BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 11 DEC 18
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Issue 201

Victor Vasarely: In The Labyrinth of Modernism

A retrospective at Städel Museum, Frankfurt, sheds new light on the op artist's experimental styles 

BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 11 DEC 18

The opening wall text of this major retrospective claims that, by the 1970s, Victor Vasarely’s work had successfully realized his concept of a ‘democratisation of art’. Given consensus around the failed project of even the radical wings of the avant-garde, this seems all the more audacious in the context of the luxurious, carpeted corporate space in which it appears: the executive top floor dining room of the German Central Bank in Frankfurt designed by Vasarely and his son in 1972. Carefully packed up and reinstalled here, the suite normally houses Europe’s top bankers and power brokers doing deals over digestifs.

Victor Vasarely and Yvaral, Dining Room, 1972, spatial installation. Courtesy: Art Collection Deutsche Bundesbank, Frankfurt am Main; photograph: Wolfgang Guenzel © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018

This room makes for a curious entry point to Vasarely’s apparently utopian model of ‘a social art’. All plush mustard wool, sleek aluminium and plexi geometry in shades from black through grey to ochre (oddly, without the chairs and tables that gave it social purpose), it is presented as one of Vasarely’s ‘Architectural Integrations’ transforming art into social form. Yet it barely needs stating in our post-austerity times that this swanky interior space couldn’t be less democratic. Even so, its deluxe ‘swinging ’60s’ brand of modernism has once more become du jour.

Following a reverse chronology, the curators move on with Vasarely’s well-known ’50s-70s experiments in op art – such as his ‘Vega’ series, begun in 1956. Fantastical and psychedelic, the canvases are uncannily prophetic in their resemblance to early computer graphics and ’80s imagery, even in their acidic arcade game colours and Pac-Man maze compositions. Cuboids, spheres, rhombi push out of the canvases, with a kinetic and rhythmic energy. Reytey (1968) looks like Josef Albers gone viral, its blue and purple repetitive squares spiralling into a tunnel. Although presented as proto-op art, it is easy to miss the fact that many were produced in the early 1950s – such as the brilliant black and white Tlinko II (1956) with its rotating squares. Most are keenly sculptural – originating in systematic games with three-dimensional modules. Other series such as ‘Photographismes’ (begun in 1951) make clear their debt to photography – pivoting around positive and negative monochrome repetitions.

Victor Vasarely, Reytey, 1968, tempera on canvas, 1.6 × 1.6 m. Courtesy: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018

Sorata-T (1953) goes further in such photographic games. Made up of three panels of glass, connected with hinges and painted with a black graphic labyrinth pattern, the kinetic and conceptual aspects of the work emerge in the shadow patterns it casts and the movement between the sheets once the spectator views it in the round. Clearly it is a kind of homage to The Large Glass (1915–23) by Marcel Duchamp, whose work the artist had encountered first-hand at Denise René’s Paris gallery. Vasarely’s relationship to Duchamp would have made a fascinating theme to pursue, not least because the earlier works dealt with in the second part of the show – where the influence of the Bauhaus and cubism are strongest on the younger Hungarian artist – make clear Vasarely’s abstraction, like Duchamp’s, originated in a kind of playful model of realism and rejection of mimesis. Many of Vasarely’s early works begin as studies of prosaic subjects – lit matches, zebras, pebbles balanced on top of each other – and mutate into abstract representations and optical experiments. But, apparently more intent on claiming some of the canon for this marginalized ‘master’, the curators ignore such encounters – Malevich being another obvious interpolator – which might have helped genuinely reposition Vasarely. The bankers’ suite remains an anomaly, and Vasarely’s many other commercial commissions – including the 1972 Munich Olympics logo – or his many public/architectural works, such as the 1954 Tribute to Malevich realised as a mural at the University City of Caracas in Venezuela are written out of the picture. Although the multiple complex display panels produce a self-consciously labyrinth and at times disorienting exhibition, the two parts of the show remain like oddly disconnected culs-de-sacs: two parallel versions of Vasarely that still don’t quite manage to get inside his peculiar modernism.

Victor Vasarely, 'In the Labyrinth of Modernism' runs at Städel Museum, Frankfurt, until 13 January 2019. 

Main image: Victor Vasarely, Étude homme en mouvement (detail), 1943, Oil on hardboard, 1.2 ×1.3 m. Courtesy: Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest; photograph: Szépművészeti Museum – Museum of Fine Arts Budapest  © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018

Sarah E. James is an art historian and writer based in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Her next book Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde, is forthcoming from the MIT Press.