draw,
when he wanted to.
— Elaine Strauss
Foundation , 300 Somerset Street, New Brunswick, 732-846-5777. To
September 27. $2 donation. Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11
a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.