Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 3, 2021
Joe Houston, Frances Follin, Michael J. Anderson, Rosie May, Roja Najafi, Beau R. Ott, and Catherine Shotick Moving Vision: Op and Kinetic Art of the Sixties and Seventies Exh. cat. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 2021. 132 pp. Paper $25.99 (9780911919189)
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, February 20–May 16, 2021
Rogelio Polesello, Amber Plastic, 1968, detail, installation view, Moving Vision, Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 2021 (photograph by the author)
Moving Vision, installation view, Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 2021. Works pictured include Rogelio Polesello, Amber Plastic; Boyd Mefferd, Beams (two units); and Forrest Myers, Lazers Daze (Zane’s Match) (photograph by the author)

Focusing on art forms often seen as mechanical and austere, the exhibition Moving Vision: Op and Kinetic Art from the Sixties and Seventies at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art (OKCMOA) offered a surprisingly humanistic and sensual take on those two closely related movements. The time is ripe for reevaluation of Op and Kinetic art, which were frequently dismissed by critics of their day due to the perception of the art’s easy consumption, coziness with industry and popular culture, and superficiality (one critic derided Op art as “empty spectacle,” for example). The OKCMOA exhibition countered that assessment by underscoring the ways in which both movements contributed to larger strains of inquiry in the art world, particularly in terms of investigations of abstraction. The show’s first gallery oriented viewers to this focus on abstraction, presenting Josef Albers’s 1962 Homage to the Square: Gobelin, which explores the effects of color and shape on our perception, alongside works by Fletcher Benton, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Miriam Schapiro. From that starting point, the forty-odd works in Moving Vision emphasized how Op and Kinetic artists investigated the structural interactions of abstraction: the relationship between figure and ground, colors and values, repeating elements, and, most significantly, spectators and objects.  

Modular geometric forms recurred throughout, with discs, squares, stripes, and dots often creating interlocking visual effects, such as in the works by Schapiro, Julio Le Parc, Boyd Mefferd, and Tadasky. Pared-down palettes, sometimes simply black and white, concentrated attention on the radical actions of form—through trippy lines, yes, but also through the figure-ground relationship. Yet it is perhaps light that emerged most palpably as a dominant theme in the exhibition and in Op and Kinetic art more broadly. Artists in the show explored the possibilities of literal light-emitting technology, with neon, fluorescent, and incandescent bulbs in works by artists such as Aaronel deRoy Gruber, Josef Levi, and Lillian Florsheim. The centrality of light as a formal property of a visual language was also evident, emanating from paintings and sculpture with no actual light source but rather through the artist’s tools of color, line, and form. Heinz Mack’s Moving Light Line #3 sculpture (1964) emblematizes this interest. As the facets of its slim suspended metal rod catch light, they almost appear to dissolve, creating a sensual play of materiality and dematerialization.

A shared focus on the perception of movement, both actual and apparent, unites Op and Kinetic art, and that focus anchored the works in Moving Vision. Flickering columns, pulsing tubes, prismatic refractions, undulating surfaces—the objects in the exhibition implored us to look and then prompted us to question our own eyes. This push-pull effect contributed to the movements’ uneasy relationship with critics. One such critic, Thomas B. Hess, disdained the work for how it appealed simply to our nervous systems, provoking simplistic responses on the part of viewers. Yet Op objects do not await a viewer’s interlocution; they assert their agency and claim their space in ways often more anthropomorphic than mechanistic. They also remind us of our very humanness, our fallibility—the way we cannot always trust our senses or how they emphasize the failings of our bodies when we queasily avert our gaze. Sculptures such as Rogelio Polesello’s Amber Plastic (1968) literalize this oscillating, embodied perception, with its various convex and concave lenses magnifying and minimizing elements in the space. Rather than invoking imagery as representation, works like Polesello’s heighten our experience of the present and our place in it. In foregrounding the momentary experience of a viewer’s embodied perception of the work, Op and Kinetic art align with other movements that de-emphasized object making, such as performance-based practices. Mefferd, whose flashing light Beams (1967) stood sentinel in the show, embraced the theatrical potential of light and movement in exhibitions of his sculptures that he dubbed “public theater.”

Technical innovations and the embracing of new materials are hallmarks of Op and Kinetic art, and scholarship has linked those aspects to the Space Age, cybernetics, and, of course, television. Fascination with moiré effects—patterns of light and dark lines that engender pulsing and waving—compelled artists such as Mon Levinson and Reginald Neal to probe the boundaries of the materials and the perceptual effects they could achieve. Levinson, Neal, and Bridget Riley (whose sinuous screenprint Untitled [Fragment 5], 1965, appeared in the show) all exploited the crisp transparency of Plexiglas, with Riley turning to an industrial sign printer to produce her work. Printmaking within Op and Kinetic art could offer a niche area for further study, especially when considering the contributions of Victor Vasarely, long an advocate of the accessibility of the medium.

Neal’s, Levinson’s, and Riley’s experiments with Plexiglas suggest that the show might have been named Plastic Visions for the ways the artists shape form through plastic polymers of different formulations, from acrylic paints to Lucite. Sue Fuller’s String Composition #366 (1966) epitomizes this approach, with its spun and stretched threads snaking eye-snaring patterns. Fuller patented her process of embedding monofilaments into synthetic plastic to preserve their form. In Maxi Cyclopexis (1973), Gruber molded, heated, and vacuum-pressed Plexiglas to create illuminated, colored domes that revolved on an axis. The artist remarked on the striking presence of her polymer works, “When the sculpture is motorized, it takes on a life of its own. . . . Sculpture moving at slow revolutions suggests the orbits of the sun and the moon and makes objects appear to change by casting them in new attitudes.”

Gruber’s observation about the temporality and agency of her sculptures draws out an aspect of both Op and Kinetic art that has been overlooked in critical responses to the movements: the works’ very human qualities. Far from being the products of a dawning technocracy, the works in Moving Vision evinced their often human-made origins. In Benton’s Homage to Albers (1964), a long rectangle with a brass inset cleaves into separate nested squares in a motorized pas de deux. Rather than being high-tech and industrially produced, Benton’s kinetic paintings were crafted by hand in his studio with a hobbyist’s tools: drill press, vise, band saw, pliers, and motors salvaged from old signs. The painted box enclosure, rounded edges, and slightly askew alignment all betray the handmade aspect of the work. Moving closer to examine the Liquitex stripes on Anuszkiewicz’s Radiant Red painting (1966) reveals slight trembles in the surface, small moments redolent of breaths. Reflecting on his practice, Anuszkiewicz explained, “I’m interested in making something romantic out of a very, very mechanistic geometry.” Such a paradoxical approach—human and mechanized—suffused many of the works in Moving Vision. This was seen most evocatively in Günther Uecker’s Spirale (1969), the result of the artist’s ritualistic, repetitive hammering of nails in a circular pattern in a practice he referred to as “healing through hurting.”

The museum produced a lavishly illustrated catalog, with every work in the show reproduced in color and brief notes on each artist by OKCMOA curator Catherine Shotick. Joe Houston’s essay traces the development of Op and Kinetic art through the history of abstraction, touching on key figures Alexander Calder, Albers, and Vasarely, all of whom had works in the exhibition. Houston foregrounds the role of collaboration and postwar groups, such as Group Zero, Equipo 57, Gruppo N and Gruppo T, GRAV, and Anonima, as well as Latin American artists and émigrés, in particular Jésus Rafael Soto, Tomás Maldonado, Le Parc, and Carlos Cruz-Diez, in shaping Op and Kinetic art. Frances Follin’s essay focuses on the six female artists included in the show, framing their work as “a visual poetry of infinity in the space age” (40). Hers is a second-wave feminist take, emphasizing the women’s responses to the prejudices of a male-dominated art world, yet the attention she pays to each artist allows us to appreciate their particular contributions to the movements. An interview with Forrest “Frosty” Myers by collector Beau Ott rounds out the catalog. That conversation meanders from the topic of lasers and Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), in which Myers was involved, to hot-rod cars and a backfiring Danger Box let loose in Socrates Sculpture Park in New York. Myers concludes the interview with the observation, “We are all kinetic,” a nod to what we share with the objects in the exhibition.    

Moving Vision was beautifully and thoughtfully installed, balancing concerns about conservation with a desire to animate the objects. Motion, after all, is the crux of Kinetic art, as in Argentine artist Martha Boto’s sculpture Luminous Intersections (1963), which, through motorized lights, seemingly transports us to a weightless view among orbs shimmering like sunspots. Elsewhere in the gallery, Ronald Mallory’s rotating acrylic cylinder reminded us of the effects of gravity, as we watched liquid mercury drop and drip. The kinetic works operated on staggered schedules, with a small green light alerting viewers to when movement would begin. Small video screens demonstrated the works’ movements so that in “off” times, viewers could experience their full potential. Even without spying the green indicator, the migration of viewers in the galleries toward an object was generally a signal of its impending activation, and “ooh”s of delight occasionally punctuated the museum’s quiet. Gallery goers peered, pointed, and took pictures; they also lingered, crouched and craned, and called to others—the show invited more embodied responses than the “optical” nature of the work might suggest on its surface. Indeed, Moving Vision offered a welcome reframing of Op and Kinetic art, sharpening how we consider art forms focused on presence, experience, and, seemingly paradoxically, our own humanness.

Kirsten Olds
Associate Professor, Art History, University of Tulsa, Tulsa, Oklahoma