Optical art, or “Op” art emerged in the 1960s with a keen interest in scientific experiment and objectivity. Fascinated by physical laws of light and optics, a new generation of artists explored visual phenomena and the principles of perception. These artists wanted the viewers to be more than counterparts of the art work, but rather, an integral part of it. The link between the artistic creation and the individual was an essential theme of optical art. Realizing that the eye was the point of departure, op artists sought to transcend this boundary, attempting to surprise the viewer. The idea was to overwhelm them and entertain them, and ultimately explore the physical and psychological space that lies between the art and the viewer.
Artists implemented optical effects, deceptions, and visual experiments to deliberately confuse the physical and psychological processes of the eye and brain. Exploring the possibilities of deception, optical artists such as Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, François Morellet, Julio Le Parc and Gianni Colombo focused on this systematic irritation and provocation of the eye.
From a structural standpoint, there are several layers to the process. Firstly, there is the actual mechanical movement of the eye—for example, when the observer’s position changes. Then, there is the appearance of movement caused by perceptual effects, like flickering between lines. Finally, there is the perceptual movement resulting from the appearance of inversions in the image. As a result, the eye is essentially overwhelmed with contradictory information, much of it created by its own mechanisms. Because it becomes destabilized, the eye is forced to become intensely aware of its own perception.
Many optical artists strictly utilized a black and white color palette. These colors provided an extreme contrast, allowing the creation to achieve maximum optical effects. By omitting any color the artists eliminated many emotive associations, allowing both the artist and the viewer to react solely to the effects of the image.
Optical art was meant to be an art of close contact with the everyday. It was an art that did not limit its patrons by requiring a certain breadth of knowledge. Optical artists maintained that art should not be set apart from reality and reserved for just a few privileged individuals. Rather, these artists celebrated the truly dynamic and optimistic spirit of the sixties with a new version of visual perception that ultimately became a revolutionary and universal form of art.