OP ART – The optical illusionists are back



Op Artists exploit the way the retina works to induce a series of apparent metamorphoses on the flat unchanging surface of their pictures. They ensnare our vision with optical illusions, playing with the phenomenon of retinal afterimages and with the changing position of the viewer in front of the painting. The constantly shifting images seem to have a life of their own and spawn new forms, new colours and new light.

Since a conspicuous slump in the 1990s, the prices paid for the big names in Op Art have been on a constant rise. Today, prices are back to the levels of 1990, the peak of the speculative boom.

Victor VASARELY is a star in the optical art world and undoubtedly the best known to the general public thanks to his psychedelic posters of the late 1960s. His geometric abstraction explores optical effects to create illusory forms or volumes. The market is in a real Vasarely craze at the moment driving strong gains in his price level, which rose more than 104% between 2000 and 2005. His works rarely go for more than EUR 100,000 even though, since 2005, records have been tumbling with increasing frequency. Most hammer prices are below EUR 1,000 as his multiple series works come up far more regularly than his oils or acrylics. Depending on the number produced and size, these multiple works sell for an average EUR 200 – EUR 1,000. That said, one bidder at Susanin’s in Chicago picked up a good-sized print (71.12 x 60.96cm) on February 18 this year for just EUR 63.

Another major figure in the movement is the Israeli artist Yaacov Agam whose most important commission was the famous Salon Agam (1974) for French President Georges Pompidou. Highly visually complex, the image draws the viewer into an orchestration of forms and colours that create the feeling of a fourth dimension. The dimension of time is a key factor in Agam’s research into visual art and the participation of the viewer is what gives his work its life. Like Vasarely, Agam has seen a revival of interest in his efforts since 2003 and achieved a new record for Apparences, a 1970s painting on aluminium, knocked down for USD 70,000 in March 2005 (EUR 52,367) at Sotheby’s NY. Another point he shares with Vasarely and most Op Artists is the high number of multiple works coming onto the market. Colour silk-screens can be bought for between EUR 100 and EUR 800.

Having begun by painting in a near-impressionist style, English artist Bridget RILEY veered towards pointillism in 1958, mainly producing landscapes. Then, in the 1960s she embarked on an exploration of the dynamic potential of optical phenomena. Her works combine simple base elements to produce complex effects of space, movement, light and colour. Her price level has been on an unbroken rise over the last few years. EUR 100 invested in one of her paintings in 1997 would have been worth an average EUR 923 in 2005. Riley ranks higher than either Vasarely or Agam. Her colour silk screens go for between EUR 2,000 and EUR 5,000 apiece and, like the other two, the last few months have seen a string of records set: her acrylic Persephone 1 (1969) was ecstatically received at Sotheby’s London in February 2006, eventually going for EUR 517,411.