Many of its distinctive, hallucinatory geometric patterns were his invention, though he believed in the credo ‘art for all’ and often reproduced his designs as posters and fabrics, or took on commercial collaborations.
The cover for David Bowie’s 1969 album Space Oddity, for instance, features a Vasarely spot design and in 1972 he redesigned Renault’s logo. The ultimate dissemination came in 1982, however, when Vasarely prints were taken into space by the French astronaut Jean-Loup Chrétien.
Born in 1906 in Pecs, Hungary, Vasarely trained initially at a traditional painting academy in Budapest, but time spent in the city’s bohemian coffee houses convinced him to enrol at Muhely Academy, the centre of Bauhaus studies in Hungary, to study graphic design.
In 1930, Vasarely moved to Paris, hoping to ignite a Bauhaus-inspired applied arts movement there. A lucrative job in advertising funded his researches into optics, astrophysics and quantum mechanics, the outcome of which was a group of black and white paintings — including L’Echiquier (The Chess Board) in 1935, and the first Zèbres (Zebras) in 1937 — in which grids or swirling lines create a feeling of movement.
At the end of the decade, Vasarely met the clothier Denise René, with whom he opened a gallery just off the Champs-Élysées. Besides solo shows for Le Corbusier and Jean Arp, they began to exhibit kinetic work. As Vasarely developed his own practice, René became his patron.
In 1955, they put on a defining exhibition titled Le Mouvement, displaying Vasarely’s work alongside pieces by Alexander Calder and Marcel Duchamp. ‘So many canvases are based on optical illusions,’ wrote one critic, ‘that it seems more like a mathematician’s cabinet de curiosité.’
Towards the end of the 1950s, Vasarely began to experiment with colour. In 1959 he also invented two ‘systems’ intended to nuke the idea of the unique work of art. Alphabet Plastique used the circle, square and triangle, plus colour scales, to create an infinite number of ‘units’. Planetary Folklore, meanwhile, was a do-it-yourself kit where geometric shapes on moveable 'units' could be endlessly interchanged.
Vasarely had his first New York show at Pace gallery in 1964 — the year Time magazine coined the term Op Art. The following year, his paintings were a highlight of the influential Op Art exhibition, The Responsive Eye, at MoMA. Major series from this decade include Vega, based on spherical distortions and Gestalt, which explored his fascination with the hexagon.
In 1970, he opened the Vasarely Museum in Gordes, southern France and, later that decade, a Vasarely Foundation in Aix-en-Provence, a Vasarely Center on Madison Avenue and a Vasarely museum in Pecs. He died in Paris in 1997.