MAN'S eyes are not windows, although he has long regarded them as such. They can be baffled, boggled and balked. They often see things that are not there and fail to see things that are. In the eyes resides man's first sense, and it is fallible.
Preying and playing on the fallibility in vision is the new movement of "optical art" that has sprung up across the Western world. No less a break from abstract expressionism than pop art, op art is made tantalizing, eye-teasing, even eye-smarting by visual researchers using all the ingredients of an optometrist's nightmare. Manhattan's commercial galleries are beginning to find space on their walls for it, and the Museum of Modern Art is planning an op show titled "The Responsive Eye" early next year. Says the show's organizer, Curator William Seitz: "These works exist less as objects than as generators of perceptual responses."
Pleasure in Precision. "Optical art is this year's dress length," says Carl J. Weinhardt Jr., director of Manhattan's
Gallery of Modern Art, which will not show any. Some critics already are throwing their weight behind op in dubious battle with pop. Actually, they both share an everyman's land. If anything, they are opposite sides of the same coin, gambled on what art can become.
Scornful of the emotionalism and accident in abstract expressionism, op artists know where they stand. Precision is their pleasure. Their art instantly engages the beholder, yet does not demand his involvement or insist that he relate it to the world of objects, emotions or experiences. Op fascinates the way a kaleidoscope does a child. Its pitfall is that fascination often turns, by repetition, to boredom.
Op art has a legitimate ancestry. Cezanne, Seurat and Monet seized upon newly proposed theories of optics when they painted. In this century, such constructivists as Mondrian and Malevich were the forebears of op art's dry, highly controlled use of color, which sometimesas in the work of Britain's labyrinth-making Jeffrey Steele, 33 (above) amounts to rejecting color. When they do use color, however, it is to stimulate the first sense directly rather than to enhance forms.