Art Term Tuesday: Optical Art

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

Four of our seven galleries will soon be showcasing two artists later this month through November, so let’s explore one’s place in art history through our term for today: Optical art! Julian Stanczak’s art is referred to as Op art, the movement taking its name from his first major exhibition in 1964, Julian Stanczak: Optical Paintings. While he was the inspiration for the movements name, Stanczak preferred to call his work Perceptual art. But why did Stanczak object to the name and what drove Martha Jackson, the owner and curator of the gallery that first exhibited his paintings, to call it something else?

Optical art is abstract art that uses optical illusions. Optical means “of or relating to visuals,” so optical art uses techniques that trick your eyes and brain about what you see. Many Op art pieces use geometric shapes in either black and white or contrasting colors to create impressions of movement, hidden imagery, vibrating patterns, or swelling and warping. Though the art movement was named after Stanczak’s exhibit in the 1960s, this style of art was created as early as the 1930s, at the transition between Surrealism and Color Field painting.

Julian Stanczak objected to the term “Optical” because he argued that he did not intend to trick the viewer but instead ask them to perceive things differently. He would say everyone uses their eyes, their optics, to see, and it is not the seeing where the illusions take place. The illusion happens in the mind because the viewers perception is trying to equate two competing ideas at the same time. That struggle is part of what Stanczak enjoyed, and the way it makes viewers look more closely and interact more thoroughly with his painting.

What do you see? A vase or two faces? Author Bryan Derksen, Wikipedia Commons, used with attribution.

Many Op art pieces use only black and white to create the illusions. Repeating patterns and lines are the simplest tools to build conflicting foreground and background space. When the foreground and background fight and switch, it creates the illusion. A common version of this fight is the simple “vase or two faces” image found in many children’s books. Your mind can pick out both images and flip between the two ideas of what you’re looking at in an instant.

Julian Stanczak worked in contrasting colors, however, more than in stark black and white. He still used the repeating line and pattern techniques to create the illusions, but he also introduced color to heighten the effect on the viewer. According to Floyd Ratliff, there are three types of contrasts an artist can work with once introducing color: simultaneous contrast, successive contrast, and assimilation contrast. Simultaneous contrast is when the colors of two different objects affect each other. The two inner rectangles are the same color chromatically, but because one is surrounded by a darker shade it seems lighter in contrast. The opposite happens when it is surrounded by a lighter shade, appearing darker.

Simultaneous contrast. Common use, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The second type of contrast is successive contrast, where viewing a shape in one color for a while changes how you perceive the color of the next viewed shape. The example here has you look at the center point of the upper circles for a few moments, then glance at the lower circles center point. The lower circles are the same color, but because of what you focused on right before looking at the lower circles they can appear to have different colors.

The third type of contrast is assimilation contrast. What an oxymoron! How can something become similar to something while also being dissimilar? With color, it means layering colors in a way to create another color without actually using the third color. In this example, all three circles are the same light-yellow color, but because the overlapping bars are different, they are perceived to be a different color. There are only four colors in this image – red, blue, green, and the light yellow base – but there appears to be more because of how they are layered and how close the colors are to one another in space.

Successive contrast. Common use, courtesy of Wikipedia.

You’ll have many opportunities to visually experience these types of contrasts in Full Spectrum: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints of Julian Stanczak; Wood and Stone Sculptures of Barbara Stanczak, opening August 17! See how many examples of each you can find, if there are any pieces that use more than one type of contrast, or even all three!

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