Eva Badura-Triska on the death of Richard Anuszkiewicz (1930–2020)
Hand on heart, do you know the American artist Richard Anuszkiewicz? I readily admit that I had never heard of him before Mark Wörgötter and I began engaging with Op Art as curators of the exhibition Vertigo (mumok, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart). Anuszkiewicz was a real find for us, and a very exciting one! (Incidentally, there are many more Op artists still to be discovered!)
In any event, Richard Anuszkiewicz was a North American proponent of Op Art, and this is all the more interesting since the continent was not actually a center of the movement. The centers, in fact, were located in such countries and regions as Italy, France, Croatia, Spain, southern Germany, and, not least, South America. We can ascribe this to, among other things, the catholic cultures there, to a religion that in its moral dictates is extremely anti-carnal yet in its cultic practices is highly sensuous, focusing on experiences associated with the body—something also characteristic of Op Art. As such, it does not really fit in with puritanical cultures such as those in England or North America, which always tend toward befitting repose, harmony, and aloof distancing and feature a corresponding reserve regarding strong carnal-sensual experiences.
Anukiewicz was born in America and lived there until he died on May 19, 2020, four days before his 90th birthday. His provenance, however, is noticeably European: he was the son of Polish immigrants and studied under an important European artist—namely, the Bauhaus master Josef Albers, who taught at Yale. The latter instructed Anuszkiewicz in the abstract examination of pictorial means, particularly of geometric constructions, as well as, most noticeably, in engaging with color (a core topic of Albers’s), which would go on to become Anuszkiewicz’s thing. Yet whereas the aim of classical abstract European modernism (Bauhaus, De Stijl, and Russian Constructivism) is harmony and calm, Anuszkiewicz’s pictures contained exaggeration and agitation. His colors are so garish that the renowned dealer Leo Castelli told him that he couldn’t take him on in his gallery “because your colours hurt.” In addition, Anuszkiewicz’s linear constructions, his rasters, or centrally directed radial lines are so dense that the eye becomes overwhelmed—a classic Op artist. In the run-up to the legendary MoMA exhibition The Responsive Eye, critic Jon Borgzinner wrote, “Pictures that attack the eye,” and this fits perfectly to Anuszkiewicz, who was featured in the show.
“I’m interested in making something romantic out of a very, very mechanistic geometry. Geometry and color represent to me an idealized classical place that’s very clear and very pure,” Anuszkiewicz once said. If one were to ask what this romanticism consists of, one can easily point to historical Romanticism. Here, the sublime experience can have a peaceful and contemplative side (as with Caspar David Friedrich or later with Mondrian and the Minimalists), but there is likewise a disturbing side that overwhelms the senses, be it waterfalls, wild mountainscapes, or natural catastrophes and their portrayal in Romantic landscape painting or even in an Anuszkiewicz picture that attacks and impedes the senses. Essentially they are two sides of the same coin, not just in America but also here in Europe, where the quiet, contemplative one has long been preferred. The abstract personalities of the 1960s include Marc Rothko, Barnett Newman, Donald Judd, and Frank Stella. Agitation and excess, as provoked by the Op artists, however, were less valued, were harder to endure.
It is a pity that Anuszkiewicz is barely represented in European collections, and likely it will no longer be easy to buy his (early) works. The loans for Vertigo had to be brought over from America at great expense. But they were worth it. As so often is the case, the reputation of this artist is only beginning to truly grow after his death—an artist’s fate as in former times, and one not untypical for Op Art, which is still being viewed critically by many and underestimated in its significance for both its form and intellect.