Postwar Austrian art gets a major retrospective with works by Marc Adrian, Richard Kriesche, Helga Philipp und Gerwald Rockenschaub

The intention of op-art, declared Austrian op-artist Marc Adrian in 1964, is to bring about “the optimum integration of the beholder into the creation of the artwork.” It was a challenging idea, using illusions of shifting or swelling to reveal hidden images or create a sense of movement, which is on full display in the show “Abstract Loop Austria” currently at the 21er Haus. This generous exhibition showcases Adrian and fellow Austrians Richard Kriesche, Helga Philipp, and the younger Gerwald Rockenschaub, along with work by twelve other European op-artists. Downstairs, an attractive companion retrospective of the Dortmund- born Edgar Knoop is on show.

Mesmerizing effects

Abstract Loop Austria (Photo: ©Belvedere Wien)
Abstract Loop Austria (Photo: ©Belvedere Wien)

Op-art is of course optical art, and the walls are hung with dozens of visually clever and playful works. They draw you in, metamorphosing as you move around them. To test Adrian’s claim, and to see what delights can be summoned from repeating patterns of white blocks, squares and circles, spend a little time with Kriesche’s 3D-Plastik-Monochrom-Quadratreihe, Böhm’s wood and plastic Quadratrelief, and Philipp’s Kinetisches Objekt (70033) – they’re all in the same room.

Adrian himself uses the distorting properties of acrylic glass to mesmerizing effect. His wood and metal foil montages behind rolled glass – some black and white, some colored – remain fresh and engaging after more than sixty years.

Neo Geo

Helga Philipp's Kinetisches-Objekt, 1966–1968, Sammlung Hainz Vienna(Photo:© Belvedere Wien)
Helga Philipp’s Kinetisches-Objekt, 1966–1968
Sammlung Hainz Vienna
(Photo:© Belvedere Wien)

Given the frequent under-representation of women artists, it’s a special pleasure to see so many works by Helga Philipp included here. Like Adrian, she uses glass to beautiful effect. Most remarkable though, is her large three-paneled black and charcoal Untitled, in graphite and acrylic on canvas, from 1982. This marvelous work is somehow straight and curving, direct-facing and in profile, static and moving, all at the same time. It’s from a private collection, so take the opportunity to see it, and get lost in it, while you can.

The exhibition includes several video series, too. To our 21st-century eyes, accustomed to every kind of on-screen graphic manipulation, these look simplistic and tentative – and not in a pioneering, exploratory way. Although fifty years ago they must have been exactly that. Now they seem crude and, worse, predictable – and in the case of Rockenschaub’s black and white Podest, 8 Animations, puzzlingly old-fashioned, since this is not from the 1960s, but from 2002.

As one of the featured artists, Rockenschaub is handsomely represented. Though he was born in 1952, his work seems to belong to that of the previous artistic generation. His big transparent PVC-foil cube, like “an oversized lens,” and his pink, white and black color foil on Alucore, produced in 2002 and 2008 respectively, both have a strong ’60s look. His pair of black and yellow color planes could almost be from the 1920s.

But must everything be original? It would be a pleasure to have any one of Rockenschaub’s well-executed and appealing works at home, to enjoy repeatedly at leisure. Does it matter how late the artist came to the op-art movement, or if his generation preferred to give it a new name – Neo Geo – in the 1980s?

“I want to open eyes,” said Op-Art forerunner Josef Albers in 1933. This exhibition will open your eyes wide – and leave them dancing.

Abstract Loop Austria

Through May 29
21er Haus
3., Arsenalstraße 1
Thu to Sun 11:00 to 18:00; Wed to 21:00
+43 1 795 57-770