Exhibit review: The granddaddy of op art changes his stripes

For his 19th solo exhibition in Seattle since he moved here in 1966, Francis Celentano continues to confound those who long ago said op art was dead. What is op art? A brief blip on the contemporary art radar, optical perceptualism was a form of abstract art that removed the messy brushwork and gestures of one kind of painting — abstract expressionism or the New York School — in favor of strict, repeated stripes.

In Celentano's case, op art never would have survived if he hadn't left his stark loft in Manhattan and taken a job teaching in the School of Art at the University of Washington. After a brief flurry of shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (which included Celentano) and a big splash in Life magazine (which did not), the quite promising international movement fizzled and flopped to be quickly supplanted by pop art and minimal art.

Stuck in Seattle, alone in another loft (this time in Belltown), the New York-born, NYU-trained art historian was free to pursue his arcane interests in taping, spraying and cutting up paintings: anything that did not involve a brush. In fact, from 1975 on, he turned exclusively to the airbrush and switched to plastic strips laboriously sprayed and re-assembled.

As the breathtaking new paintings at Bryan Ohno Gallery demonstrate, the 77-year-old professor emeritus is still going strong. Now the granddaddy of op art, Celentano has never run out of ideas even though critics shouted that an art of such seemingly limited means — stripes, color, pattern — was doomed. With such crisp, retro shapes and colors, the new "Le Cirque" series and the amazing, free-standing "Star" columns look more current than ever.

Over the past 40 years, the art world has undergone many changes and cycles. Sadly, Celentano, who lives in Northgate, has missed the boat each time op art was revived in New York. For Northwest art lovers, however, his evolution as an unendingly ingenious artist has brought decades of optical pleasure and intellectual challenge.

The four "Stars" (2000) columns tower at 8 feet high, twisting slightly to a narrow base, and blending unexpected colors within each striped facet. From pale pink to lavender, or gray to green, they have a gentle yet imposing presence.

The new "Le Cirque" paintings (2001-2004) resemble circus tents; bright and fat stripes painted on canvas, rather than on the PVC plastic strips Celentano favored for years. More exuberant and showy, they lack the admirable austerity of the "Electra" (1991) and "Exana" (1993) series. Still, the purely hedonistic, escapist pleasures are substantial.

The first of Celentano's paintings to be recognized, acclaimed and attacked in New York (by no less than Hilton Kramer of The New York Times) were all black and white. Now Celentano has re-introduced the two chromatic opposites into "Le Cirque." This gives each canvas a powerful anchor against which all the brighter colors bounce.

Besides the black and white accents, the stripes themselves are now wavy rather than straight. This disorients the viewer's eye even more delightfully. Whether beginning at the top and looking down, or starting at one side and scanning left or right, viewers experience "Le Cirque 6" (2003) and "Le Cirque 3" (2004) as complex and dazzling.

Unfortunately, at only 5 feet wide, they seem dainty compared with the majestic scale of the earlier work. Op art needs all the overpowering scale it can muster to completely envelop one's field of vision. That's why "Le Cirque 8", "10" and "11" (all 2004), all 7 feet wide, are the best. With less black and white bolstering them, they depend on size and wild color combinations like purple becoming yellow, and lavender turning into green, for their impact.

Exhibit review

"Francis Celentano," through Feb. 26, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, Bryan Ohno Gallery, 155 S. Main St., Seattle (206-667-9572 or www.bryanohnogallery.com).