Review: Op Art in Focus, Tate Liverpool

Peter Sedgley, Colour Cycle III 1970, Tate © Peter Sedgley

Tate Liverpool’s exhibition Op Art in Focus is an assault on the senses. Involving paintings and sculptural work which span the walls and floors, the collection curated for this show celebrates the pioneering 1960’s art movement in all its vibrancy.

Shaped by the civil rights movement, the cold war, the ‘generation gap’ and the emergence of hippie counter-culture, the 1960’s were unbridled and discordant times. The in-your-face, swelling and warping abstraction of Op Art, which can be traced back to Neo-impressionism, Cubism and Dada, therefore seems fitting.

The exhibition is a part of Tate Liverpool’s in Focus series which is dedicated to significant artists or movements. It is a chance to see work by some of the leading names of modern and contemporary art. The three rooms hosting the occasion swell with a potent use of colour and the art works flash at you from all corners. Despite their playful appearances, all pieces are defined by a meticulous rendering of technical skill which grabs and shakes you.

Architecture, geometry and the occasional political reference all rear their respective heads.

The first room is home to a larger-than-life Bridget Riley painting where stripes of warm and cool tones against a white background trick the eye into seeing a pale yellow emanating from the middle of the canvas. To stand in front of the work is indeed a dizzying experience.

Riley, who struggled to achieve success and independency in her career as an artist until her 30s, despite noteworthy achievement at art school, is a figure of inspiration for the modern-day feminist navigating the trials and tribulations of setting and reaching goals against biological and societal pressures.

In the second room is one of the infamous Spot paintings by British YBA Damien Hirst which is part of some of his most widely recognized works. Each spot is a different colour, the same colour never appearing twice on the canvas. The ‘Spot Painting’ titles are taken from a pharmaceutical catalogue printed in the 1990s.

The compositional arrangement of the Spot painting is however complimentary and harmonious. It offers what could be seen as a restorative moment of rest for the eyes, a kind of visual palette cleanser, before the vinyl-taped Jim Lambie floor of the third and final room engulfs you. Here, the otherwise peaceful gallery pulses with an enigmatic rhythm beneath your feet. The uplifting therapy of colour comes to mind when faced with Lambie’s design. A text from Tate Liverpool which accompanies his installation reads;

“The work is a starting point for other people, not an end result for me.”

Counterbalanced against a beautiful selection of monochrome Bridget Riley prints are sculptures by Craig Kauffmann and Blinky Palmero, whose mirrored triangle mounted on the wall provides another dimension from which to experience the works on show, contributing to the growing awareness of pictorial possibility one accumulates whilst walking through this space.

And these are just a few suggestions of what there is to be seen.

Op Art in Focus can certainly be regarded as a sort of tonic to the stress that is an inevitable part of 21st century life, whilst simultaneously referencing the discomfort that many of us tend to feel. Much like the 60s, we continue to live in tumultuous times. A sense of humour and play defines one’s experience of this exhibition. For uneasiness, due perhaps to the current political climate or the anxiety-provoking compulsion to view our own lives and the lives of others through the lens of social media, surely the invigorating witticism of the Op Art movement is a palatable respite.


Op Art in Focus will be shown on the third floor of Tate Liverpool until July 2020.
Words, Charlotte Hill