Grand Illusions

A faint but unmistakable electrical hum was in the air when I stepped into the Boca Raton Museum of Art to see "Richard Anuszkiewicz: Retrospective." The buzz no doubt came from the air conditioning or lighting system, but it could just as easily have been generated by Anuszkiewicz's work, which emanates a mysterious energy field. The colors and patterns in his paintings, which tend to be monumental in scale, shimmer and vibrate with energy, and there's a similar charge to the painted wood and metal constructions on which he's focused in recent years.

More than three decades have passed since Anuszkiewicz, now age 68, was among the artists included in "The Responsive Eye," a seminal exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The show was instrumental in calling attention to op, or optical, art, a term coined by sculptor George Rickey during a discussion with a couple MOMA curators in 1964.

Op art typically combines geometric shapes and patterns with meticulously chosen color schemes to achieve often striking effects, including the illusion of movement or, as is the case with much of Anuszkiewicz's work, the illusion of light radiating from the art. His Temple of Orange Light With Dark Blue (1982), for instance, is a 60-by-48-inch acrylic that uncannily captures the quality of neon light. Hovering in the center of the piece are three brilliant-orange vertical bars, which are surrounded by mottled blue and orange lines that seem to float dreamily toward the edges of the canvas. I was tempted to look around to find the cord connecting the picture to an electrical outlet.

Notions of color and how it acts on our perceptions have been topics of speculation since the 18th Century, with such diverse painters as Delacroix and Mondrian contributing to their advancement over the years. (Mondrian's famous Broadway Boogie-Woogie, from the early '40s, is clearly a relatively recent ancestor of much op art.) Josef Albers, with whom Anuszkiewicz studied, began teaching color theory at the Bauhaus in Germany in the '20s, and the Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely laid the groundwork for much of what came to be known as op art in the '40s and '50s.

Anuszkiewicz, an American, seems to have assimilated the lessons of his European forebears and used them to forge his own take on op art. In fact he has reservations about the genre, according to the essay by the museum's executive director, George S. Bolge, in the exhibition's catalog. It may be more appropriate to call Anuszkiewicz a "post-op" artist, considering that so much of what was originally thought of as op art was quickly commercialized and turned into fodder for interior design.

Bolge writes that "Anuszkiewicz's work is based on the premise that an exchange of psychic-physical facts will be the result of close inspection of a picture." The statement neatly encapsulates the double-edged difficulty of talking about Anuszkiewicz and other artists like him. On the one hand, there's the danger of getting too metaphysical, reducing the art to chic emblems of New-Age consciousness. ("Such balance and harmony, such tranquility!") On the other, it's possible to get sidetracked by purely technical explanations of how the artists use color and composition to evoke physical reactions.

Op art and its relatives indeed create their own distinctive aura, delineating a space of calm and serenity. And it's equally true that there are dry scientific reasons why our eyes and brains react in specific ways to certain combinations of colors, shapes, and patterns. But, as always, the aesthetic truth lies elusively somewhere in between.

That's the mystery of the art, and it's a mystery perhaps best left undissected. I'm not sure I want to know, for example, why paintings like Anuszkiewicz's towering Summer Reds (1982) and Innermost Red (1983) affect me the way they do. These similar pieces, each 99 inches by 66 inches, are acrylics in which thin, brightly colored lines seem to fold into the center of the canvas, which in the Innermost piece is dominated by a vertical bar of rough-textured red. Stand in front of one of these images long enough, and you begin to feel that you, too, are being pulled into its seductive interior.

In other canvases Anuszkiewicz establishes intricate grids, which draw our attention to the different areas of the painting by means of ever-so-subtle modulations of color. One Hundred Twenty-One Squares (1969) "moves" from shades of orange and yellow in its upper panels to increasingly deeper shades of red toward the bottom, but it's impossible to determine where the shifts take place. In Monument Valley (1970) a similar palette of reds and oranges is used to draw us in, then push us out, of a series of concentric squares.

A wall at the end of the exhibition's first gallery is taken up by the massive Convex-Concave (1966), a 72-by-108-inch acrylic in black and white in which Anuszkiewicz starts with perfect squares and then gradually distorts them to create the title illusions. (The picture is reminiscent of -- and might well be an homage to -- Vasarely's Vega, painted just nine years earlier.) Around the corner, in the main gallery, Anuszkiewicz makes use of the same theme, only this time with color and three dimensions; Convex-Concave II: Dimensional (1967) is an enamel-on-plywood cube that is 32 inches square and painted in black and yellow.

For a lot of the work in the main gallery, Anuszkiewicz turned to painted wood and aluminum to take the pieces into three dimensions. The 96-by-168-inch Rainbow I (1986) fans nine columns of ridged wood into a sort of peacock-tail of colors. With such recent works as Red and Blue Squares, Summer Mix, and Intersecting Red, all from 1994, Anuszkiewicz pares his materials back to minimalist basics, using slender bars of painted aluminum mounted on flat, white platforms. Dramatically lit from above, the pieces cast shadowy ghosts onto the walls behind them.

As exuberant as so many are, these works also have something chilly about them. Op art and its successors are, in a sense, abstraction at its most mechanical and sterile. The very mathematical precision that gives such art its vibrant optical effects also diminishes its emotional impact. But, then again, I admittedly favor gestural painting, in which the artist's hand is always evident -- painting that makes us vividly aware of the manipulation of pigment on a surface.

Such "painterliness" is evident in the wall of Anuszkiewicz's works from the '50s, before he so thoroughly embraced the rigorous techniques of op art. It's also prominent in the small but impressive exhibit running concurrently with the Anuszkiewicz show. "Janet Siegel Rogers: Doorways" takes up one small gallery, its walls painted black, the better to showcase the artist's 15 small pieces, all painted this year.

Rogers is an Anuszkiewicz disciple who, ironically, restores the gesturalism that he has so methodically eliminated from his work. She works on a much smaller scale -- roughly the size of a standard sheet of paper -- for this series of oil-encaustic-on-board paintings, which seem closer in spirit and execution to abstract expressionism than to op art.

The paintings are grouped in clusters of a few each and mounted so that they seem to float inside plain wooden boxes. Several of them, from only a few feet away, appear almost flat and monochromatic. But if you shift your position ever so slightly, the colors and textures of the pictures also shift, revealing marvelously varied networks of delicate brush strokes. Take a step in another direction, and the images alter again as the light plays on their surfaces.

The trio of Primary I, Primary II, and Primary III, for instance, are remarkable explorations of shades of yellow, red, and blue, respectively. Afterglow features warm golden yellows that gradually give way to patches of white. And the gorgeous Gold Over the Everglades introduces a more sharply defined horizon line even as it transforms its subject into a minimalist landscape.

Rogers may have departed from the austere technical precision that makes Anuszkiewicz's work, on its own terms, so effective. But she has also embraced a gesturalism that gives her work an emotional richness that sets it apart. By juxtaposing these two contrasting but complementary exhibitions, the Boca Museum does justice to both artists.

"Richard Anuszkiewicz: Retrospective" and "Janet Siegel Rogers: Doorways" are on display through January 10 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 801 W. Palmetto Park Rd., Boca Raton, 561-392-2500.

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