The Responsive Eye was an exhibition held at MoMA in New York in 1965. It brought together artworks by so-called ‘Op’ and minimalist artists such as Bridget Riley, Josef Albers, Viktor Vasarely and Almir Mavignier. The curator William Seitz described the show an ‘exhibition that would indicate an activity, not a kind of art’. In the catalogue text Seitz writes, ‘The eye responds most directly when nonessentials such as freely modulated shape and tone, brush gestures and impasto are absent.’ He argued this was ‘non-objective perceptual art‘, art that ‘exists primarily for its impact on reception rather than for conceptual examination... Ideological focus has moved from the outside world, passed through the work as object, and entered the incompletely explored region area between the cornea and the brain.’
This exhibition is best documented in an early Brian De Palma documentary posted on the Internet — our magic modern perception box, our constant optical illusion machine. The aim of the show was to use the way De Palma depicts viewers responding to these artworks — both physically and in commentary — as a way to examine how technology-infused contemporary artworks play with our relationship to the screen.
In De Palma’s 1966 film the psychologist Rudolph Arnheim observes, ‘Vision is based on discrimination. Vision is based on the distinction between things that are different from each other. If you put the human mind in a situation where this distinction is no longer there you get your brain in a situation in which the eye jumps the track. I think this is what gives you this profoundly disturbing effect.’ The comment could easily apply to how we relate and view the constant influx of movement, imagery, sound and informational content in modern screen life.
Rather than an exhibition of contemporary optical artworks, the aim is to explore ideas about the process of looking, and our mental and physical relationship with art. Just as the sixties generation was awed by the experience of these ‘retinal’ works, so gifs, digital paintings or videos make us reexamine our feelings about the screen, how we look and what we are looking at.
Francesca Gavin is a writer and curator based in London. She is the Visual Arts Editor of Dazed & Confused, the Art Editor of Twin and a Contributing Editor at AnOther magazine. Her fourth book 100 New Artists was recently published by Laurence King.
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