Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Until 13 January 2019

The Städel Museum presents a retrospective exhibition of the founder of the op art of the 1960s, “Victor Vasarely. In the Labyrinth of Modernism” with more than one hundred works.

Victor Vasarely’s (1906–1997) oeuvre, however, spans more than sixty years and makes use of the most diverse styles and influences: Key works of all phases of his production trace the development of the once-in-a century artist. Often reduced to his op art, the artist forged a bridge between the early modernism of Eastern and Central Europe and the avant-gardes of the Swinging Sixties in the West. He drew on traditional media and genres throughout his career, incorporating the multiple, mass production, and architecture into his complex work in the 1950s. The exhibition also looks back at Vasarely’s beginnings as an artist with such works as Hommage au carré (1929) or figurative paintings like Autoportrait (1944). The selection spans from early works like Zèbres (1937) and his Noir-et-Blanc period of the 1950s to the main works of op art such as the Vega pictures of the 1970s. The wide-ranging retrospective understands itself as a rediscovery of a crucial twentieth-century artist who reflects modernism in all its complexity like no other.

Next to important loans from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Modern in London, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, or the Michele Vasarely Foundation, the exhibition presents not least the dining hall created for the Deutsche Bundesbank as an outstanding example of Vasarely’s room-spanning architectural designs. “Victor Vasarely. In the Labyrinth of Modernism” was prepared in close collaboration with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which will present the exhibition “Vasarely, le partage des forms” immediately following the show in Frankfurt. The two exhibitions share crucial loans like the dining hall, which has been especially dismantled for the presentation in Frankfurt.

The exhibition could be realized thanks to the support from German Federal Cultural Foundation and Cultural Foundation of the German Federal States. Another important foothold for the show was provided by the long-term sponsorship of Deutsche Bank as partner of the Städel Museum, which allows the Contemporary Art Department to pursue its collecting activities.

“With ‘Victor Vasarely. In the Labyrinth Of Modernism’, the Städel Museum dedicates itself not only to one of the perhaps best-known unknown figures of European post-war art but once again to one of the central issues of contemporary art: the continuity of first and second modernism and their importance for present-day art,” says Städel Director Philipp Demandt.

“Vasarely brought the Renaissance space that had been ignored by modernism back into the picture. Yet the central perspective coordinates were no longer reliable. The spaces he designed are dynamically inviting, labyrinthine, and problematic all at once. Only if we recognize his room-spanning op art compositions’ breath-taking abysses in terms of both form and content will his art turn into a fascinating testimony to what we call modernism,” adds Martin Engler, curator of the exhibition and Head of Contemporary Art at the Städel Museum.

In the show, Victor Vasarely can be rediscovered as one of the most crucial representatives of twentieth-century art, whose pictorial language has taken root in the collective memory without having been exactly located by art history. Vasarely’s origins as an artist are marked by his encounter with early modernism. He was influenced by theories of the Bauhaus and suprematism. His later technoid and psychedelically colourful works, which pushed into space, were aimed at deceiving the viewer’s perception. These works are representative of those years of awakening and their society with its faith in the future. They define the appearance of modernism in the 1960s and 1970s and are part of both the avant-garde and popular culture. Spreading his works in the form of multiples and editions made Vasarely’s works omnipresent. The popularity he strove for, concerned with a democratisation of art, also made them a mass product—in the best and in the worst sense. If we read his labyrinthine compositions, his illusionist works, the abysses of his early oeuvre, and his—at first sight—primarily colourful op art pictures within the context of their time as regards both painting and content, we will come to understand his art as a fascinating testimony to modernism’s project of the century in all its contradictory nature.

Exhibition view “Victor Vasarely. In the Labyrinth of Modernism”
Photo: Städel Museum