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Painterly Abstraction, 1949–1969: Selections from the Guggenheim Collections

June 14, 2011 – January 8, 2012

Themes | Victor Vasarely, Lacerta, 1955-79

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"The abstract picture, born of easel painting, is in turn tending toward repetition . . . The age of strictly two-dimensional solutions is slowly drawing to a close."1

One approach to postwar abstraction, which took place largely in Europe, was directed toward scientific, objective, and interactive concerns. In Op art (short for "optical art"), for instance, artists arranged line, shape, and color to create the illusion of movement, space, and light in nonrepresentational works. The largely geometric works focused on the viewers' perceptions and optical transformations rather than the object itself.

Born in Hungary, Victor Vasarely (1908-1997) eventually became known as a leader of Op art in Europe. In his twenties, he abandoned his medical studies to pursue art. He moved to Paris where he found success as a graphic designer, working in advertising before dedicating himself to painting. In the early 1950s, his abstract paintings were filled with large geometric shapes inspired by tiles, natural forms, and landscape elements, but by the mid-1950s, he had turned from natural sources to pure abstractions inspired by geometry, color relationships, mathematical systems, and Gestalt psychology, a school of psychology that provided the foundation for the modern study of perception.2 Vasarely is also known for pioneering the idea of Kinetic art, which sought to create a sense of movement through the use of optical illusions on a flat surface. His paintings play optical games—some so extreme they cause dizziness or discomfort in the viewer.

Vasarely worked on Lacerta from 1955 to 1979, over which time his style and interests evolved. However, its optical qualities have much in common with a period beginning in 1968 during which he arranged his compositional elements to create the illusion of forms projecting out from the painting's surface and appearing like three-dimensional volumes.3


1 Gaston Diehl, Vasarely, trans. Eileen B. Hennessy (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979), p. 41.

2 "Guggenheim Education Resource," National Gallery of Victoria, accessed May 31, 2011.

3 "Victor Vasarely: Works and Biography," Peggy Guggenheim Collection, accessed May 31, 2011.


  • Ask students what the term "optical illusion" may mean. Try to define it as a class. Tell students that some artists use optical illusions in their art. Ask them what they find interesting, confusing, or exciting about optical illusions.
  • Look together at Vasarely's Lacerta. Ask students what they notice. Ask them to describe the painting by using mathematical terms such as symmetry, sphere, three-dimensional, and axis.
  • The work is arranged in a two-by-two grid. Ask students to describe the relationship of each square to the whole. What do they have in common? How are they unique?
  • Op art may suggest the illusion of an object in three dimensions and/or in motion. Do students sense movement in the painting? If yes, ask them to describe it and try to identify how Vasarely created this illusion on a static surface.
  • Ask students what they would call this work and why. Now, consider the title: Lacerta. It is the name of a small, faint constellation as well as the Latin word for "lizard." What connections can students make between the painting's title and its appearance?
  • In 1954, Vasarely said that his compositions could be considered "more than a painting." While the forms and colors were still flat on the plane, they triggered effects that fused "in front of and in the plane.1 Ask students to apply this statement to the artwork. How are his compositions more than paintings? How do they trigger effects beyond the flat picture plane?

1 Gaston Diehl, Vasarely, trans. Eileen B. Hennessy (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979), p. 41.

Ideas in Abstraction

  • While making a living at a ball-bearing factory in Hungary, Vasarely took classes in graphic arts. Vasarely recalled that he and his fellow students preferred the "purely abstract studies, which we regarded as the supreme art. We had to express in form, color, and material the plastic equivalent of such ideas as ‘sharp,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘tender,’ ‘soft,’ ‘calm.’"1
  • List the terms in Vasarely's quote on a board and ask students how they might express these ideas using only line, form, and color.
  • Ask them to add more words to the list and then select one to express using only pencil and paper at first and then using colored pencils. Ask students to share their final products with each other. How did students show their ideas through form, line, and color? What challenges did they encounter in completing this activity?

Optical Art

  • Vasarely was a master at fooling our eyes and brains into believing that a flat canvas was projecting toward us, deeply concave, or both. To create these illusions, he explored many approaches including:
    -Positive and negative space (also known as figure-ground reversal)
    -Color relationships
    -Perspective—using one-point or two-point perspective to create the illusion of a receding or expanding abstract space
    -Repetition—repeating a single geometric shape in varied densities.
  • To experiment with creating these effects, students will draw a simple design using a few geometric shapes on a piece of paper and then retrace (or photocopy the design) so that they have several versions. They will apply line and color to the design and work to create:
    -A design where the geometric shapes seem to come toward the viewer.
    -A design where the geometric shapes seem to recede.
  • Once they have created a design that they feel is successful, analyze and discuss the methods they used as a group.

Figure-Ground Reversal

  • Many of Vasarely's early works focus on a concept known as figure-ground reversal. Human perception tends to separate a figure or object (or positive shape) from the ground (or negative space) that surrounds it. Although most of us are accustomed to seeing the background as passive and unimportant, visual artists are sensitive to the spaces around and between forms.
  • For this experiment students will need two pieces of paper, one black and one white, in the same size; a pencil; pair of scissors; and glue stick. They can keep either the black or white sheet intact, but the goal is to create a single black-and-white design that can be perceived as both black figures on a white ground or as white figures on a black ground.
  • When finished, students should display their works and discuss what they learned and how they accomplished their task.


1 Gaston Diehl, Vasarely, trans. Eileen B. Hennessy (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979), p. 31.