“My paintings are multifocal,” the British Op artist Bridget Riley once explained. “Not being fixed to a single focus is very much of our time.” Without a clear point to fix on, the eye involuntarily moves around an image, bringing elements of the picture in and out of focus. This is the idea behind Optical Art, or Op Art for short, to fool the mind into seeing things that aren’t there- and there’s science behind it too.
Artists, like neuroscientists, are masters of visual systems. Through experimentation and observation, artists have developed innovative methods for fooling the eye, enabling flat canvases to appear three-dimensional, or movement to appear where there are only static images. Neuroscience can help to explain the biology behind these visual tricks, many of which were first discovered by artists.
During the 1960s, Op Art combined the two disciplines, the study of art and the study of the mind, by challenging the role of illusion in art. While earlier painters had created the illusion of depth where there was none, Op artists developed visual effects that called attention to the distortions at play. Abstract and geometric, their works relied upon the mechanics of the spectator’s eye to warp their compositions into shimmering and shifting displays of line and color. The Museum of Modern Art announced this international artistic trend in 1965 in a seminal exhibition titled “The Responsive Eye.” Since then, neuroscientists have continued to probe the mechanisms by which the human eye responds to these mind-bending works.
Op artists Marina Apollonio and Victor Vasarely applied centuries-old lessons of linear perspective to their abstract compositions in order to create illusory effects. Linear perspective is “a phenomenon of optics that light travels in a straight line,” says Livingstone, though she notes that artists discovered it before scientists were able to explain its effect. Around 1415, the Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi is thought to have invented linear perspective, the first mathematical method for tricking the human eye. It involved arranging a composition around a vantage point that appeared to recede into the distance. The Op artists proved this method could be applied outside of representational painting. Vasarely used linear perspective to manipulate the colors and shapes of abstract forms, creating images that appear to balloon out into space.
While Op artists studied the science of perception, scientists have in turn looked to Op Art to ask questions about visual processes. Though their experimental techniques differ radically, their conclusions are often the same: The human visual system is not a mirror for the outside world. Rather, it is capable of seeing far beyond what is actually there.