During the 1960s, Victor Vasarely, a Hungarian artist naturalized French in 1961, enjoyed huge success and international recognition, as evinced by the many exhibitions devoted to his work and to optical-kinetic art in general. More significantly, Vasarely’s historic exhibition The Responsive Eye, presented at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1965, was triumphant, earning him the moniker “the Pope of Op Art.” The same year, he received the prestigious Grand Prix at the São Paulo Biennale. Starting in 1963, and more markedly in 1966, Vasarely wholly appropriated the use of colour, which literally exploded in his work. His approach was based on a system of solid-coloured geometric shapes conceived as modules that could be combined indefinitely. The pictorial units that govern these paintings form the “Plastic Alphabet,” developed and patented by Vasarely; they consist of a simple coloured square, about 10 centimetres by 10 centimetres, in which is inserted a smaller geometrical figure—square, rectangle, triangle, circle, oval—of a different colour. These pictorial units then follow a specific colour palette—chrome yellow, emerald green, ultramarine blue, cobalt violet, red, gray—based on contrasts between white and black, positive and negative, lending themselves to an infinite number of variations and arrangements. “Their allocation allows for hot and cold colors, light and dark to alternate, of, giving rise to the appearance of an undulating surface. Vasarely multiplied variations, sought out contrasts, distorted the grid, rediscovered volume, played with perspective, hollowed out space, and was not afraid to use chiaroscuro” (Lemoine, ed., Vasarely: Hommage / Tribute, Silvana Editoriale, 2013).
The painting Kezdi (1966) is a conclusive example: its elements are arranged in a rigorously orthogonal grid, a sort of kaleidoscope composed of 289 square red modules in which are painted lavender circles, graduating in diameter, from largest to smallest, from the edges of the painting to the centre. The desired perspective is thus achieved, whether convex or concave, swollen or hollowed. The procedure materializes Vasarely’s ideal of an art accessible to all, multiplied through serigraphy and reproduced on various supports—canvas, covers, murals, tapestry, and so on—like the work of such Pop artists of the 1960s as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. It is an art that art critic Michel Ragon called “multidimensional polychrome” and whose purpose relies on the active eye of the observer.
Paris, dedicated a first major French retrospective to Vasarely that brought together more than 300 of his works, objects, and documents. Arny (1967–68), the work chosen for the cover of the exhibition monograph and promotional posters, is part of the same batch as Kezdi; the two works display a similar palette of colours as well as a grid composition governed by the square and the circle, playing with figure and ground, going from one to the other under unreal lighting. Kezdi the magnificent!