Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 14, 2016
Valerie Hillings and Daniel Birnbaum ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s Exh. cat. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2014. 256 pp. Cloth $40.00 (9780892075140)
Exhibition schedule: Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 10, 2014–January 7, 2015
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Otto Piene. Light Ballet (Light Satellite) (top) and Light Ballet (Light Drum) (1969). Chrome, glass, and light bulbs. Sphere diameter: 38 cm; drum height: 45.7 cm, diameter: 124.5 cm. Moeller Fine Art, New York. © Otto Piene. Photo: Courtesy Moeller Fine Art, New York.

ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s, curated by Valerie Hillings, provides the first opportunity in over fifty years for an American audience to take in the diverse array of experimental artistic practices developed across the international ZERO network. While Zero may initially bring to mind the German triumvirate of Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Günther Uecker, Hillings situates their experiments in an expansive community of peers and makes visible their sources of inspiration. Exhibition history provides the logic both for assembling this particular grouping of artists and for several of Hillings’s installation strategies, which seek to recreate the original experience of seeing these spatially innovative and frequently participatory works. The exhibition’s overall organization is thematic, progressing through monochromes, found materials, fire paintings, labyrinthine mirror and glass constructions, kinetics and electric lights. Following a loose chronology, it makes observable the persistence and evolution of formal devices and techniques, and it evidences with shocking clarity the global migration of ideas.

ZERO includes over forty artists, the majority European, yet with significant contributions from artists of the United States, Venezuela, Brazil, and Japan. As Hillings demonstrates in her detail-rich catalogue essay on the history of the group, the internationalist ambition of these artists—most of whom were born in the interwar years and reached adulthood at the end of the Second World War—and the formal practices they developed were based on a driving optimism to transcended national identity in order to overcome the horrors of the war. Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council at the time of the exhibition’s opening, signals the historical context of their fraternalism by noting in his catalogue forward that 1957, the year Mack and Piene formed Group Zero, was also the year of the signing of The Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community, which laid the foundations for the European Union. Hosting this exhibition at the New York Guggenheim, Van Rompuy argues, continues the project of peace by continuing to strengthen the bonds between the United States and Europe that helped to promote European prosperity over sixty years ago.

As a gesture to the international origins of the ZERO network, the exhibition begins with an installation of paintings, sculptures, and film that recalls the 1959 exhibition Vision in Motion—Motion in Vision, which brought several of the ZERO artists together for the first time. In that iteration, the paintings were suspended from the ceiling of the sixteenth-century Hessenhuis warehouse in Antwerp, thereby allowing viewers to circle them as they would sculptures. Hillings replicates this arrangement, complete with darkened walls that evoke warehouse lighting and the names of the artists stenciled onto the floor beneath each object, as they had been fifty years earlier. Yet the Guggenheim installation places the works behind a barricade, thereby creating an art-historical diorama that signals the interactive ambitions of the artists while removing them to a vision of the past. Nonetheless, this exhibition replica functions as an introduction to the range of techniques and materials that the remainder of the exhibition analyzes in detail as it presents the artists’ efforts to generate light from paint, as in Paul Van Hoeydonck’s Lightwork (1958); build pictures out of found objects like twine and nails, as did Dieter Roth and Uecker; create optical kinetics using moiré techniques, as in Jesús Rafael Soto’s striated painting Vibration (1959); or experiment with literal movement, as in motorized works by Pol Bury and Jean Tinguely. The participatory elements in the phenomenological address of such works are manifested in Daniel Spoerri’s kinetic Auto-Theater (1959), which prompts audiences with lines of dialogue that are typed on three parallel rotating loops of paper of different lengths, and hang below wobbling sheets of polished metal. Consisting of onomatopoeia, questions on the nature of art, and theatrical commands, the work invites the audience to playfully occupy absurdist positions. A phrase that aligned by chance while I stood in front of Auto-Theater read, “What is it that makes today’s art so different? / Cock-a-doodle-doo / Comb your hair.” Spoerri’s “distancing effects” were so successful that they operated corporeally on the man standing behind me in the gallery who confessed his nausea. In at least this instance, the participatory goals of the work lept across the stanchions uniting past and present.

The significance of the term “zero” was open to broad interpretation, as is clear from the numerous artists’ texts that originally appeared in ZERO’s short-lived journal and that are reproduced in the exhibition catalogue. While many of the avowed meanings insist on the fullness of the rotund numeral and the fecundity it promises, a dialectic emerges in occasional references to the potential reduction of the world to zero, the “ultimate abstraction imaginable,” as Yves Klein (an artist who figures prominently in Hillings’s history of the group) ominously observed in evoking the atom bomb (223). Claiming to distance themselves from the expressive tachiste and informel painting of the immediate post-World War II years, which Piene associated with the darkness of the past, ZERO developed techinques that eliminated gesture and emphasize illumination and reflection in order to create a future-oriented aesthetic of optimism that Hillings refers to as a practice of dematerialization.

The first sequence of paintings in the exhibition examines the range of strategies by which the artists sought out new modes of painting. For his 1959 Relief, Mack applied a thick layer of bronze-tinged polyester resin onto a wood board and textured it with a grid of depressions, the contours of which are emphasized by a thin squeegied layer of creamy off-white paint that pools in the crevices. The result is a work that reflects light in two ways: in one instance by the paleness of pigmentation, in another by the glint of metal. At the same time, the work brings together the group’s interest in reducing the subjective imposition of the artist with Mack’s commitment to the handmade, while the grid refers to the mechanization of the modern world. Hillings recounts a story of Mack discovering this grid pattern after accidentally stepping on aluminum foil laying on a machine-woven sisal rug—Mack believed that his hand elevated the work above the decorative and guaranteed its legibility as fine art (20).

Yet the novelty of media with which the ZERO artists experimented and the perponderance of texture, relief, and the frequently unconventional use of materials emphasize an often thick, spiny, or sharp materiality that recalls the crudities of their predecessors and suggests the persistence of a synthetic model of artistic change that contains past forms in its development. Interspersed with Mack’s pictures made by carving, creasing, and impressing are Piene’s stenciled paintings of impasto grids that rise from the surface of the canvas like craters on the moon and Uecker’s early experiments with fields of nails driven directly into canvas mounted on wood. Irregularities predominate in these works as areas of visual interest that at times appear to vibrate. The artists burned and punctured, producing canvas, metal, and plastic surfaces blackened with velvety soot, and they utilized sheets of cut and torn paper, glass, and metal. The celebrated progenitor of these techniques was Lucio Fontana, whose sliced canvases and mirror-polished, lacerated copper sheet metal appear slick and refined alongside many of the ZERO artists’ raw experiments. Projections of archival films show the artists demonstrating these methods for television audiences in what Margriet Schavemaker describes as their savvy use of the media to generate an “experience economy” through performative displays of painting and sculpture (47). In these terms, the artists’ manifestations of destruction and creation excite the fascinations with novelty and extremes that frequently animate mass-media spectacle. At the same time, the artists’ uses of light and the destructive processes by which many of the artworks in the show were made resonate with Klein’s evocation of the bomb, the abstract potential of which could not be separated from the reality of its recent implimentations.

As the exhibition demonstrates, the ZERO artists’ emphasis on light was oriented toward the production of a space-age utopian future. Piene sought to make pictures that would “be strong enough to light up the moon” since “the world of space is the only one to offer man practically unlimited freedom” (231). In order to achieve this on Earth, he began producing Light Ballet (1961–69) in which kinetic sculptures illuminated from inside by electric bulbs projected patterns onto surrounding surfaces to the accompaniment of jazz music. At the Guggenheim, a set of these objects fill a darkened gallery with spots of white light that engulf the viewer in a galactic swirl. Further up the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp in the museum’s most celestial gallery is the Light Room (Homage to Fontana) (1960–64). This long, narrow space resembles that in which the work was first shown in Documenta 3’s Licht und Bewegung section when it was placed at another high altitude, in the attic of the Fridericianum. Included among the seven free-standing sculptures that make up the Light Room are the only two works that Mack, Piene, and Uecker conceived collectively: White Lightmill (1963–64) and Silver Mill (1964) combine Mack’s large, rotating disks with Piene’s electric lights, which together perch atop wooden stems spiked with Uecker’s nails. Lined up along a wall, they alternately illuminate and go dark as the perforated disks spin and project light against the viewers and the gallery walls.

As much as the ZERO artists may have employed ordinary materials to activate viewer experience, their vision of the future did not concern itself with the everyday realities of the past or present. As Piene made explicit, rejection of historical contingency was a centerpiece of their new vision. Opposing the artist to the journalist, he wrote (as quoted in the exhibition catalogue), “The artist does respond to his environment, but his response is creative in that it refers more to the future than to the present” (231). The most striking instance of this is Mack’s Sahara Project, which he conceived in 1959 and partially realized for German television in 1968. Mack imagined the deserts of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria as “ideal spaces”—tabula rasae—that would provide “a new freedom” into which he could stake his art (225–28). Dirk Pörschmann argues that the rapid reconstruction of Germany after the war led the ZERO artists to seek a new utopian Romanticism characterized by “the desire for a supposedly primal state and a vital connection with the cosmos” (64). Sahara Project appears as a perfect amalgam of these influences and ambitions as it resembles a sci-fi moon landing in which the artist, costumed in a Mylar space suit, implants towering silver stellae in the desert sand. Both the video of Mack in the desert and his human-scale aluminum and Plexiglas stellae from the same period are on view. ZERO artists professed an interest in “nature” as a source for art—a nebulous concept that appears throughout the catalogue essays and artists’ writings, but which is less evident in the exhibition itself—and, indeed, Sahara Project can be taken as an early instance of Land Art, as various authors suggest; yet more than nature the project appears to retain traces of an urbanizing conquest fantasy.

Like the politics of the immediate postwar period that Van Rompuy evokes, the ZERO artists’ vision of the future sometimes professed a belief in the potential of scientific rationalization to restructure the modern world. Speaking at an opening in 1958, artist Klaus Jürgen Fischer described the monochromes that the ZERO artists exhibited as “pure visual data and organiz[ing] objective connections on the surface” (19). Similarly, Mack dispensed with the term “composition,” claiming instead that he was creating “structure zones.” While many of the objects in the exhibition are immaculate in their structured organization of data, the handmade qualities of the works demonstrate the continuity of the past into the present even in art that attempts to figure itself as timeless. Conflicts in the European Union today demonstrate the persistence and importance of historical memory in determining future solidarity, as well as the fact that technocratic planning alone does not produce social stability. Hopefully, ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s not only fortifies international understanding, but provides an opportunity to reflect on the contingencies of historical models and their relevance to our present moment.

Lily Woodruff
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Art History and Design, Michigan State University

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