Supernovae 1959–61 is a rectangular, vertically oriented black and white abstract painting by Hungarian-born artist Victor Vasarely. The work is composed of a network of 1,161 small black squares set inside a thin white vertical grid. At the top left of the composition, five rows down and five rows from the left, the black squares shift on their axis, becoming slightly larger and forming a clear black cruciform configuration. On the upper right side of the work the black squares become smaller, forming another internal white cross intersecting the grid on a diagonal axis. Occupying roughly the bottom two-thirds of the painting are two opposing vertical channels of small circles situated within white squares. The circles increase in size from left to right. A little above the mid-point of the work there is a singular horizontal bar that contains a row of floating black rhomboids. The work is inscribed ‘VASARELY | SUPERNOVAE | 152 x 242 | 1959–61’ on the back of the canvas.
The work forms part of a series made by the artist entitled Black and White in which he investigated the principles of geometry, perception and movement. Supernovae are stars which suddenly increase greatly in luminosity, then undergo various changes, including casting off a considerable proportion of their mass. Supernovae is designed to appear to visually alter as the viewer moves in front of it. The work plays optical tricks such as seeming to surge or retreat in areas, flip orientation and change in chromatic density depending on the spectator’s angle of vision. Motion, the artist explained in 1971, is not implied by depicting the object as moving. Rather, it is ‘the aggressiveness with which the structures strike the retina’ (Vasarely in Robert Sandelson Gallery 2005, p.9).
The Black and White series also draws heavily on Vasarely’s parallel interest in cinema and photography in the 1960s. At their simplest, these technical applications allowed Vasarely to reproduce quickly both the positive and negative versions of an image. In more advanced darkroom experiments they also permitted the artist to manipulate the tonal intensity and configuration of his images. Each work in the Black and White series is executed in both its positive and negative form. A ‘partner’ work to Supernovae appeared on the cover of the Swiss edition of Art International in May 1965.
Supernovae was originally conceived as a mural designed to be integrated into the external architecture of a building. In a letter to Tate in 1965 Vasarely described the strong relationship Supernovae has to architecture: ‘Like all of my cinematic compositions, the theme SUPERNOVAE is a “starting prototype” eminently integrable into architecture’ (translated from the French by the author, see Tate Archive TG/4/2/1058/1). Vasarely worked on numerous architectural schemes, notably at the University of Caracas with architect C.R. Villanueva and in Paris with J. Ginsberg.
Ronald Alley,Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.745, reproduced p.745.
Vasarely in Black and White, exhibition catalogue, Robert Sandelson Gallery, London 2005, pp.6–13.