Victor Vasarely



Not on display

Victor Vasarely 1908–1997
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2419 x 1524 mm
Purchased 1964


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.

Further reading
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.

Judith Wilkinson
May 2016

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

Vasarely was one of the first artists to propose an explicitly ‘optical’ style of painting, inspired by geometric abstraction and cubism’s distortions of space and perspective. He believed that the illusion of movement in two dimensions was a kind of physical motion in its own right. The black and white paintings which he made in the 1950s grew out of his experiments with transparent screens painted with geometric patterns and layered in order to produce high-contrast images that appeared to move with the viewer.

Gallery label, October 2016

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Catalogue entry

Victor Vasarely born 1908 [- 1997]

T00676 Supernovae 1959-61

Inscribed 'VASARELY | "SUPERNOVÆ" | 152 x 242 | 1959-61' on back of canvas
Oil on canvas, 95 1/4 x 60 (242 x 152)
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1964
Exh: Vasarely, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, March-April 1963 (among the works in section 1: 'Tableaux-départ'); Vasarely, Galerie Denise René, Paris, November-December 1963 (works not numbered, repr. upside down); Painting and Sculpture of a Decade 1954-64, Tate Gallery, April-June 1964 (139, repr.)
Lit: Werner Spies, Victor Vasarely (New York 1971), pp.74-114
Repr: Metro, Nos.4-5, 1962, p.116; Marcel Joray, Vasarely (Neuchâtel 1969), pl.160

The black and white paintings which Vasarely made in the 1950s, from 1954 onwards, grew mainly out of his experiments with a form of kinetic art known as 'Kinetic Pictures in Depth' based on the superimposition of two screens with interacting patterns so as to produce a fluctuating image through the movement of the viewer, causing perception to shift back and forth. Believing that the possibilities of two dimensions were far from exhausted and that a visual assault on the retina producing an illusion of vibration was itself a branch of kinetics, he chose to paint in black and white because of their maximum contrast. Moreover a composition in white and black could be transposed into black and white on a negative-positive basis to produce a further composition of equal interest.

Vasarely wrote (6 October 1965) that he regards the theme 'Supernovae', like all his kinetic compositions, as a project for a monumental work to be integrated with architecture, though it had not so far been carried out on a large scale. It has given rise to three further compositions, 'Metagalaxie' 1959-61, 'Novae' 1959-65 and 'Centauri' 1959-65, and he had in mind some day to make a variant with the blacks and whites reversed. 'Supernovae' was reproduced in this way, in the negative, as a photographic version of this idea, on the cover of Art International, May 1965.

Supernovae are stars which suddenly increase greatly in luminosity, then undergo various changes which apparently include casting off a considerable proportion of their mass.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.745, reproduced p.745

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