No way out of the labyrinth Modernity

Walking through the exhibition Victor Vasarely – In the Labyrinth of Modernism in Frankfurt’s Städel Museum, one hears again recently a taste judgement that many had probably believed to be outdated when it came to judging modern art works. Vega Pal, Reytey, Cheyt-Pyr, completely abstract and captivatingly polychrome, the verdict: beautiful. Vasarely’s large-format oil and acrylic works seem to attract the viewer’s attention as unobtrusive decorative pieces. The Hungarian artist combined simple, geometric forms into complex compositions, whose asceticism of form is usually accompanied by an ecstatic use of color.

In the great works of optical art, these are applied so precisely and evenly to the canvas that one would have to approach the works up to the tip of one’s nose in order to spot a brush trace. Rather, they look like modern digital prints than still having something of the classic style of painting. The Trompe-l’oeil images create surprising flickering, shimmering and vibrating effects through contrasts and strains that challenge the eye. Some even seem to explode their two-dimensional pictorial space as soon as the viewer moves around them. In fact, these effects may no longer surprise the contemporary viewer’s gaze. Today, the possibilities of digital imagery surpass any deception achieved by Op Art in the 60s.

Work without Author

The director of the Städel, Philipp Demandt, presents Vasarely as the “most famous unknown “1 of modern art. Although the Schirn Kunsthalle dedicated an extensive exhibition to Op-Art in 2007, whose most important co-founder Vasarely is considered to be, few people today know the name of the artist who emigrated to Paris in 1930, the stronghold of the avant-garde at the time.

In diametrical contrast to this stands the popularity of his works: they did not merely make their way – since with Jackson Pollock and Henri Matisse – into the fashion photographs of Vogue and even found themselves in the background of a David Bowie record cover sold millions of times; the motifs were also soon established in the worldwide advertising market. The concept of the Renault diamond, designed by Vasarely in 1972 in the style of the impossible figure of the Penrose triangle, was used by the French automobile manufacturer for 20 years to advertise for itself (see illustration). The logo for the Summer Olympics in Munich was also created by the artist, who initially worked as a commercial artist. Vasarely can also boast a total of four participations in the documenta – he is by no means a stranger in the art world.

But his extensive oeuvre cannot be reduced to the indecent courtesy that critics have accused him of since the 1960s. After all, this was ten years before Vasarely reached the zenith of his commercial success. For both behind the all too precise way of painting, which anticipates computer art through its perfect accuracy, and behind the constant repetition of the same forms, which vary only in arrangement and color, there was a socio-political program for the artist.2 Vasarely strove to disappear as an author behind his works; art was thus to be expelled from its elitist status and reduced to the common good. He understood his work as a demand for an unconditional democratization of culture: an art of equals for equals that finds its place in the everyday life of all people.

Downfall of the sublime

In the spirit of the nouvelle critique – whose best-known advocate Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author in 1968 – Vasarely wanted to negate the artist as a meaningful authority behind his objects and thus detach works of art from their intellectual and material creator. It should no longer be the creator who speaks from the works, but color and forms themselves. The aim was the total indifference of the viewer towards the author, just as with the objects of everyday use. In this respect he is most obviously rooted in his former school – the Hungarian Bauhaus.

Vasarely wanted his works to be understood as a total montage: An existing system of forms takes the place of inventive power – the concept of creatio ex nihilo from the artist’s genius is adopted. The creator is left with a single rearrangement of the same thing.

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