Julian Opie: Heir to the Pop Art Throne

Workshop for school children at a Julian Opie exhibition Workshop for school children at a Julian Opie exhibition (Image via Flickr)

Famed for his distinctive marriage of Pop Art and Minimalism with a contemporary twist, Julian Opie’s work is instantly recognisable whether he’s working with paint, metal or LED animation. He has worked for everyone from The Royal Opera House to Irish rockers, U2, The National Portrait Gallery, British indie band Blur, and even a London stripper…

“I often feel that trying to make something realistic is the one criterion I can feel fairly sure of,”

Julian Opie, 2001

Born in London in 1958, Opie studied at Goldsmiths, a London university celebrated for its creative courses, during the early 1980s. He seemed destined for fame after receiving mentorship from contemporary conceptual artist, Sir Michael Craig-Martin, who is known for having fostered the Young British Artists. Opie’s earliest works consisted of painted steel sculptures that explored the relationship between visual and spatial observation. Ultimately, however, it would be the paintbrush that was to bring him the greatest commercial success.

Julian Opie’s highly stylized approach has its roots in the aesthetics of Pop Art, particularly the work of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. His work typically bears some of the hallmarks of the Pop Art masters: figures outlined in thick black, and filled-in with solid areas of flat color.

Opie’s style “evokes both a visual and spatial experience of the world around us,” according to the Lisson Gallery, which represents Opie in the UK. This led to his inclusion in the group known as New British Sculpture, alongside artists such as Anish Kapoor and Tony Cragg. In recent years Opie has focused on a series of LCD display installations across the world, including Shaida Walking (2016) on London’s Carnaby Street (famous for its role as a cultural hub in the 1960s), and Ann Dancing (2007) in Indianapolis, Indiana, which was installed as part of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

Julian Opie: Incident in the Library II, 1983.

Julian Opie: Incident in the Library II, 1983. Sold for $16,000 via  Heritage Auctions (May 2018).

But it’s Opie’s work with a paintbrush that has grabbed the headlines and earned a series of retrospective museum exhibitions across the world. One of his earliest pieces, Incident in the Library (1983) offers an exciting glimpse of what was to follow for the English artist. Displaying the same restrained yet atmospheric approach that would define some of his most famous portraits, Opie manages to create a sense of intrigue with a sparseness that enriches his work.

Creating an atmosphere

Julian Opie: Winter 05.

Julian Opie: Winter 05. Sold for ¥500,000 via Mallet Auction (September 2014).

The same can be said of his Winter series of paintings. This time the subject matter lends itself perfectly to his pared-back approach. Using a minimal colors, Opie’s restraint is to the benefit of the audience as without filling the scenes full of imagery he perfectly encapsulates the sparsity, tones, and even the atmosphere of a cold winter’s day in the countryside. 

Julian Opie Imagine you are Driving (Fast) circa 2002.

Julian Opie: Imagine you are Driving (Fast), 2002. Sold for £3,800 via Phillips (January 2018).

The trick of simplifying a landscape to its essentials was again repeated in his Imagine You Are.. series. Some of the most striking are portraits of the racing drivers, Jacques Villeneuve and Rio Haryanto, next to an image of a racing track as it would be seen through the windscreen. “The road is temptingly there. It was inspired by computer-game landscapes. I’m creating the illusion of movement,” explained Opie.

In this series, Opie exhibits the minimalist approach to portraiture that would elevate him to greater fame. Villeneuve is seen staring from the canvas, helmet covering most of his face, which adds a sense of intrigue and possibility: could this be you? 

Sought after

Julian Opie Shahnoza dancing naked circa 2008.

Julian Opie Shahnoza dancing naked, 2008. Sold for ¥1,322,500 via SBI Art Auction Co., Ltd.(July 2017).

His unique style was pushed even further by his This is Shahnoza series. The Shahnoza in question is an Iranian pole dancer who Opie met in a London strip club and modelled for a series of paintings, print, LED animations and even a puzzle that allows the viewer to reconfigure Shahnoza’s body into different poses. These are highly sought after on the market today.

Shahnoza spent two days dancing for Opie at his East London studio, where he took over 2,000 photographs of her from which to work. The paintings continue Opie’s restrained yet characterful style, allowing him to convey a sense of personality, feeling and movement without being explicit. 

Opie has regularly used models and has even enlisted his wife, Aniela, to sit for him in a series inspired by Renaissance and neoclassical paintings of Greek goddesses. In this series, Aniela is portrayed nude and even though her face is featureless, the paintings still manage to portray and even exude a confidence.

Julian Opie Aniela circa 2011.

Julian Opie Aniela, 2011. Sold for £20,000 via Phillips (April 2017).

Such restraint in detail isn’t always a feature of Opie’s work though, as he would show when he agreed to produce the artwork for Britpop band Blur’s The Best Of album. Arranged in a grid in homage to Warhol, this composite portrait of every member of the band is now hanging in London’s National Portrait Gallery. Fronted by Damon Albarn, also known as the co-creator of animated band, Gorillaz, the musicians have been given the Opie treatment. Tone has been removed from their faces and their eyes reduced to black dots, but their character and mannerisms still shine through.

Julian Opie: Damon Albarn, 2000.

Julian Opie Damon Albarn, 2000. Sold for £67,250 via Sotheby’s (November 2010).

Even more detail would begin to creep into Opie’s work and 10 years after the Blur album, his portrait of vacuum entrepreneur Sir James Dyson shows the progression of his style. There’s now shadow in a clear departure from his earlier work and there’s the notable addition of detail, with clearly defined lines to pick out his facial features.

Julian Opie’s Rock’n’roll years

The allure of rock’n’roll clearly called to Julian Opie. Following his work with Blur, Opie painted a series of images of Canadian rockstar Bryan Adams, which are considered to be an homage to Andy Warhol’s Elvis. In 2006, Opie transformed his paintings of Adams into a monumental illuminated sculpture for the city of Indianapolis; a city for which he seemingly has a fondness. He also created a huge LED display that would form the stage backdrop for U2’s Vertigo World Tour in 2005.

Opie maintains a passion for portraits and embarked on a variety of commissions during his career, including a series of Ruth Smoking, which encapsulate his less is more approach that portrays a sense of Ruth’s character with simple expressions, forms, and mannerisms. Explaining his interest in the dynamic between sitter and artist he said, “It doesn’t just affect one’s understanding of the painting and the relationship one feels with the sitter but also seems to show in the poses and expressions. I find this interesting and it helps in my attempt to make these images feel like familiar, museum portrait paintings.”

Today, the artist’s works are part of the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and a host of other locations around the world.