Ed Mieczkowski’s “perceptual abstraction” can teach us to see how we see.
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In 1965 the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, presented “The Responsive Eye,” the exhibition that certified Op Art’s place on the map whose other recently added features included Pop and Minimalism. Because he was included in this high-profile show, Ed Mieczkowski is known as an Op artist. And rightly so. “The Responsive Eye” included his Fusili’s Box (1964), a symmetrical, subtly flickering pattern rendered in black, white, and gray. Rectilinear for the most part, it includes several curving shapes that exert an animating pressure on what would be, in their absence, an oppressive stasis. During a career that stretches over more than a half century, Mieczkowski has generated a rich set of stylistic possibilities from straight lines, elemental curves, and other Euclidean basics. At every step along the way, he has begun a pattern that could easily devolve into an inert design and then extracted from the pattern itself some element that brings it to life. Seeing the complexities that lurk in simplicity, Mieczkowski helps us to see it, as well.
To understand why the 1960s were punctuated by a series of splashes—Pop, then Minimalism, then Op—one must bear in mind the persistent and overbearing authority of Abstract Expressionism. Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and other first-generation practitioners of the style had made their marks by the end of the 1940s. By the end of the following decade, a second generation of Abstract Expressionist painters had appeared and were vigorously reinforcing the idea that serious art is the work of individuals who cover canvases with improvised traces of their feelings—not to mention their anguished reflections on their existential states.
Unconvinced by Abstract Expressionism’s ethos, the Pop artists made art of the shared stuff of commercial culture. Equally unconvinced, the Minimalists reduced the sculptural object to geometric forms—readymades of a sort—that had been fabricated by thoroughly impersonal means. For all their differences, Pop and Minimalism had in common a determination to put impersonality in place of Abstract Expressionists’ insistence on flagrantly personal variations on their shared style.
The Pop artists and the Minimalists had something else in common, for artists working in both of these styles offered their works to be interpreted. So, of course, did the Abstract Expressionists and their predecessors. The idea that artworks need to be interpreted is so basic that we hardly ever mention it. We simply carry on with our interpretations. However, Op Art called that habit into question. For the Op artists did not give viewers symbols to decipher or emotion-laden brushwork with which to empathize. They did not present Pop-style ironies to savor or Minimalist geometries to analyze in relation to one’s body as an object or to the gallery space as a formal premise. Works of Op Art have their sometimes dazzling, always engaging effects the moment we lay eyes on them. No interpretation is necessary.
Though Mieczkowski says that he doesn’t mind the “Op Art” label, he prefers “perceptual abstraction.” This is the phrase preferred, as well, by William Seitz, the organizer of MoMA’s “Responsive Eye” exhibition. For that is what the work in that show offered: a way of making art that, in rendering the usual approaches to art ineffectual, made perception itself primary. For the most part, there are only insignificant differences between one person’s visual apparatus and another’s. As a consequence, Op Art endowed its audience’s experience with a high degree of unanimity. This art placed no premium on individual reactions. Nor did Op artists assert their individuality in any of the ways that have been common in the West ever since certain Renaissance masters emerged from the shadows where medieval artists plied their trades. They did not, however, deny their individual impulses and inclinations—a point made clear in a 1966 statement issued by the Anonima Group, which Mieczkowski had founded six years earlier with two like-minded painters, Ernst Benkert and Francis Hewitt.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1929, Mieczkowski is the sort of painter who remembers his first box of crayons. Always drawing, he was singled out for Saturday morning art classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art. In 1957 he earned in BFA in Painting from the Cleveland Institute of Art and, two years later, an MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University (then the Carnegie Institute of Technology). Upon graduation, Mieczkowski was invited to teach painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art, which he did for nearly four decades. Hewitt was his student at Cleveland and later joined Mieczkowski on the faculty of the Institute. Hewitt had done his master’s thesis on perceptual psychology at Oberlin College, where his friend Benkert, a graduate of Harvard’s art history department who had turned to painting, was just ending a two-year teaching fellowship in studio art. Introduced by Hewitt, Benkert and Mieczkowski quickly took note of their common interests. In 1960 the three painters founded Anonima to provide “a basis for a program of group cooperation and a way of exploiting [our] individual differences for larger purposes.” These purposes were to emerge from the group’s “study of visual perception and its application to stabile two-dimensional schemes”—that is, painted images, which were to be relieved of their representational and expressive tasks so that they could focus on the possibilities for exclusively visual experience.
Similar aims were being promulgated in Europe by a number of collectives, among them the Zero Group, in Düsseldorf; Equipo 57 and Groupe de Recherche d’Art, both in Paris; and Gruppo N, in Padua. And of course there were individuals working in directions that would soon inspire the “Op” label, including the Venezuelan Jesús Rafael Soto, the Swiss Karl Gerstner, and the Americans Richard Anuszkiewicz and Julian Stanczak. Anonima’s effort to re-envision paintings was shared internationally. Moreover, it had roots deep in modernist tradition. The geometric abstraction formulated by Piet Mondrian and other members of de Stijl established crucial precedents for Mieczkowski and his colleagues, as did the curriculum developed at the Bauhaus, especially the color theory taught by Josef Albers. At the Carnegie Institute, Mieczkowski studied with Balcomb Greene, the first president of American Abstract Artists, an organization founded in New York in 1936 to advance the cause of abstraction in general and, more particularly, its hard-edged varieties. Members of AAA included Albers and Ad Reinhardt, whose geometric austerity made him an important figure for Mieczkowski.
For he did not devote his entire career to the hypnotic shimmer of Op. As the 1960s ended, he dialed back the color-contrasts to focus on the complexities to be generated from gridded images. Then, permitting himself departures from strictly right-angled forms, he developed intricately layered and interwoven patterns of diagonals—brilliantly zigzagged forms that seem, almost, to burst out of the confines of the frame. And in the mid-1980s they did work their way free, in sculptures built of vividly painted steel or, in some cases, aluminum or wood. Most sculpture, no matter how adamantly abstract, evokes the human figure. Though some of Mieczkowski’s three-dimensional works have an architectural air, their figurative allusions are nearly always faint to non-existent. Even his most frankly volumetric sculptures address themselves more to vision that to our physical sense of ourselves. Mieczkowski’s abiding aim has been to make us aware of ourselves as seeing creatures. Thus he gives us occasions not only to see but to see what it is to see.
From sharply-angled form Mieczkowski moved on to fractals, shapes that repeat themselves at various scales. As these repetitions snaked over the surfaces of his paintings, curves appeared—or reappeared, for there are arced edges in some of Mieczkowski’s works from the 1960s. However, these curves are different. For one thing, they are more springy and energetic than their predecessors. Furthermore, they had come to dominate the image by the end of the 1990s. Mieczkowski was no longer a geometric abstractionist descended from de Stijl and the Bauhaus. By methodical, thoroughly deliberate steps, he had arrived at a completely unpredictable place.
Mieczkowski was capable of this startling versatility because he never theorized himself into a corner. Nor did he ever feel, as the Minimalists did, that the past could be left behind. As he noted in a 2012 interview, “One always does have a dialogue with art history in one’s work.” Precedent matters. So do the principles upon which precedent is based. Nonetheless, there are no binding rules. Thus, as he says, “I played fast and loose with the various dogmas of painting. I felt I didn’t want to hobble myself with any of them.” Not even his own. Having invented a lushly sinuous style, he suddenly returned to Op and painted “perceptual abstractions” as powerful as any he made in the course of his long career. This is an astonishing achievement.
In the late 1980s, Peter Schuyff, Philip Taaffe, Jim Iserman, and a few other young painters recycled the visual strategies of Op Art. They were reacting against the Sturm und Drang of Neo-Expressionism, just as Mieczkowski and the original Op artists reacted against Abstract Expressionism. He and his colleagues in the Anonima group exchanged emotionally extravagant brushwork for controllable geometries, he explained, “because that way we couldn’t be Freudian or frenetic or sexual or anything. It was like, ‘Deaden those impulses!’ It was a rejection of the irrational and the extreme poeticizing of art. We wanted to have the poetry in our lives and the order in our art, not the reverse.” Invoking an ancient dualism, we could say that the order Mieczkowski cultivated is Apollonian, in opposition to the Dionysian excess of the Abstract Expressionists and so many other modes of modern art. Op, then, can be seen as a classicism for our times.
By Carter Ratcliff