We recently received an email from OSU Regents Professor emeritus John Mowen in which he offered the Museum a screenprint and sculpture by Victor Vasarely, the mid-20th-century Hungarian French artist best known for his innovative explorations of geometry, optical illusion, and color. In my enthusiastic response, I mentioned that the two artworks would complement works already in the collection, such as Inward Eye by Richard Anuszkiewicz, thereby providing students with a richer opportunity to study this movement firsthand.
An artist himself, Mowen has worked in a range of styles, but is most well-known for his own explorations of Op[tical] Art, the movement Vasarely helped make famous. When he learned that we had the nucleus of an Op Art collection at OSU already, he offered to add two of his own works to his donation. These works relate to a series he did for the science museum in Oklahoma City—some of which are on view in the Mind Games exhibition.
The OSU Museum of Art collection is striving to be comprehensive, which means covering all of the areas of art, design, and art history taught by OSU faculty, at the very least. But depth is important too, and when I’m presented with the opportunity to put together group of artworks that speak to one another and to a shared trajectory within art history, it is particularly exciting.
While I was exchanging emails with Professor Mowen, I was traveling in California, visiting a variety of exhibitions including “Roots in the Air, Branches Below,” at the San Jose Museum of Art, “Bill Fontana: Sonic Shadows,” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and “Anthony Ryan: Marginalia,” at the Lake Gallery. It was a trip that highlighted personal connections I’ve made through teaching and curating. A former intern of mine is a curator at the San Jose Museum of Art. A paper by a current student about the SF MoMA exhibition inspired me to see (hear) it for myself. And I was on Anthony Ryan‘s MFA thesis committee when I taught at San Francisco State University.
Ryan’s work has always fascinated me with its slippage between the mechanical and the handmade, the objective and the sentimental—even the political and the impersonal. The work in his current show, coincidentally, seemed to speak directly to the aesthetic concerns raised by Vasarely, Anuszkiewicz, and Mowen—along with a history of abstraction, minimalism, and conceptual art that I had long associated with his work.
If I hadn’t been thinking about Professor Mowen’s gift, I might not have made this connection—and in fact, might have understood Ryan’s work completely differently. I tell my students that we study art history in order to have the tools we need to make sense of art we’ve never seen before, not to recite memorized facts about the small and somewhat arbitrary set of objects that we see in class. A corollary of that principle is that every work of art we encounter changes the way we understand all the others we have (or will).
In works such as Millennium and Cross #1, Ryan uses the margins of commercially-produced posters to create painstakingly woven abstractions that hover, visually, somewhere between Navajo weaving and television test patterns—with a little bit of Mondrian and children’s craft in between. But the point of connection with Vasarely comes in the accidental spatial illusionism of the work. Millennium announces its three-dimensionality because Ryan emphasizes his open weave by mounting the piece in such a way that it floats a couple of inches in front of the wall. The resulting shadows become an insistent echo of the primary structure, opposing shades of gray to the bright colors of the marginal calibration squares.
In Cross #1, Ryan has tightened his weave and has mounted the work against black fabric, in a shadowbox frame. The effect is a diminished emphasis on—or rather, a delayed realization of—the materiality of the work. Instead, we focus on the complexity of the pattern, including the emergence of forms like crosses, “X”es, and concentric tic-tac-toe boards in red, pale blue, and white. These forms appear as though in three-dimensional space; the woven colors create a pixellated shading that echoes (satirically?) Vasarely’s mid-century illusionism. At first frantically chaotic, Ryan’s work slowly resolves into order—and then over-resolves, until the viewer is overwhelmed by its geometric variety.
At one point during my visit, I remarked that these works seemed to me to contain all of art history. I have a tendency to indulge in hyperbole, but in truth, Ryan’s work engages with so many different histories—of geometric abstraction, of printmaking, of high versus low art, of Dada and the found object, of craft, of political art, of media studies, of illusionism—that I’m almost tempted to deny it in this instance. Besides, it reminded me that although we have, so far, a relatively small collection of art at OSU, in some sense every object in it contains an entire history of art.