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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

diptych.

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,"

Fazekas says.

"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

the toilet.

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

27.

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

Victor Vasarely Retrospective, Museum of the American-Hungarian

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.


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