“Try as you may, you cannot figure out how the illusion is created — and neither can Fangor explain it except in the most general way…As a colorist he has extended the limits — and keeps on extending them — of the simplest optical laws. …He is the great romantic of op art working not by rule but by a combination of intuition and experiment, appealing not to reason but to our yearning toward the mysterious. As the purely visual novelty wears off, the optical trick turns out to have been more than a trick after all and is revealed as a portal opening on to new experiences of color in space.” (John Canaday, Fangor’s Romantic Op, New York Times, Sunday, February 15, 1970)
The title SU 10, tells us it is the tenth painting of the “SU” series, suggesting a highly systematic approach that implies Wojceich Fangor is a dispassionate man of science. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fangor understood science well enough, but Copernicus held little interest for him. Notwithstanding his standing within the group of artists associated with the precise optical illusions of a Vasarely or Bridget Riley and the 1965 “Responsive Eye” op art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of which he as a vital part, Fangor was intensely passionate about his work; looking beyond a simple investigation of the principles of optics and perception and acutely aware and invested in real world applications.
It is no coincidence that his 1958 solo exhibition held at the Salon in Warsaw, “A Study in Space” is associated with the first use of the concept of an ‘environment’, one of the most radical ideas to be introduced to the twentieth-century lexicon of art terms. It took into account his unique spirit of abstraction that proposed the primacy of interrelationships between the various works and the dynamics of the viewer when faced with an act of color emancipation. As for designating Fangor as the romantic among op artists, there is a redolent nostalgia in imagining the youthful curiosity of a fourteen-year-old and the telescope he constructed and the blurry objects he viewed through the lens of that makeshift device. Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1922, he would have fashioned the tubular contraption in 1936 (or thereabouts) and he lived as he dreamed of pulsing stars and celestial bodies, the moon’s penumbra as it passes through its phases, the jewel-like twinkling of Venus in the night sky. That passion set in motion a lifelong pursuit to achieve the technique and ability as a painter to create a system of visual metaphors for the optics of such cosmic phenomenon reduced to pure light and color expressed as blurred circles, waves, amoebas, and cloud shapes.
SU 10 was painted in 1971 during what is generally considered Fangor’s golden years, between 1958 and 1975. It was the year after his solo exhibition at the Guggenheim when 37 canvases were installed along the walls of the spiraling ramps of that breathtaking paean to Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius. The union of that architectural anomaly and Fangor’s unique spirit of abstraction proved the ultimate showcase for his long-held interest in thinking about the spatial relationships of his works displayed in toto with conscientious intent as to how the experience might likely affect the observer. It is not difficult to imagine with its highly saturated hues and vibratory effects that SU 10, a work of intensity and strength could own its place when viewed looking upward from the ground floor rotunda to the rising tiers to panels pulsing with color as if nebulae suspended in orbit.
The impact of SU 10 as a study in color suggests an artist fully invested in exploring the effects of pleasure as an aspect of seeing. Closely related to large-scale M 74 in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum, its undulating bands of oscillations of highly saturated colors project a sensual presence and are clearly chosen to provoke an emotional response. Today, we are inclined to compare such a work with artists of the Light and Space Movement — James Turrell comes to mind as an artist able to manipulate light, space, and nature with similar goals in mind. Yet Fangor is a painter, not an art technician utilizing effusions of light with due consideration for spatial relationships. It is Fangor’s remarkable ability to blur contours so that the eye cannot capture the moment of transition between shapes that sets him apart from other painters and provides the ‘visual penetration (that) gains the highest value…because it is a space of opening, movement, and life that cannot be contained in any abstract formula.’ (Stefan Szydlowski, Wojciech Fangor: Space as a Game, ex. cat., Kraków, 2012, pg. 133) The technique is called ‘sfumato’, and the Fangor’s ability has earned him praise as the twentieth century equal to Leonardo da Vinci who described and practiced the technique.
Wojciech Fangor, Warsaw, 1959
Wojciech Fangor in his studio, early 1960s
Wojciech Fangor, Stanisław Zamecznik, Study of Space, Nowa Kultura Salon, Warsaw, 1958
Wojciech Fangor, “M 74” (1969) oil on canvas, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
WOJCIECH FANGOR: THE EARY 1960s
Wojciech Fangor: The Early 1960s, an exhibition organized by Heather James Fine Art in 2018, presented nine large-scale paintings from the artist’s breakthrough period. The first U.S. traveling solo exhibition of one of Poland’s preeminent Post War abstract artists in more than 25 years, the exhibition celebrated Fangor’s distinctive use of saturated color and blurred silhouettes to create mesmerizing optical illusions. Several pieces from this show have sold, but 4 currently on view at our gallery in Palm Desert, California: Green Points (1961), Red Moons 2 (1961), White Ellipse (1961), and #29 (1963).
“SU 14” (1971), oil on canvas, 50 x 50 in. Sold Thursday, May 19, 2016 for $198,205 USD
“M 28” (1970), oil on canvas, 55.9 x 55.9 in. Sold Thursday, October 1, 2020 for $354,312 USD
“M 22” (1969), oil on canvas, 79.9 x 79.9 in. Sold Thursday, December 3, 2020 for $1,685,698 USD
- Fangor works available privately outside of Poland are rare, and this piece is further set apart by its great provenance: SU 10 has remained in the same private collection since its creation in 1971
- A similar work from the same series, SU 14, sold 4 years ago for close to $200,000 USD, before Fangor’s record auction results of the past 3 years which achieved his highest hammer prices to date.
- Two recent auction results demonstrate the increasing value of Fangor paintings: M 28 just sold in October 2020 for over $354,000 USD and M 22 sold for over $1.68 million USD on December 3, 2020.