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Smiles permitted, grins less welcome

Ulf Erdmann Ziegler reviews the Op Art show at Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle

Marina Apollonio, "Spazio Ad Attivazione Cinetica," 1967–1971/2007. All images courtesy Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

Op Art was an invention of critics, a phrase that was used for the first time in Time magazine on October 23, 1964. Rather than rejecting it in disgust, artists around the world adopted the term, investing it with meaning and variety in the four years thereafter. Overloaded with futuristic ideas and claims to exclusivity, as was its predecessor, futurism, the art of deception, glimmer and the indirect generation of images remained a phenomenon of the sixties, smiled upon by the global museum dynasties and shunned. It was an artistic dwarf among the giants of minimal and concept art, land art, happenings; it was the amputated sister of pop art, whose bloom grew ever more luminous. "Op" is optical.

Who other than Frankfurt's tradition-laden Schirn Kunsthalle would take on such a theme? Would it become a buzzing fun fair like the wild revival of psychedelic art in the "Summer of Love" exhibition; or an attempt to probe an idea from its inception to the present as in the exhibiton "Nichts"? "Op-Art" curator Martina Weinhart created something else entirely, a kind of Gabi Teichert work, an excavation of roots. In fact, Weinhart goes so far as to include Gruppe Zero, so that a whitewashed throat with whitewashed nails from 1959 can be historicised as the destruction of the visual field; Günther Uecker as Op Art artist – now that takes imagination.

Victor Vasarely, "Oeta", 1956 – 58

If you take the biggest names in this exhibition - Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely and Jesus Rafael Soto – you see with astonishment the curatorial reach: the pieces have no colour until Soto's "Progression Eliptica Rosa" from 1974, a volume represented by beams, from whose white base a light pink wedge grows. Even Vasarely is represented with two early works, in which black and white graphics are transformed into a kind of anti-relief by a structured glass mounted upon them. Riley is represented with her early shock paintings in which she takes the dynamic of black and white fields, their culmination and scarcity to the maximum of illusion, while at the same time suggesting laconically to the observer that it's all just calculated. The three Rileys are hanging closer to each other in Frankfurt than ever before; their arguments entangle and magnify each other.

The groups of Rileys and Sotos are not typical of Weinhart's "Op Art", which offers an interconnection of darkened and illuminated spaces, adding to the exhibition's entertainment value but obscuring geographic and temporal connections. The three singular space installations by Otto Piene, François Morellet and Gianni Colombo, for example, are strewn throughout the exhibition, although they all stem from the years between 1964 and 1966.

Bridget Riley, "Movement in Squares," 1961

Joe Colombo has glittering structures twinkle on two walls in a darkened room; then the lights go on and projectors on the walls become visible, like huge insects caught in the grips of death: shock art. In the middle of a blackened room, Francois Morellet hangs a neon grid from the ceiling which reflects in a jet black basin. Visitors can activate the basin with a lever and the grid's reflection breaks up in a spectacular way, folding into itself. Bizarrely, for fractions of a second the grid appears complete again, like a wave at the breaking point: it's a do-it-yourself trip. Otto Piene by contrast allows his viewers to sit on a bench and witness a spectacle created by three automatic light sources – objects in space with audible electric motors. The theatre of living room UFOs before the background of a perforated wall on which a miniature night sky appears and disappears: the Laterna magica translated into the White Cube.

An idea from the time is that it's the observer that completes the artwork. Even stronger is the belief in a third force which is attributed to neither the creator of the work nor its beholder, and this force is the law. The law can take many forms: mechanical control, the principle of deception, or an analytic self-critique of artistic suggestion. It's like the poster that proclaims "This is the first day of the rest of your life," a paradox that feeds off a threat. Laughs were permitted, grins were less welcome.

Bridget Riley, "Blaze 4," 1964

Consulting the catalogue, it becomes clear that we're dealing with forgotten artists: people who had their last solo exhibition in the 1970's. Is that possible? No, that can't be possible. This too is an artifice – abbreviating biographies so they conform to the Op Art era, while the bibliographies continue until today. Within this time-frame - 1953 to 1973 – the curator looks at beginnings, first steps, which were to be completed by incomparably mature works. She leaves out the the success, the excess and the hype around Op Art. Vasarely's self-stylisation plays no role in the exhibition, whose catalogue is - certainly by not coincidence - packed in black and white graphics.

Op Art was basically a pre-68/69 movement. It preceded Mai '68 in Paris, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the moon landing and Woodstock. It remains the sole pan-European attempt to create an alliance of style from Düsseldorf to Zagreb. Its playful use of the huge and the tiny, the foreground and the background, quickly moved over into interior design - with Panton, Laverne and Ornella Noorda - and the fashion of Mary Quant.

Julio Le Parc, "Lumiere en Vibration," installation, 1968

Martina Weinhart couldn't care less about all that, and interprets Op Art through the associations that arose within it: Equipo 57 in Paris, Gruppo N in Padua, Gruppo T(empo) in Milan, Zero in Germany, as well as the subsequent groups: the Centre de Recherche d'Art Visuel in Paris (GRAV) and the Movimento Imagine Dimensione, established in 1964 in Milan. The curator assembled her exhibition out of these relationships, attracting lenders like the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Museum in Krefeld, the Musee d'Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne or the Galerie Denise Rene. The biggest single lender is the MART (of Trento and Rovereto).

Many big museums have relegated their Op Art exhibits, in as much as they had any at all, to their storerooms. Mechanics remain a problem, as became clear in the first week of the exhibition. Five electric motors conked out before the end of the opening night, including Marina Apollonio's walk-on disc (1967 - 1971) exposed in the rotunda in front of the entrance to the museum, which was meant to celebrate the resurrection of the disc as psychedelic platform. Kinetics doesn't always want to play along.

The Schirn's "Op Art" exhibition is the legitimate continuation of the elaborate "Lichtkunst aus Kunstlicht" show in ZKM gallery in Karlsruhe last year. Yet its real charm lies in its austere intensity. East-European visitors may nonetheless find the show's West-European fixation somewhat narrow. What is missing is the transition from Trompe-l'Oeil to colour field painting as seen in Poland (until today!) or in the works of Kazys Varnelis, who taught for a long time in Chicago before returning to his native Vilnius. Vilnius' central square houses a museum that not only shows his fantastically incommensurable combination paintings, but also his comprehensive collection of antique furniture and objects in 30 surreal period rooms. This museum's attention to detail, rare in the East, is unknown to the Western museum world.

Günter Dohr, "Cylindrogramm S 6, 2/10", 1968

Curators are free to show Op Art as they see fit: as a social movement, as personal excesses or in the context of a monographic exhibtion - perhaps Vasarely after all? That Bridget Riley's work is not the subject of general admiration in Germany points to a blind spot, the eye of the storm so to speak. Yet if there is one thing in this exhibition that has hardly penetrated either our consciousness or our exhibition praxis, it is the art of Latin America. We know this tradition as colourful and pathetic art in the works of Frida Kahlo, Jose Clemente Orozco and Fernando Botero. This stereotype is as hackneyed in Europe as Werner Herzog's Manaus Opera House (featured in "Fitzcaraldo" - ed) or Buena Vista Social Club. But exactly what in retrospect one would call a "classic modernity" has remained here a forest of names. Two important Latin Americans, both of whom chose Paris as their home, are included in the Frankfurt show.

Luis Tomasello's "Atmosphere chromoplastique" is an isolated example, but a good one: 400 flying cubes on a surface, all white on white, with an orange-coloured shadow emanating from the back of the cubes. A four-hundred-fold glimmering. Or Jesus Rafael Soto's "Große Schrift" (large script) an almost absurd attempt to fashion a dream script, the original, archetypal script with bent wires (Tomasello is an Argentinian and still lives in Paris, Soto died there last year).

Incidentally, like every "movement", like every club, "Pop Art" remains a men's show. But it would be foolhardy to contend that one can gather that from the exhibits. On the contrary, they betray a tendency to travesty and excess: electric motors gasp and squeak tales of other shores. The bachelor's machine makes jokes. It winks. And anyone who thinks they're not being watched winks back.

The "Op Art" exhibition is on at Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle until May 20, 2007.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Tageszeitung on February 24, 2007.
Ulf Erdmann Ziegler, born in 1959, is a freelance journalist and author living in Frankfurt. His first novel, "Hamburger Hochbahn," was published this year by Wallstein Verlag.

Translation: nb, jab. - let's talk european