Editor's note: The Nassau County Museum of Art provided source material to Resource Library for the following article and essays. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Pop and Op

February 17 - May 4, 2008


Remember the 60's? Did you get to San Francisco for the Summer of Love? Still got your beads and psychedelic threads? Can you still sing every word of every Beatles hit? If you can answer yes to any of this -- or if you wish you could -- you absolutely won't want to miss Nassau County Museum of Art's (NCMA) newest exhibition. In Pop and Op the museum celebrates that unparalleled, unforgettable era, a time when artists cast their eyes toward mass-culture and advertising art and fashioned a wholly new and accessible look for American Art. Called Pop and Op artists, they captured the times and the nation's new spirit with bold, color-saturated works that looked like nothing ever seen before. (right: Roy Lichtenstein, Atomic Landscape, 1966, oil and magna on canvas, 14 x 16 inches. Private Collection)

Pop and Op were among the most intriguing of the art movements that arose in mid-20th-century America. NCMA explores these movements in context, against a background of the cultural and historic events of the post-war era that spawned them, particularly at the mass culture of the 1950s that was so much at the heart of Pop Art.

Despite growing fears of the Cold War, the country began the post-war era in a very secure position. But in 1963 Kennedy was assassinated in circumstances that continue to be questioned more than 40 years later. And then the country became mired in the Vietnam conflict, one that ultimately tore the nation asunder as Americans increasingly questioned the integrity of their leaders. America experienced the decade following World War II on a high but began to view the country in very different ways as it passed through the 60s and 70s.

Through the works of artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, American art took on a new face beyond Abstract Expressionism, a face that was very much linked to the expanding popular culture and its icons. Influenced by the images of advertising, promotion and mass production, artists emerged who embraced the commonplace and commercial: Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann, Andy Warhol were dubbed Pop artists. Ultimately this movement came to be seen as the first truly accessible style of international modernism. (left: Ed Mirczkowski (b. 1929), Cornered, 1963, acrylic on canvas laid on board, 23 3/4 x 23 3/4 inches. D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc.)

Op Art alludes to the science of optics, employing new technologies to produce art in a parallel to Pop Art's appropriation of commercial art studio techniques. Both Pop and Op embraced the commonality of everyday life through references to fashion, consumer objects and interior design. In Op Art, there is a blazing sensuousness of color intensified by hard-edged geometric designs that seem to fluctuate and change because of their all-over patterning and clarity, producing unexpected spatial illusions and a sense of fluttering movement. Foremost Op artists, among them Briget Riley, Vasarely, Anuzkiewic and Stanczak, are represented in NCMA's Pop and Op.

Pop and Op opens on February 17 and remains on view through May 4, 2008 The exhibition is curated for NCMA by Constance Schwartz and Franklin Hill Perrell.


(above: Robert Indiana, The Great Love, 1966, oil on canvas, 120 x 120 inches installed. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Gift of the Women's Committee, 67.23)


Catalogue Introduction by Constance Schwartz and Franklin Hill Perrell

Those of us who lived through the 1960s and 1970s as participants in the New York art world remember when Pop and Op paintings were relatively accessible, in fact very much so. Prices were low, yet there were few real collectors vying for them. Prints served to publicize the artists by spreading their works (which had decorative appeal) to a broad audience that typically did not collect the originals, but the actual paintings could readily be had.

The leading Pop artists showed mostly with Sonnabend and Castelli, also with Sidney Janis, Ivan Karp's O.K. Harris Gallery, and occasionally at other galleries. The artists were all alive. Their productivity into future decades was presumed to be continuous and prolific. There was no assumption that these works would ever become rare, or even particularly costly. Some quiet murmurs of skepticism, during the mid 70s when prices for some artists began to rise, questioned whether this development was "real" or would last.

Warhol's unexpected death in 1986 was a wake-up call. As time went on, the ranks of the first generation of Pop and Op artists were thinned as Lichtenstein, Rivers, and Wesselmann passed on. As the survivors have aged, the group has become enshrined as old masters. Indeed, "contemporary art" is now understood to be something different and quite newer than Pop.

Gradually, these artists have come into focus as crucial to the story of 20th century American art, a process abetted by incremental re-exposures of their work, museum surveys, monographs, magazine and newspaper articles, and the like. The current art world is much bigger and richer than during the advent of Pop and Op; works which once were easily secured no longer are.

Op art has its own story, at the beginning parallel to Pop, of which it was not quite an offshoot, but rather, an alternative path. Ironically, its abstract mode was then more in keeping with the premise of the immediately prior art establishment. Op Art enjoyed, in its initial flowering, a much smaller window of prominence. It was the hot new movement from '65 to '68, and then seemed to fade from view. Exactly what it consisted of, and which artists were identified with it, shifted over time. Many contemporaneous paintings done with optically scintillating patterns and color (or comparably energized abstractions) could be positioned in an alternative context. This was especially true of the major exhibition at MOMA in 1965 which initially presented this idea through loosely linking works by more than 90 artists. The movement never completely died out, and even went on to influence fashion, interior décor, typography, advertising design and much else, into the 1970s. Its current resurgence today is characteristic of the art markets' capacity for re-invention and discovery.

The intent of this exhibition of Pop and Op art is to stress those qualities, in formal terms, that point to common attitudes towards paint handling or composition such as flatness and hard edged, strong uninflected color that transcends the apparent dichotomy of representation vs. abstraction. These aspects of a shared aesthetic arose from a natural impulse on the part of a younger generation to differentiate themselves from the dominant gestural tendencies of their immediate predecessors, and to project an overall societal attitude of freshness, declarative of youth and a new viewpoint, expressed through bold color and visual graphic strength.


Related events

In conjunction with the exhibition, NCMA is presenting several stimulating lectures and discussions that will serve to enhance the experience of viewing the works of the exhibition. Among the events are Tea & Tour programs on March 12 and April 9, each introduced by Constance Schwartz followed by an exclusive docent-led tour of the exhibition; Color Goes Pop, a lecture by Dr. Charles Riley II on Sunday, March 9; Masters of Op and Pop, a lecture by Chief Curator Franklin Hill Perrell on April 26. Additionally, docent-led tours of the exhibition are offered each day at 2 pm and family-walk through and free arts and crafts projects for children are offered each Sunday afternoon. These tours are free and no reservations are needed. Spanish-language tours are available by prior arrangement; call (516) 484-9338, ext. 12.


Editor's note:

Please also see these essays authored in conjunction with the exhibition:


Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Doris Meadows, Nassau County Museum of Art, for assistance concerning the republishing of the above essays.

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