Richard Anuszkiewicz is a modern American artist who is known for his mastery of colour. Over the course of sixty years, his output has changed and evolved, but several basic elements remain at the heart of his method, the most important of which being the eye’s ability to mix complimentary colors shown separately on the canvas. Anuszkiewicz took the traditions of geometrical abstraction and tonal harmony a step farther than his professor by experimenting with an unusual spectrum of colour contrasts after studying at Yale with the legendary Bauhaus artist and teacher Josef Albers.
By the early 1960s, his paintings appeared to bring pigment to life on the canvas, causing it to vibrate, hum, or float in front of the image surface. Combining these qualities with the illusory, architectonic, and trompe-l’oeil effects of Op Art – a movement Anuszkiewicz helped define and which, in its suggestion of visual movement, was an offshoot of Kinetic Art – resulted in a body of work that sat within various traditions while also having its own warmth and spiritual energy.
Childhood of Richard Anuszkiewicz
Richard Anuszkiewicz was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, to Polish immigrant parents. His mother was already a widow with five children when he was born. Despite coming from a poor family, Anuszkiewicz later reflected, “I had a very happy upbringing and never desired anything… I had company, affection, all the wonderful things.”
As a child, he was passionate about painting and drew every day with the encouragement of his parents. His father, who worked at a paper mill, supported him by bringing him pads of paper to use at home. His family was devoutly Catholic, and he attended Catholic elementary schools, where he was allowed extra drawing time due to his outstanding academic success. In 1944, he transferred to Erie Technical High School, where he took three hours of art studies every day.
Richard Anuszkiewicz studied about Impressionist colour theory, complementary colour theory, and the spectrum prism in these classes. His approach to painting was quite regimented even while he was in high school. He’d given himself the goal of creating a wide range of tones with only three or four colors in his palette. His art teacher urged him to enter competitions, which he did, winning many of them, including a significant prize in the 1947 National Scholastic Art Awards in his senior year and, eventually, a full scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Early work of Richard Anuszkiewicz
Anuszkiewicz began to compress his realistic scenes into abstract designs at the Cleveland Institute of Art. ShaperoModern says he experimented with plein-air painting on Cape Cod in the summer of 1950, between his sophomore and junior years, with painter Henry Hensche, who improved his grasp of the Impressionist style by teaching him about the Impressionist technique of blending colors on the canvas. He received a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship to study art in Europe during his final academic year at Cleveland, 1952-53. However, he decided to attend Yale School of Art and Architecture to study with renowned artist and colour theorist Josef Albers, then chairman of the Department of Painting, since he felt a pressing desire to understand more about colour principles.
Anuszkiewicz’s skill improved in the years after his Contemporaries exhibition, and he became more well-known. In 1962-63, instead of painting freehand, he began using masking tape to produce more exact geometric designs and the razor-sharp dividing lines that would become his trademark. He and other Op Artists began utilizing Liquitex acrylic paint, which allowed them to produce sharper edges and came in a more ‘modern’ colour palette. In 1963, he exhibited five paintings in The Americans, a show at MoMA that was featured in an article in TIME magazine. In December 1964, LIFE magazine featured his picture Mercurian in The Fire on the cover, identifying Anuszkiewicz as the “New Wizard of Op.”
Becoming an expert in art
In 1965, Anuszkiewicz was included in MoMA’s groundbreaking exhibition The Responsive Eye, which helped Op Art burst into the mainstream. Only the British painter Bridget Riley’s work drew as much attention as Anuszkiewicz’s spectacular compositions among the many on display. “One of the brightest stars in The Responsive Eye,” according to the New York Times, “a virtuoso technician who’s sizzling colour arranged in symmetrical bands, stripes, and squares nearly jump from canvas to eye,” who “could already be termed an iconic old master.” However, not all of the reviews were positive. Lester Markel, a New York Times editor, penned a letter criticizing his own newspaper’s favorable review, claiming that Op Art “is fascinating as a method, but it is not art at all.”
Fame and more shows followed, including at New York’s prestigious Sidney Janis Gallery. This exhibition featured paintings from Anuszkiewicz’s Sol series, which featured a centred square within another of a strongly contrasting colour, a technique that was evocative of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series. The Cleveland Museum of Art held a large retrospective of Anuszkiewicz’s work, and he was included in H.H. Arnason’s seminal primer History of Modern Art. His work got increasingly mechanical and mathematical, with The New York Times’ John Canaday describing it as “dazzling,” “pieces of art made purely by calculation,” “done with mechanical precision,” but still “very lovely.” Anuszkiewicz’s paintings were in such high demand that his gallery couldn’t keep up with the demand.
Later life of Richard Anuszkiewicz
Anuszkiewicz created his Centered Square series in the 1980s, a collection of pieces with a classical austerity. Anuszkiewicz began to concentrate on producing the optical sensation of a shimmering aura of colour that seemed to emanate from the canvas, an effect dubbed ‘film colour.’ As a result, the core squares in these paintings can be viewed as solids or bright planes of light. He also worked on the Temple Series from 1981 to 1984, which was inspired by a trip to Egypt in 1981. These monumental paintings have an inferred three-dimensional monumentality as well as an interior brilliance.
Richard Anuszkiewicz began working with overtly sculptural effects and mediums with his Transluminal series, which he developed over twenty years, building large-scale wood sculptures in low relief, as well as working with sheets of aluminum and steel. In the year 2000, he made a series of painted steel sculptures tribute to Piet Mondrian. Throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century, he continued to create acrylic on canvas pieces, including a series in 2011 based on the Twin Towers.