Op Art (short for Optical Art) is an art movement that emerged in the 1960s. It is a distinct style of art that creates the illusion of movement. Through the use of precision and mathematics, stark contrast, and abstract shapes, these sharp pieces of artwork have a three-dimensional quality that is not seen in other styles of art.
Flashback to 1964. In the United States, we were still reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, encapsulated in the Civil Rights movement, and being "invaded" by British pop/rock music. Many people were also over the notion of achieving the idyllic lifestyles that were so prevalent in the 1950s. It was a perfect time for a new artistic movement to burst on the scene.
In October of 1964, in an article describing this new style of art, Time Magazine coined the phrase "Optical Art" (or "Op Art", as it's more commonly known). The term referenced the fact that Op Art is comprised of illusion and often appears to the human eye to be moving or breathing due to its precise, mathematically-based composition.
After (and because of) a major 1965 exhibition of Op Art entitled "The Responsive Eye," the public became enraptured with the movement. As a result, one began to see Op Art everywhere: in print and television advertising, as LP album art, and as a fashion motif in clothing and interior design.
Although the term was coined and the exhibition held in the mid-1960s, most people who have studied these things agree that Victor Vasarely pioneered the movement with his 1938 painting "Zebra."
M. C. Escher's style has sometimes caused him to be listed as an Op artist as well, though they don't quite fit the definition. Many of his best-known works were created in the 1930s and include amazing perspectives and use of tessellations (shapes in close arrangements). These two certainly helped point the way for others.
It can also be argued that none of Op Art would have been possible—let alone embraced by the public—without the prior Abstract and Expressionist movements. These led the way by de-emphasizing (or, in many cases, eliminating) representational subject matter.
As an "official" movement, Op Art has been given a lifespan of around three years. This doesn't mean, however, that every artist ceased employing Op Art as their style by 1969.
Bridget Riley is one noteworthy artist who has moved from achromatic to chromatic pieces but has steadfastly created Op Art from its beginning to the present day. Additionally, anyone who has gone through a post-secondary fine arts program probably has a tale or two of Op-ish projects created during color theory studies.
It's also worth mentioning that, in the digital age, Op Art is sometimes viewed with bemusement. Perhaps you, too, have heard the (rather snide, some would say) comment, "A child with the proper graphic design software could produce this stuff." Quite true, a gifted child with a computer and the proper software at her disposal could certainly create Op Art in the 21st century.
This certainly wasn't the case in the early 1960s, and the 1938 date of Vasarely's "Zebra" speaks for itself in this regard. Op Art represents a great deal of math, planning and technical skill, as none of it came freshly-inked out of a computer peripheral. Original, hand-created Op Art deserves respect, at the very least.
Op Art exists to fool the eye. Op compositions create a sort of visual tension in the viewer's mind that gives works the illusion of movement. For example, concentrate on Bridget Riley's "Dominance Portfolio, Blue" (1977) for even a few seconds and it begins to dance and wave in front of your eyes.
Realistically, you know that any Op Art piece is flat, static, and two-dimensional. Your eye, however, begins sending your brain the message that what it's seeing has begun to oscillate, flicker, throb and any other verb one can employ to mean, "Yikes! This painting is moving!"
Op Art is not meant to represent reality. Due to its geometrically-based nature, Op Art is, almost without exception, non-representational. Artists do not attempt to depict anything we know in real life. Instead, it is more like abstract art in which composition, movement, and shape dominate.
Op Art is not created by chance. The elements employed in a piece of Op Art are carefully chosen to achieve maximum effect. In order for the illusion to work, each color, line, and shape must contribute to the overall composition. It takes a great deal of forethought to successfully create artwork in the Op Art style.
Op Art relies on two specific techniques. The critical techniques used in Op Art are perspective and careful juxtaposition of color. The color may be chromatic (identifiable hues) or achromatic (black, white, or gray). Even when color is used, they tend to be very bold and can be either complementary or high-contrast.
Op Art typically does not include the blending of colors. The lines and shapes of this style are very well defined. Artists do not use shading when transitioning from one color to the next and quite often two high-contrast colors are placed next to each other. This harsh shift is a key part of what disturbs and tricks your eye into seeing movement where there is none.
Op Art embraces negative space. In Op Art—as in perhaps no other artistic school—positive and negative spaces in a composition are of equal importance. The illusion could not be created without both, so Op artists tend to focus just as much on the negative space as they do the positive.