In 1965, following his starring role in the Museum of Modern Art’s now-famous "The Responsive Eye" exhibition, Hungarian artist and Op Art inventor Victor Vasarely (1906–1996) became an international art superstar. For the next 15 years, the public’s appetite for Vasarely’s dizzying designs seemed insatiable. In an effort to meet demand, as well as to bring his art to the masses, he maintained a studio that presaged those of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, employing legions of assistants to pump out paintings from his maquettes, as well as creating graphic editions and multiples. He sold prints directly in his Vasarely Center on Madison Avenue in New York City, and also made large editions for Circle Fine Art, a "fine art retailer" with a chain of galleries nationwide.
But when Vasarely died in 1996, his career was at an all-time low. That year, Circle Fine Art went bankrupt and cheap Vasarely prints flooded the market in the largest-ever fine art liquidation. Later it was discovered that his foundation, which ran Vasarely museums in Hungary and France, had been mismanaged by its then-director, Charles Debbasch. L’Affaire Vasarely riveted French audiences for years. Debbasch was eventually convicted and sentenced to three years imprisonment for misappropriation of funds and paintings. In a move straight out of an Ian Fleming novel, he skipped town for the island of Togo and, incredibly, masterminded the constitutional coup d’etat of Togolese dictator, Faure Eyadéma. Debbasch currently enjoys diplomatic immunity.
In spite of it all, today, Victor Vasarely’s pulsating, multi-colored phoenix seems to be rising from the ashes. Due in no small part to the efforts of the foundation’s new director, Michéle Vasarely, the late artist’s daughter-in-law, the market is giving strong signals that it is regaining confidence in the Op maestro’s work.
In 2007 Vasarely works have achieved their highest prices ever at auction. Leading the pack was a black and white painting from 1956-60 entitled Teke that appeared at Christie’s New York on May 12. It fetched $348,000, demolishing its $120,000-$180,000 presale estimate. With his prints, progress has been a bit slower. On July 19, 2007, Christie’s South Kensington launched the largest Vasarely print and multiple sale ever, with 128 lots. Murray Macaulay, associate director of the auction house’s 20th-century prints department, noted that the classic early ‘60s black and white pieces achieved high prices, as did the bright, over-the-top ‘70s works. "Although his work pre-dates computer generated graphics," he said, "it does have a correlation with digital art. His work has a new, sympathetic audience in young professionals." It also looks good in hip, modernist interiors. Right now, Vasarely is all the rage on trendy design blogs, such as coolhunting.com, which advertises morphing Vasarely screensavers.
Vasarely buyers are primarily European. Conjecture has it that this is due to the sterling reputation of Galerie Denise René in Paris, which maintains and regulates Vasarely’s market in Europe. The artist lost major U.S. representation after his dealer Sidney Janis died in 1982. McCaulay notes as well a strong interest in Vasarely from Middle Eastern buyers, for whom his non-figurative work has special appeal, since it does not breach Islamic prohibitions on representational art.
Judging from the meteoric rise of other Op or Kinetic artists such as Bridget Riley, whose paintings are fetching over $2 million at auction, the time seems ripe for Vasarely’s ongoing rediscovery.
DEBORAH RIPLEY is a writer and Artnet’s print specialist. This text was originally published in Art on Paper magazine’s Market Update.