Movement in Squares, 1961, by Bridget Riley.

Reader question: “2D Op Art makes you feel like it’s 3D. So how do you create 3D Op Art?”

I received this question from a jewelry designer interested in creating jewelry inspired by Op Art, but did not know how to recreate the effect in a more sculptural form. It’s true that most Op Art is created on a 2D surface – creating the effect that it seems to be jumping off the page – but, as I will go through in this post, there were actually a few sculptors even in the original Op Art movement.

First of all, let me explain what Op Art is. You’re probably familiar with optical illusions already. (If not, google it. I recommend the one with the duck-rabbit.) What you might not know, though, is that there was a whole artistic movement focused on exploring optical illusions. “Op Art” is short for “Optical Art”, and this term became the name of a movement in the 1950s and 1960s that was mainly centered in Europe and the United States.


Duo-2, 1967, by Victor Vasarely.

Op Artists wanted to investigate scientific theories of perception, optical illusions and visual movement. To do this, they created works that usually consisted of abstract shapes and patterns contrasted against a monochromatic background. They worked in strong, clear colours or in black and white. Their works trick the eye, and seem to move or shift as you look at them.

Op Art was defined by its 2D presence and by the magical 3D effects that these artworks achieved, so we often don’t realize that sculpture was also part of the movement. Victor Vasarely, often considered the grandfather of the Op Art movement, made both paintings and sculptures using Op Art effects.


Kedzi, c. 1989, by Victor Vasarely. Painted wood sculpture.

Let’s talk about two Op Art sculptors who found unique ways of incorporating optical illusions into their sculptures: Mon Levinson and Naum Gabo.


Reflected Color III, 1964, by Mon Levinson. Cut rag paper relief. Image from D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc.

Mon Levinson died only last year and was active as part of the original movement. In the 1960s, Levinson became famous for combining painting and sculpture by using Plexiglas or other unorthodox materials.

In his early work, he created optical illusions by making layers of Plexiglass incised with fine, slightly off-kilter lines. This created a pattern called “moiré” (“moiré” means a pattern created when two or more identical patterns are layered, but moved or rotated slightly away from one another). This moiré pattern was so strong that the pieces almost seemed to move, creating the optical illusion.


White Moving Planes, c. 1965 – 1968, by Mon Levinson. Plexiglas and mixed media construction. Image from D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc.

The second sculptor we will look at is Russian artist Naum Gabo. Naum Gabo was technically part of the Constructivism and Kineticism movements rather than the Op Art movement, but Op Art and Kineticism were closely related, with the main difference being that Kineticism relied on motion to create its optical illusions.

One of Gabo’s most famous works is Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) from 1919 – 1920. Made in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, it’s created from metal and painted wood and is driven by an electric motor. It was originally made to illustrate the principles of kinetics to his students.

Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) 1919-20, replica 1985 by Naum Gabo 1890-1977

Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave), 1919-20 (replica 1985) by Naum Gabo.

Like other Op Art artworks, Standing Wave is made from 2D materials – a strip of metal made to spin very fast – and creates the illusion of a 3D shape when you look at it. Check out a video of the sculpture in action here by Rebecca Wigmore on Vine.

Naum Gabo’s stationary sculptures were technically part of the Constructivist movement, but are very similar to the Op Art movement in the way that they create optical illustions.


Linear Construction in Space No. 1, c. 1945 – 1946 by Naum Gabo.

His stationary sculptures are created using interesting angles, so that different shapes are created depending on where the viewer is standing. In this way they play with the viewer’s perceptions. An example is Linear Construction in Space No. 1, which is made out of transparent planes that create a variety of different shapes as you move around it. Check out this Youtube video of one of Gabo’s variations of the sculpture:


There’s a lot of other artists out there that you can explore for inspiration. Both the Op Art movement and the Kineticism movement are very influential and there are still artists and sculptors who work according to their principles. But the basic answer to your question is: there are many different ways of making 3D Op Art, and, really, the possibilities are endless.