For more than 600 years, artists have been experimenting with spatial illusion to the great delight of the viewing public. A wonderful timeline of experimentation in perspective theory and spatial illusion has been mounted by the Getty at: http://www.getty.edu
One optical technique is the anamorphic or distorted image, meant to be understood only when viewed at an acute angle or through a reflective cylinder. Some well-known examples of anamorphosis in art are the drawings in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks or the skull in the foreground of Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting The Ambassadors (1533, National Gallery, London). More recent examples can be seen painted on the stairs leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art or the stairs leading out of Pennsylvania Station in New York City.
Last fall, American artist Chuck Close created his first two anamorphic portraits at Two Palms studio in New York, http://www.twopalms.us/, utilizing a complex system of laser engraving and embossing. His Self-Portrait (Anamorphic), now in the collection of graphic arts, is a perfect example of the artist’s belief that “how an artist chooses to do something is often as important as what the artist chooses to do.” The image begins, like all his work, with a straight photographic portrait. His friend Phillip Glass once commented that for Close, the photograph “is simply the carrier for the idea; the occasion for the work to take place.”
Close divided the photograph into sections and painted each section abstractly and yet, when viewed at a distance the image reads as a realistic portrait. Then, a set of these portraits was distorted into a circular pattern, which was engraved by laser onto an acrylic plate. Once inked, the plate was pressed into hand-made paper using an overhead hydraulic press that can exert up to 750 tons of vertical pressure evenly on the paper and plate. The final image can only be seen realistically through a polished cylinder placed in the center of the design.
The graphic arts division at Princeton holds a wonderful collection of optical devices together with a collection of the optical prints and photographs to be used with each device. A small selection is currently on view on the second floor of Rare Books and Special Collections, Firestone Library.