In the Labyrinth of Modernism
Victor Vasarely Rediscovered

He was omnipresent at the beginning of the 1970s. With his colorful shimmering geometries, Victor Vasarely not only conquered museums and galleries. His pictures also lent a psychedelic flair to middle-class living rooms – as a perfect counterpoint to white lacquered furniture and flokati rugs. But at some point the zeitgeist rolls past the artist. When he died in 1997, he had almost disappeared from public consciousness. But now he is being resurrected. A large Deutsche Bank-sponsored show at the Städel in Frankfurt shows that Vasarely was much more than the inventor of Op Art. His cross-media work, combining avant-garde attitudes, pop culture, and a deeply democratic approach, is astonishingly up to date. In addition, his compositions consisting of squares, balls, and rhombi anticipated the computer-generated aesthetic of subsequent generations. 

Victor Vasarely. In the Labyrinth of Modernism begins with a spectacular environment: the dining room of the Deutsche Bundesbank’s headquarters in Frankfurt, which was installed for the exhibition at the Städel Museum. A total of 582 circular discs, which vary from yellow to gray to black, are attached to shiny gold and silver wall panels. Together with his son Yvaral, Vasarely designed this “architectural integration” in 1972, the year in which he reworked the Renault logo and created an official poster advertising the Olympic Games in Munich. Two years previously, he had opened the Musée Didactique Vasarely au Château de Gordes in Provence. Not only were 500 of his works on view at the Renaissance castle. The museum also served as an experimental field: Architects, urban planners, and artists joined forces to research how art can enrich urban development and society. During that time, the four-time documenta participant was at the height of his career.

The design for the dining room reflects Vasarely’s endeavor to extend his work from the canvas into space and to enter the realm of everyday life. For the Hungarian artist, who was born in 1906, art was not elitist but should be accessible to as many people as possible. This is one reason for his many editions and multiples, which made his art affordable and ensured immense dissemination. Added to that was their universal comprehensibility. Vasarely’s optical illusions are perceived equally by all viewers. An example is the hemisphere in the painting Vega Pal (1969), which seems to arch out of the pictorial ground.

Starting with such compositions of balls, square, rhombi from the 1960s and 70s, the exhibition runs in reverse chronological order. On view are examples of his most important work groups, including Noir-et-Blanc, which plays with the contrast between black and white, and Folklore planétaire, in which Vasarely experimented with glowing colors and geometric shapes. The 1950 series Belle-Isle is a true discovery; shells and stones he found at the seaside inspired him to create organic shapes in soft gray, blue, and green shades.

The last section of the exhibition illuminates Vasarely’s beginnings in Budapest in the milieu of the then avant-garde. In works such as Hommage au carré (1929) and Zèbres (1932), modernism starts to whir, to be set in motion. Already in his early works geometries dissolve and the pictorial space becomes dynamic. Optical illusions lead perception astray. It is this moment of uncertainty that gives Vasarely’s decorative surfaces immense attraction and depth.

Victor Vasarely. In the Labyrinth of Modernism

Städel Museum, Frankfurt a. M.