Victor Vasarely was the kind of artist we in Britain call Constructivist and push aside as an inartistic intellectual. He was admired in France since he turned from graphic art to painting in the mid-1940s, and famous globally since the mid-1960s when he finalised the system that made his art uniquely accessible as well as adaptable.
By the end of the 1950s he was working with small square units, in metal or plastic, on which squares or circles were printed, and also trapezoids, diamonds and ovals (suggesting squares and circles seen obliquely). Assembling these in what seemed an infinity of variations, he could play local colour and pattern events against the optically induced larger forms of the whole. The next step was to produce these units as purchasable sets: with their help we would all become artists, making pictures or murals, or indeed covering whole buildings to our own satisfaction.
The idea was right for the outgoing Sixties. "Everyone his own artist" has a long history - going back at least to Mozart's kit of musical phrases to be chosen by rolling dice. But Vasarely's kits were never cheap and the art market has always preferred to deal with unique collectables offering good profit margins. There was a broad movement into creating potentially mass-producible "multiples" to which many artists contributed, but the mood passed.
It was natural for Vasarely to see himself as an international figure, a prophet and activator as much as an inventor and maker. But then he was born in Hungary, in 1908, and like a number of other Hungarians - most obviously Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 13 years older - he gave his innate romanticism expression through figurative, semi-Expressionist paintings and drawings during his student years at the Budapest Academy before, through further studies at an art school run by Sandor Bortnik, an old friend of Moholy's, deriving its ideas from the German Bauhaus (and thus in part from Moholy), and opting to focus the same emotional energies on a more concentrated artistic programme.
Vasarely moved to Paris in 1930, married and had two sons, the younger of whom grew up into the well-known artist Yvaral. He worked at first as a graphic artist and designer, but in 1944 decided to paint again. He had his first Paris solo exhibition that year, at the Galerie Denise Rene which became and remains prominent as a gallery specialising in abstract geometrical and kinetic art in two and three dimensions. He painted monochrome compositions in which the forms of such creatures as harlequins or zebras were key motifs for an exploration of flat patterns and illusions of space.
When he dropped the images his compositions became more diagrammatic and more explosive in their visual effect. Some of these were multi-level transparencies, hinged together so that their relative positions could be varied and the view through their overlapping linear designs made more, or less, dramatic. In the late 1950s he began to explore optical kinetics in large paintings, gradually introducing barely perceptible colours into arrangements that seemed to be of black and white only.
By 1965 Vasarely and Bridget Riley were seen as leaders of an international movement no one had founded or intended, but which was celebrated in New York in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition of 1965, "The Responsive Eye". From this time on also dates the public's general loss of interest in Op Art as an abstract form of trompe-l'il picture-making. It astonished, it dazzled, it could even give one a headache, but it couldn't entertain like Pop Art. Many practitioners of Op opted out or were merely forgotten, but Vasarely and Riley (a generation younger than him) moved on to higher things. In Riley's case these have been ever richer and more refreshing colour compositions derived from experiences of nature; in Vasarely's they were philosophical as well as artistic, leading him into further study of the visual functioning of simple geometrical forms, singly and in ordered masses, of their capacity for conveying sensations to everyone, and thence also of the practical means whereby artistic compositions of this sort might be done by everyone.
The "democratisation of art" became his prime concern, and in this he was a true Constructivist - Russian Constructivism had focused Modernism's urge for basics on the desperate needs of a society ruined by war, revolution and civil war. He exhibited busily around the world from 1960 on and into the 1980s. He also founded a Vasarely Institution at Gordes in France and another, directed towards architectural development, at Aix-en-Provence, as well as a Vasarely Museum at Pecs in Hungary.
Some loss of public interest in his work and ideas plus the general recession have recently occasioned the closing of the Aix institute, and the artist's death shortly before his 90th birthday may mark the end of a chapter in modern art as well as his own career. But his contribution was an important one in a century that has demanded vast feats of self-invention from some of its artists whilst others have queried the value of individual, self- revealing creativity.
In asserting "I fight for the debunking of the artist and an end to individual pictures", Vasarely was placing himself at the opposite end to that at which we like to find our artists, compensating for the limited imaginative and expressive lives we lead ourselves with their dramatic, heart-on-sleeve, often over-the-top productions. But some would argue that the deepest passion demands the most controlled expression. We have the tradition of, say, Bach, Poussin and Mondrian to prove it. Vasarely was of their persuasion, and his contribution to that tradition is all the more remarkable in that it was made in a context of post-war figurative and abstract expressionism and of art-market forces.
Gyoezoe Vasarhelyi (Victor Vasarely), artist: born Pecs, Hungary 9 April 1906; married 1930 Claire Spinner (died 1991; two sons); died Paris 15 March 1997.
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