Art | ZERO

Piero Manzoni, Achrome, 1961
Fibreglass wool in artist’s box
Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York
Gift, Manzoni Family, 1993, 93.4225
© 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS) / SIAE Rome

ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s
Guggenheim Museum
New York City | USA
10th October 2014 > 7th January 2015

However much we deplore them and the death and destruction they represent, wars are often the catalysts for new developments in art. Wars, in terms of art, therefore, have a positive as well as a negative value. Before them comes the art of anger, protest and propaganda; during, the art that strives to represent the truth of the situation – from whichever viewpoint the artist is in sympathy with – after, comes the art created out of the need to move on; an experimental period, which can be a tremendously productive one.

Otto Piene, Light Ballet (Light Satellite) (top)
and Light Ballet (Light Drum), 1969
Chrome, glass, and light bulbs
Moeller Fine Art, New York
© Otto Piene
Photo courtesy Moeller Fine Art, New York

Born in the decade when the US government, in its bid to lead the way in the ‘conquest of outer space’ called its pioneering satellite program ‘Vanguard’, ZERO (1957 > 1966) was established in Europe by Düsseldorf-based artists Otto Piene and Heinz Mack. Piene explained that by naming the group ZERO, their aim was to suggest ‘pure possibilities for a new beginning, as at the countdown when rockets take off… the zone in which the old turns into the new.’ It would focus on light, movement and space, while closely examining the relationship between man, nature and technology.

In a disfigured country, still reeling from the shockwaves of World War II, in which Germany had been at the epicentre, the core group, later joined by another German, Günther Uecker, fostered connections among artists but stressed individual authorship. It was to attract a related network that would span continents, linking artists in Germany, Italy and The Netherlands to others in Brazil, Japan, and North and South America. ZERO sought to annihilate all forms of representation within art in order to celebrate the possibilities inherent in ‘nothingness’: to move beyond the confines of the canvas and so attempt to penetrate the mysterious concept of the fourth dimension. Fire, earth and air would figure prominently in their artworks. Through connected artists such as Yves Klein – who also became a member of French art movement Nouveau RéalismeJean Tinguely, and Lucio Fontana, ZERO would re-define painting, explore the monochrome, and serial structures, and produce artworks made from flames and smoke, filling whole galleries with their environmental works, they would turn to the deserts and skies as viable sites for art. Highly influential, one 1961 show, ZERO: Edition, Exposition, Demonstration, held both inside and outside Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, in which performers marked out a ‘Zero zone’ with white paint around other participants, blew bubbles and launched a balloon into the night sky was witnessed by artist Joseph Beuys – who had his first one man show that year and started to give action-performances in 1963 – and Nam Juin Paik, Korean founder of video art.

Yves Klein, Untitled red monochrome (M 63), 1959
Dry pigment in synthetic resin on board
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Gift, Andrew Powie Fuller and Geraldine Spreckels
Fuller Collection, 1999, 2000.28
© 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York / ADAGP, Paris

Lichtraum; Hommage à Fontana / Light Room: Homage to Fontana (1964) , being shown for the first time in the United States, in the forthcoming Guggenheim exhibition ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s > 1960s, is an installation containing a projection of a painting by Lucio Fontana, and individual contributions by Mack, Piene, and Uecker, as well as the only two works produced in collaboration by the trio. The piece is particularly significant as an expression of the genesis of the group’s philosophy. In 1949, Fontana, the man who later dismissed Jackson Pollock – generally regarded as the most forward-thinking painter of the early 1950s – as merely ‘post-impressionist’, had written, ‘I assure you that on the moon… they will not be painting, but making spatial art.’ ‘Spazialismo,’ as he christened his own movement, established in 1947, he explained, ‘would be an art contained in space in all its dimensions.’ In 1956 > 57, also anticipating the ZERO movement’s aims, another Italian artist and later group member, Piero Manzoni had determined to find a means of expressing the power of the subconscious via the creation of completely subjectless work that emphasised the surface and materials as the only focus of the piece.

In his book, Space Age Aesthetics (2009), author Stephen Peterson tells us that in the year of Lichtraum’s creation, philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote ‘There is no longer any sense in talking about the artist’s being ahead of his time. Our technology is, also, ahead of its time,’ which could be taken to signify, whether or not it was true, that the writing was already on the wall for ZERO’s demise that followed, two years later, in 1966.

Heinz Mack, New York, New York, 1963
Aluminium and wood
Private collection
© 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Photo Heinz Mack

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