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Beyond the Surface: Wojciech Fangor's Spatial Experimentations in the Cultural Landscape of the 1960s
by Marta Pienkosz

March 2023

The art of the 60s was a veritable explosion of experimentation, a decade of rebellion and liberation, breaking free from the constraints of the past and pushing the boundaries of traditional art forms. From the bright and bold colors of Pop Art to the stark minimalism of Conceptual Art and spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism, the 60s saw a dizzying array of styles and movements that forged new paths in the world of visual expression. Viewers' perceptions of space and form was particularly challenged by the Op-art movement which emerged in the mid-1960s. In contrast to the emotionally-driven currents of Abstract Expressionism, chaotic Fluxus, and figurative Pop Art, the Op-art artists often employed an industrial, pre-digital aesthetic (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2013, p. 8). Using vision, space and time as their raw materials, the artists experimented with optical illusions and geometric shapes to create a sense of vibrancy on the two-dimensional plane. The works of Wojciech Fangor, a Polish artist whose creative practice was informed by the burgeoning pop art movement in the United States and Great Britain and influenced by uniquely Polish sensibility, represents a truly compelling subject of study. This essay delves into Fangor's early works, which stands as a remarkable expression of the creative spirit of the 1960s. By closely examining the optical illusions, geometric patterns, and repetitive motifs present in his work, this essay demonstrates the principles that tie Fangor's artistic vision with the Op-art movement. Furthermore, it highlights the underlying attitudes that were shared among seemingly divergent art movements during this time— namely, a broader trend towards experimentation and creation of sensory experiences, and a rejection of traditional representational art. By delving into these principles and attitudes, one can acquire a more profound understanding of the cultural and artistic environment that shaped Fangor's initial pieces, and recognize his impact on the wider artistic scenery during the 1960s.

Wojciech Fangor was trained in the academic tradition of Polish realism, but soon after became intrigued by Cubism and Surrealism. Upon his graduation from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in 1946, he faced the official imposition of Socialist Realism, a cultural doctrine that prohibited avant-garde artistic experimentation (Tomaszewski, 2018, p. 6). It wasn't until Stalin's death in 1953 and the subsequent cultural thaw that Fangor's interests shifted away from traditional easel painting to using space as a medium. This exploration of space in contemporary art led to his first site-specific installation, Study in Space (1958). Composed of twenty monochromatic abstract compositions of semi-geometric shapes, the installation challenged the traditional gallery environment by displaying most of the works on wooden stands placed in close proximity to one another, inviting the spectator to traverse the installation (Tomaszewski, 2018, p. 6).

Figure 1. "Study of Space" by Wojciech Fangor (1958)

Through the exploration of spatial relationships and painterly illusionism, key characteristics of the Op-art movement, Fangor realized that the traditional concept of a picture as a finite structure confines and detaches itself from the real space in which it exists (The Mayor Gallery, 2016, p. 29). His experimentation for the Study in Space Exhibition emphasized the importance of creating engaging spatial experiences that allow the viewer to interact with the painting and its actual space, thereby creating a complete spatial unity that includes literal time and movement within their perception (Tomaszewski, 2018, p. 4). For example, when a spectator passes through a space saturated with red, their memory is primed with the image of red. When they encounter a group of black and white structures, the confrontation of the imprinted image with the one actually perceived creates a new and specific expression of the structures. When a blue space replaces the red, the same black and white structures create a completely different effect and perception. Paintings arranged in a certain order thus can influence and act upon each other, losing their initial individual appearance and creating a new group quality (The Mayor Gallery, 2016, p. 31). Reasserting the critical role of movement and space, central to Fangor’s optical exploration, was later named the theory of "Positive Illusory Space” (Tomaszewski, 2018, p. 10).

Unfortunately, the Study in Space Exhibition was met with criticism in Poland due to the vocabularies of realism imposed by the Soviets. This intensified Fangor's desire to move outside of Eastern Europe to "confront his ideas" with those being developed in the West. Thanks to a fortuitous relationship with Beatrice Perry, an American art dealer residing in Washington, he was able to make his way to the United States, where he found himself at the epicenter of a vibrant and ever-evolving art scene in the 1960s (Tomaszewski, 2018, p. 7).

As soon as he arrived in the US, Fangor delved deeper into his exploration of the spatial relationship between the viewer and the artwork. He began to explore the science of perception, breaking away from the confines of traditional representational art. To him the space on the canvas is neither perspectival, manifesting a sense of depth, nor "literalist," emphasizing two-dimensionality (Rowell, 1970, p. 11). Thus the artwork's existence does not depend on the limits of the canvas nor is it solely related to the framing edge; instead, it exists in the observer's perceptual field. Fangor’s work challenged the traditional boundaries of art and perception and engaged the viewer in an immersive way, thus drawing the larger themes central to the artistic landscape of the 1960s.

In addition to exploring new ways of viewing art as transcending the physical boundaries of the canvas, Fangor intelligently used geometric patterns to create visual effects that seemed to be in motion or vibrating. The minimalist compositions that draw from geometric abstraction- circles and waves - represent light, its spectrum and the chromatic effects of its separation in striking color combinations (Gorządek and Le Nart, 2015).

Figure 2. "#29" by Wojciech Fangor (1963)

This is evident in the 1963 painting "#29," where a navy circle with hazy edges, created through the application of thin oil paint in varying shades of blue, radiates from the center, conveying a sense of vibrancy (Meer Art Gallery, 2014). The intentionally blurred transitional areas between colors create an illusion of movement, further challenging the viewer's perception of space and time. Through this interplay of color, form, and optical illusion, Fangor's artwork invites the viewers to engage with novel conceptual approaches to understanding the realm of art.

Figure 3. "M22" by Wojciech Fangor (1969)

Furthermore, Fangor's art pieces incorporated repetitive motifs and symmetrical compositions, both when viewed individually and in relation to one another. Fangor's unique approach to creating an impression of "rhythmic movement—rotating, ascending, descending movement—in relation to time and space" relied heavily on the repetition of simple forms, as exemplified in his 1969 painting "M22," where rosettes are superimposed upon each other in repeating patterns to create a dizzying effect that draws the viewer's eye around the canvas and creates an optical illusion (Tomaszewski, 2018, p. 4). Fangor's use of geometric abstraction and optical illusions thus further reflects a departure from traditional representational art in favor of a more abstract, conceptual approach. It can be viewed as an extension of the Minimalist movement's exploration of the relationship between the artwork and the viewer, emphasizing the importance of the artwork's physical presence. Fangor's works thus aspire to reflect on an abstract approach to art that follows in the footsteps of minimalist artists like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin.

Fangor's exploration of novel avenues of creative expression serves as a paradigmatic example of the experimentation and innovation that typified the art of the 1960s. His work was characterized by a persistent and systematic experimentation with the formal properties of color, specifically the effects of variation in brightness, saturation, and hue, as well as the sizes, widths, and densities of the bands (Gorządek and Le Nart, 2015). Leveraging scientific research in visual processing, Fangor created a visual vocabulary that was fresh, immersive and sensory, effectively capturing the zeitgeist of the era. In doing so, he stimulated a global conversation about emerging art and contributed to its evolution.

Wojciech Fangor's work stands as a testament of the creative energy of the 1960. His adept use of geometric shapes and optical illusions to explore space, time, and perception aligns with the principles of the Op-art movement and exemplifies the era's broader trend towards experimentations. Fangor's journey from Polish realism to avant-garde mirrors the cultural rebellion against the past and a rejection of traditional representational art that marked the era. By pushing the limits of conventional art and perception, Fangor challenged the boundaries of what was possible, offering viewers an immersive experience that was both thought-provoking and transformative. In doing so, Fangor contributed his unique voice to the vibrant and ever-evolving art scene of the 1960s.


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