in Features | 06 JUN 98
Featured in
Issue 41

Planetary Folklore

The legacy of Victor Vasarely

in Features | 06 JUN 98

In the lush countryside of Aix-en-Provence sits a string of hexagonal buildings, their façades decorated with monumental black and white circles and squares. The complex is ghostly silent, like the abandoned ruin of an alien cult. In the months before his death in March 1997, nearing his 90th birthday, Victor Vasarely sees the decline of his foundation which resided in this architectural complex. Rumours abound of how power, corruption and lies disrupted the well-organised regime once their patron was too old and weakened by prostate cancer to save his futuristic dream.

Once, the music of Bach elevated the minds of visitors who wandered among the larger-than-life steel and plastic exhibits of wall-integrated Op Art, reminiscent of the obsessively neat and oversized headquarters of a mad mastermind straight out of James Bond. Tourist families with small children were awed by the dancing colours; potential customers looked for something to hang in the entrance hall of their townhouse or provincial office building; students passed through on their Interrail trip. Now, the artist has die and with the doors shut, the public seems to have moved on for good.

Vasarely's work belongs to the remains of Cold War culture. Of course you can admit to liking his colours and spacy 3D effects, but it's a bit like admitting you love the music of Mike Oldfield or the design of early IKEA furniture - just another turn of the irony-screw. But for the international art world, perhaps the best-known representative of Op Art has been judged a strict no-no. Vasarely is now considered to have followed an artistic cul-de-sac, like a Neanderthal relic of art evolution. 'Fausse route', as the artist himself had dismissed his attempts at Surrealist painting in the 40s.

Even so, it is not surprising that at least some experimental pop and dance musicians, and their sleeve designers, have a soft spot for the legacy of Op Art, and in these cases, irony does not come into it. Stereolab's Dots and Loops album cover bears obvious resemblance to Vasarely's work, and Mo Wax artist As One (alias Kirk Degiorgio) not only chose a computer-generated Vasarely-rip off of golden circles comprising a virtual ball for the sleeve of his 1997 album, but even titled it 'Planetary Folklore'. This was a term the Hungarian-born artist had coined both for a period of his work and for his vision of a global aesthetic of rational beauty for the masses.

Possibly this recent attention is part of the ever-changing postmodern game of resignification: a sample of nostalgia resurfaces, is re-contextualised and used as a temporary weapon against the current aesthetic. But this is not just any sample, and it hasn't only been resurrected as a piece of cool kitsch. The Vasarelian visual corresponds to Stereolab's musical references (from Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, through Minimalist composer Steve Reich to early Brian Eno) as it does to As One's (from Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock to House-pioneer Carl Craig). This is music that is perfectly organised, mathematically structured and controlled, yet vibrant, lively and spacious. Just as the overlaying of two grids produces a glimmering moiré effect, the slight shift in the funky beat or the synth-oscillation is what makes the music pulsate.

There is nothing very funky, let alone pulsating, about Ludwigshafen, Wolfsburg and Bottrop, the venues to which Vasarely's retrospective - a year after his death - is travelling. But these three industrial towns in provincial Germany have an odd tendency to mirror Vasarely's position in a triangle of political and economic power, the public urban sphere and the art world.

Ludwigshafen, where the retrospective was first shown, is predominantly known as the home of BASF, one of the biggest German chemical firms. A manufacturer of vinyl and recording tape, BASF also had a record label until the late 70s, on which German Krautrock legend Amon Düül released some of their albums. Around this time, the company produced the plastics granulate with which most of Vasarely's wall-works were made, and was also conducting research into materials that would enable Vasarely's idea of the 'unité plastique' to be manufactured on a large, architectural and weatherproof scale. This reproducible system of colour and form - a sort of two-dimensional Lego - with which everyone would easily be able to create his own Vasarely, was at the centre of his idea of planetary folklore. (Today, BASF are sponsoring the retrospective, along with couturiers Escada, for whom Vasarely designed silk scarves).

Bottrop, where the retrospective is currently on show, is situated in the middle of the coal mining area along the river Ruhr. It is also the birthplace of Josef Albers who, as a member of the Bauhaus and subsequent ly a teacher at Black Mountain College had a strong influence on Op Art. In a 1988 catalogue to a retrospective at the Guggenheim museum, it is mentioned in parentheses that Albers also designed some album covers. While even his designs for mantelpieces are thoroughly discussed, we are not shown, for example, the late 50s minimalist square and circle compositions for percussion combo Terry Snider & The All Stars, a name obviously too obscure and profane to be worthy of this celebratory volume.

With Albers, however, it is fairly easy to neatly divide his applied art from his fine art works, of which the most famous, the 'homage to the square' paintings, gave the Josef Albers Museum its name - 'Quadrat Bottrop', where the Vasarely show can be seen. Both Albers and Vasarely favoured the supposedly universal physical sensation of colour and form over expression of individual experience. But while Albers combined the traditional concepts of fine art with aspects of basic craftsmanship from his working-class upbringing (his father was a house-painter), Vasarely's goal was that of the artist-as-engineer, creating for the masses. The unlimited multiple that he favoured as a medium was only an intermediary position en route to the merging of art and industrial mass production. In this, he was a follower of his teacher Alexander Bortnyk at Budapest Bauhaus in the 20s, who dismissed the idea of the romantic 'painter-clochard' in favour of an unconditional faith in technological progress. According to Vasarely's recollections in a 1969 interview, Bortnyk's views apparently echoed the Futurist idealism of Russian Constructivism and de stijl: 'he wanted us to become constructive human beings who produce things that are useful and beautiful at the same time and who are able to integrate into a society that will inevitably be ruled by science and industrialisation'.

I encountered the retrospective in Wolfsburg, a town in the middle of nowhere, 60 kilometres east of Expo-city Hannover, close to the former iron curtain. When you get off the train, the most visible construction is a reminder of the one thing, at least, that is generally known about the town: a big, blue circular Volkswagen sign, attached to the brown power plant with its four huge chimneys. The name Volkswagen, especially in this German election year, is inextricably linked to that of Gerhard Schröder, supposedly the German Tony Blair who is not only minister in Niedersachsen, Hannover, but also a close friend of VW-boss Ferdinand Piech. Vasarely himself was no stranger to politics: when living in France, he made a larger-than-life kinetic portrait of Gaullist President Georges Pompidou, the former head of Rothschilds, for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. A picture in the catalogue to this retrospective shows Vasarely at the 1976 inauguration of his foundation in Aix-en-Provence, proudly explaining everything, with raised eyebrows and pointing index finger, to Mme Pompidou and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac.

South of the station lies the newly built Kunsthalle, sponsored by Volkswagen, at the top of the 70s pedestrian shopping area around which the town is centred. Vasarely made many public sculptures in urban shopping areas, from Paris to West Berlin's Kurfürstendamm, but it's Fischli and Weiss who have a retrospective at the Kunstmuseum, while Vasarely is shown at the local Kunstverein located in the town castle on the other side Wolfsburg, not far from the power plant. With its ivy-clad turrets, the building doesn't exactly evoke the spirit of the artist. As I enter the courtyard, it takes me a while

to find out in which part of the multi-use building the show is to be found. A hand-written sign directs participants to a personnel conference in one part of the building; meanwhile in the Vasarely show, the smell of cooked cabbage lingers from lunch in the cafeteria. A couple of school classes stroll around the rooms, with their metre-thick walls and low ceilings; teachers direct attention to the most significant optical effects. For a moment, it seems as if this is not the work of a 'serious' artist, but a display of the gimmicky inventions of some obscure inventor - and indeed, the subtitle of the show reads '...inventor of Op Art'. Residues of popular culture of the 50s, 60s and 70s come to mind: the hula hoop, the yo-yo, and the Rubik's cube, that Hungarian invention that had legions of nerdy kids trying to figure out how to get each side of the cube to show only one colour with as few turns of the plastic construction as possible.

Taking a closer look, it becomes clear that the show is a traditional chronological retrospective, guiding the viewer through the various periods of Vasarely's work, starting with his early Bauhaus studies and including his Surrealist experiments of the mid-40s. Up until 1944, Vasarely, like Warhol and Richard Hamilton, worked in advertising as an art director. But even when, after the war, he decided to pursue a career as an artist, his idea of artistic production was closely linked to that of manufacturing. Gradually he managed to dilute this into his futurist vision of the 'polychrome city of joy', integrating ideas of a complementary synthesis of colour and geometrical form into cybernetics, locating his work in the universal, and giving his pictures astronomical-sounding titles such as 'Super Novae' or 'Helios-K'.

Despite his attempt at a universal art, the work still echoes its time. Around 1950, the new social and geographical mobility in the West created the desire to explore the frontiers of the uncivilised: cinema, TV and Life magazine showed reports on wildlife in the Serengeti. For those who could not afford a safari, Vasarely made a series of black and white pictures of zebras. The more abstract paintings of the period, 'Belle-Isles', were named after the coastal region of France; its shells, pebbles and sunsets inspired Vasarely's smooth, rounded forms and pastel colours, evoking dreams of affordable beach holidays and the good, clean fun of cocktail music.

For Vasarely, the 60s seems less the era of political protest, rock and the Vietnam war than a time of journeys to the moon and the inner mind. It's startling that an artist who worked like a clerk, starting every morning

at exactly 9.30 and keeping an extremely well-organised archive of all his studies and works - a classic nerd, in fact - would have come up with a picture like Vega 200 from 1968 which throbs like the 3D vision of an astronaut on acid.

Perhaps, just as the ascetic is always the one most obsessed with desire, so the geeky clerk, denying himself leisure time, may be the one to envision the creation of new worlds. It should come as no surprise that the chief programmer of Microsoft, 48-year old bachelor Charles Simonyi, has built himself a $10 million Vasarely-inspired villa on Lake Washington, partly to house

a private museum of his own Vasarely collection. While Simonyi might consider Vasarely's work a precursor to the digital age, the art world generally considers him a naive, uncritical dreamer - rather like Christo - who sold his holy artistic dignity for superficial mass appeal. In every dreamhome a Vasarely. And as magazines like Wallpaper embrace this idea ironically, we find ourselves on the verge of a subtle return to Op Art as a design for living.

In a way, the nesting of the nerd - whether in a million dollar mansion or a mini apartment - combines a desire for a new neatness and functionality with the desire to retreat into the aesthetics of a time in which this functionality could still be embraced naively, as in the automatic house in Jacques Tati's Mon oncle (1958). It's a warm, Cold War, baby boomer time, and who of the generation born in the 60s can deny this desire? It is also present in the mobile home designs of Andrea Zittel and Atelier van Lieshout and the music of Stereolab or Air, whose mini-LP Premiers Symptoms of course has an Op Art design. It even seems to have returned to Vasarely himself: one year after his death, the Foundation has reopened, receiving 3000 visitors in its first three days. Perhaps it's this nostalgia, rather than the futurism planned by its originator, that has become the planetary folklore.