Palpable Realities: Op Art and Phenomenology


Palpable Realities: Op Art and Phenomenology

This workshop included lectures by Magdalena Moskalewicz and Matthieu Poirier and a reading Workshop.




Magdalena Moskalewicz

“Light Movement Space in 1968: A phenomenological perspective on Op Art experiments in Polish avant-garde movements”

A schematic division of abstract painting into geometric and organic abstraction was firmly established in the Polish art scene following the famous polemic between Julian Przyboś and Tadeusz Kantor that was documented in art publications in 1957. It was only in the late 1960s that, after a decade of unchallenged dominance by Art Informel and Matter Painting, geometric abstraction once again gained wider recognition. At the Light Movement Space exhibition in Wrocław in 1968, Op Art and Spatial Art were claimed to have overcome the alleged anti-intellectualism of organic abstraction. Based on experiments with vision, three dimensional artworks by artists such as Jerzy Rosołowicz, Jan Ziemski and Jan Chwałczyk were seen as analytical, rational, and, above all, of epistemological value. Their very three-dimensionality was interpreted as more true to reality than the inevitably illusionistic picture plane, and as such they were acclaimed as marking another natural step in the teleological interpretation of the progression of art. This progression subsequently led to the development of Conceptual Art, with the result that these artworks were most often understood as merely conceptual. In reality, however, while these works were presented as having transgressed and superseded abstract painting, they were, in fact, directly related to their ostensible predecessors by means of their common function. Firstly, the epistemological understanding of art was no different to the interpretations of organic abstraction that were dominant in the mid-1950s, and must be seen as the unacknowledged legacy of Socialist Realist paradigms. Secondly, the direct phenomenological experience of these Op Art works allows for the rejection of a purely conceptual understanding and for more in-depth meanings to be produced. Based on case studies of works by Jerzy Rosołowicz, Jan Ziemski and Jan Chwałczyk, this lecture will address the aforementioned issues: tensions between the abstract and the organic in Polish art of the 1960s, as well as between conceptual and phenomenological approaches in today's art-historical reflection on this material. It will examine how the notion of the real was interpreted in the teleological vision of the progression from painting to object-based art; and how the phenomenological experience of these artworks – which is at the core of their implied reception – can be utilised today to answer questions about their intrinsic meaning. The presentation will also discuss how supposedly purely abstract works that address universal issues of visual perception can be seen as tracing back to the context of their production: the palpable reality of socialist Poland.


Matthieu Poirier

“The iconology of "perceptual art" and the return of the figure”

“To me,” declared Jesùs Rafael Soto in 1973, “artworks do not exist independently of the spectator. When photographed, my works appear as traditional images. They only take on their full dimension when they are in front of a spectator and his movement.” The work of Erwin Panofsky on iconology and its limitations in terms of imitating perception in vivo has highlighted the fact that the exercise of art history is largely based on a relationship with documents, and, despite the warnings of Soto, Optical, Kinetic and Perceptual Art are no exception. A study of these subjects must include an examination of photographs that illustrate, accompany and automatically become substitutes for these “penetrable” environments and other often ephemeral installations by artists such as Jesùs Rafael Soto, James Turrell, Doug Wheeler, Dan Graham and Ann Veronica Janssens. While the usefulness and importance of these documents is undeniable, their utilisation nonetheless informs the initial interplay between the spectator and the work of art: many of these documents "conjure images" and restore the "phenomenal reality" of human presence as part of the artwork, which, in visual terms, relies on an opposite process: that of the deletion of any identifiable subject. In terms of composition, these documents display an astonishing resonance with certain “figurative” paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, such as The Monk by the Sea (1810), but with the important difference that, in an environment by Maria Nordman, for example, it is not a painted figure but an anonymous visitor who, preserved in the photographic emulsion, turns away from us to face the endless clouds. The semantic shift that takes place is highly significant: the visitor acts as a substitute for the painted subject by occupying a place that has been left vacant. It is henceforth the visitor, his appearance and his theatrical activities (even if unscripted) that attract the attention of other viewers. In this lecture, we will explore the way in which consciousness is affected by vision, as much in relation to others as to ourselves, a process which emerges as a preoccupation of post-war art from the time of the first Labyrinth by the G.R.A.V. (Research Group for Visual Art) in 1963. One of the configurations devised by Julio Le Parc and familiar to the G.R.A.V. included the following statement placed under the drawing of a work: “Spectator subject of observation through transparent Partition”. From this moment, “other” spectators became subjects worthy of interest, or subjects of observation from a distance, confined as they were inside cells behind a partition that formed the work. Alternatively, spectators' forms may be reflected and diffracted by the multiple moving squares of Le Parc's Continual Mobiles, such as in his Continual Mobile Silver on Black from 1960, or represented as figurines in Carlos Cruz-Diez's Model of Chromosaturation for a Public Space from 1965. In this way, abstraction in its most radical form, when it is most effectively liberated from objects, imagery and the figure, appears to reclaim, as if in compensation, a new type of presence that is in this case real, physical, temporal and phenomenal.


Reading workshop


Texts proposed by Magdalena Moskalewicz

  • Ireneusz J. Kamiński, “Un art spatio-temporel”, article of the newspaper Sztandar Ludu [People's Standard], May 29, 1966
  • Andrzej Turowski, “La présentation de l'œuvre de Zbigniew Gostomski” (preliminary draft for an exhibition at Foksal Gallery), presumably 1974

Person in charge

Mathilde Arnoux

Dr. habil. Mathilde Arnoux

Research Director / Head of French Publications (Series Passages and Passerelles)
Phone +33 (0)1 42 60 41 24