VICTOR VASARELY

b. 1906, Pécs, Hungary

d. 1997, Paris

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Form and color, two distinction notions in common language, become identified in plastic language: every form is a substratum for color, every color is the attribute of a form.

—Victor Vasarely

 


The preeminent Hungarian painter Victor Vasarely is most recognized today as the principal figure in the development of Kinetic and Op art. Throughout his influential career, he used color and geometric shapes to create pristine and visually surprising paintings, brimming with depth, movement, and three-dimensionality. 

 

A former medical student at Budapest University, Vasarely received his artistic training at the Bauhaus-inspired Mühely Academy in 1929, where he studied the work of Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. In 1930, Vasarely left Budapest for Paris, where he worked professionally as a graphic designer in several advertising agencies. During this time, however, he also embarked on his own personal artistic explorations, which include the seminal Zebra series started in 1937. Extensively regarded as one of the earliest examples of Op art, it unveils an early effort to manipulate patterns in a manner that tricks the eye, thus rendering hypnotic and delightful images. In 1939, Vasarely met the future gallerist Denise René at the Café de Flore, an introduction that would prove crucial to the careers of both individuals. Over the coming decades, the Galerie Denise René would become a proving ground for younger artists who developed various approaches for integrating movement and optical play into their art. The gallery’s inaugural exhibition in 1944 displayed Vasarely’s graphics and drawings to critical acclaim, galvanizing the artist and encouraging him to further pursue painting. His compositions from the late 1940s abandon figuration and turn toward abstractions distilled from the world around him, inspired by his trips to Belle-Isle in Brittany and Gordes-Crystal.

Vasarely laid the foundations for Kinetic art in the 1950s by delving into the intersection of science, technology, and art. His ambition was to create a universal language, at once playful and political, which encompassed his desire to create a social art accessible to all. These principles were fundamental to his conception of Kinetic art, and they positioned Vasarely as a creative force ahead of his time, predicting the way technology would echo his “art for all” approach and drastically alter the way we see. During this time, he investigated the optical potential of patterns inscribed on layered transparencies, a technique that created an alternative way of representing space. “In tracing a very simple network on a sheet of plexiglass, and in coupling it with another network traced on another sheet, I quite quickly realized that I was building a space which no longer owed anything to Euclidean perspective, or to axonometric perspective, or to any other kind of perspective here.” In 1955, Vasarely participated in the Galerie Denise René’s groundbreaking 1955 exhibition Le Mouvement—celebrated for announcing the arrival of Kinetic art. On the occasion of the show, he wrote his famed Manifeste Jaune (Yellow Manifesto), which played an important role in popularizing the term “Kinetic art” to refer to a growing international contingent of artists who were examining the artistic frontiers of motion, duration, and light. In this text, Vasarely proclaimed the emergence of a "new moving and emotion-stirring beauty" and advocated for the interplay between color and form, merging his Bauhaus-inspired education with his lifetime aspiration to create a revolutionary new form of art. He also foresaw the end of traditional categories like painting or sculpture, replaced by what he called plasticity.

 

Painting and sculpture become anachronistic terms: it’s more exact to speak of a bi-, tri-, and multidimensional plastic art. We no longer have distinct manifestations of a creative sensibility, but the development of a single plastic sensibility in different spaces. 

 

Gradually, Vasarely departed from the black and white compositions of the 1950s to embrace a systematic use of color. Starting in 1960, he developed a series of works that he labeled “Planetary Folklore,” which were based on the artist’s concept of a universal visual alphabet composed of hues and geometric forms. As the decade inaugurated new artistic experiments, it also brought a period of further critical acclaim. Vasarely was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Guggenheim Prize in New York (1964) and the Grand Prix at the São Paulo Biennial (1965). He participated in major exhibitions, including the 1964 edition of Documenta as well as the storied 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This exhibition examined the emerging landscape of Kinetic art and concretized Vasarely’s international reputation as a leading figure in the movement. Vasarely’s canvases were exhibited alongside works by the likes of Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, and Ad Reinhardt among many others. Six of his works were displayed, more than almost any other artist in the show. 

 

This international triumph encouraged Vasarely to experiment even more eagerly than before. As the decade continued, the artist developed career-defining works like the “Vega” series. Inspired by an earlier 1957 painting that applied convex-concave distortions to a grid, Vasarely started this long-running series in 1968. His addition of color heightened the sumptuous optical effect of the format, conjuring the sensation of something trying to erupt from, or recede into, the depths of an ordered surface. Another major body of work  inaugurated during this time was the “Gestalt” series, which employed the repetition of a single geometric shape—the hexagon—and a limited color palette. In this series, Vasarely created complex, stunning abstractions that tricks the viewer’s eye and produce an illusion of spatial depth and movement on a flat canvas. 

 

Throughout this time, and indeed over the course of his career, Vasarely remained committed to a radical reassessment of the place of art within society. His creation of multiples fulfilled his desire to make art accessible to a wider audience, while seeking to put an end to the long-held mythical aura of the unique work of art. “Without repudiating the principle of oneness, we choose that of multiplicity, as being more generous and more human,” the artist wrote. “Its value will consist, not in its rarity as an object but in the rarity of quality that it signifies.” His belief was that an artwork came alive when multiplied, and that multiples were the utmost democratic form of art. Reflective of Vasarely’s lifelong beliefs and aesthetic ambitions, he thought of his multiples as embodying an inherently anti-hierarchical approach to the arts. 

 

Vasarely’s mesmerizing illusionism and relentless commitment to the social function of art remains enormously relevant to this day. While drawing from the legacy of Constructivism, Vasarely nevertheless filtered it through the spirit of his time by introducing a new mode of representation that accounted for motion, duration, and space. In doing so, Vasarely anticipated the ways in which technology would profoundly impact humankind and set the scene for the later development of generations of artists. Vasarely’s works are in the collections of major public institutions worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago; British Museum, London; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Tate Modern, London, among many others.

[1]  Victor Vasarely, in Marcel Joray, Vasarely, vol. I (Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Editions du Griffon, 1984), 117.

[2]  Christopher Plumb and Samuel Shaw, Zebra (London, UK: Reaction Books, 2018).

[3]  Catherine Milliet, Conversations with Denise René (Paris: Adam Biro, 2001), 10–18.

[4]  Gaston Diehl, Victor: Vasarely (New York: Crown Publishers, 1972), 55. 

[5]  Marcel Joray, Vasarely, vol. II (Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Editions du Griffon, 1984), 196.

[6]  Frank Popper, Origins and Development of Kinetic Art, New York Graphic Society (London: Studio Vista: 1968)

[7]  Vasarely quoted in Robert C. Morgan, Victor Vasarely, exh. cat. (New York: Naples Museum of Art, 2004), 30.

[8]  William C. Seitz, The Responsive Eye, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1965).

[9]  Marcel Joray, Vasarely, vol. I (Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Editions du Griffon, 1984), 117.

[10]  Vasarely, Oeuvres de 1933 à 1973, exh. cat. (Paris: Galerie Pascal Landsberg, 2011).

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