Behind the Exhibition
The ZERO Movement
Heinz Mack, Otto Piene and Günther Uecker, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam © Raoul Van Den Boom / 0-Institute
Günther Uecker, Otto Piene, Yayoi Kusama and Heinz Mack, Howard Wise Gallery, New York © Lock Huey
Poster for the ‘ZERO’ exhibition, The Washington Gallery of Modern Art © ZERO Foundation, Düsseldorf
The ZERO Movement
(1957 - 1967)
Fire, light, movement, space, color, demonstrations, and performances: ZERO used all these elements to create a brand new future for art; and with the vision of a new future without borders, lit the fuse of a world scale art movement.
The ZERO movement was a product of its time. In a period when new technologies were emerging and the space race was at its height, the ZERO artists shared unconditional faith in the future of science and technology and the wish to rebuild the world. Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, who were not only artists but also well educated in philosophy, started an initiative that proposed ‘shaking off pessimism and starting afresh from zero’ in 1957. This initiative later became a magnet for many young artists who shared their anxieties and aspirations. Günther Uecker, a third artist who had a similar vision, joined Piene and Mack, and these three founders, together with three major artists, Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, and Piero Manzoni, whom they regarded as their ‘forerunners’, they soon drew many artists together around the ZERO philosophy.
ZERO artists all over the world challenged the static approach of traditional art, imprisoned in canvas and frame; taking a completely new path that was constantly in motion, inviting viewers to interact. They focused on an illuminated world and the light that makes life possible and viewed every part of the earth, distant lands, deserts, and space as part of their art platforms.
When founder Heinz Mack announced the end of ZERO at the last exhibition in 1967, the ZERO movement had long since stamped its mark on a period of 20th-century European contemporary art, despite a life span of just ten years. As a movement based on ideas, ZERO avoided becoming institutionalized and evolving into a traditional and hierarchical structure, thereby ensuring its universality and timelessness. With a vision borrowed from the future, ZERO preserves its relevance even today, despite the passage of years since it was founded.
ZERO. Countdown to the Future
The ZERO. Countdown to the Future exhibition, held at SU Sakıp Sabancı Museum from 2 September 2015 to 10 January 2016 with the sponsorship of Akbank, provided an exhilarating representation of ZERO, one of the most extensive movements of thought and art in the 20th century. The exhibition brought together artworks in different materials and techniques by the founders of the movement Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, Günther Uecker, as well as works by Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, and Lucio Fontana, who inspired and contributed to the movement. Curated by the Founding Director of the ZERO Foundation Mattijs Visser, the exhibition displayed over 100 works, both from this foundation’s collection and the 18 museums and collections. This version of the exhibition draws on the sources of digitalSSM and presents the documentation of these works, in which nature and technology interact, through a framework upholding both the artistic methods and concepts adopted by the artists within the ZERO movement.
“I make a hole in the canvas in order to leave behind me the old pictorial formulae, the painting and the traditional view of art and I escape symbolically, but also materially, from the prison of the flat surface.” Lucio Fontana, 1968 Lucio Fontana’s strategy of making holes in the surface as a way of demolishing traditional principles of art in the late 1940s, saved art from the limitations of tradition and became an inspiration for ZERO artists. Fontana believed that the rebirth art needed could be brought about by slashing and perforating the surfaces of different materials; these processes became Fontana’s hallmark. In Fontana’s view, the artist’s talent lay not in his pictorial skill but in his perception. The artist reached behind the canvas, literally, to find what was hidden behind traditional art, and in this way, introduced the concept of time and performance art to his works. The ZERO artists adopted certain elements from radical and theatrical performance, such as cutting, burning and shooting. Arrows embedded in the canvas or scorch marks left by flames were an ironic comment on the pictorial language of traditional oil painting and lent a new meaning to craftsmanship and artistry. ZERO took the mystery out of the art production process; allowing hammers, knives or matches to be used in creating a work of art. In this way, the sharp outlines of art became blurred and the canvas an open window onto limitless possibilities.
The ZERO artists emerged from their respective stark and disturbing experiences of the World War II with a shared purpose: To begin all over again with a white surface and to develop artistic idioms and strategies that would reflect their time. Among them was the French artist Yves Klein, who reduced the color palette to a single color, and by this use of monochrome played a particularly influential role. Klein questioned the importance of the artist’s hand and personal expression in his works, which explored a single color on different surfaces and using different materials. Klein’s monochrome canvases are like the surfaces of as yet undiscovered planets. There are no guiding principles or restricting figurative elements in Klein’s works, and according to Klein this is the greatest liberation, making it possible for the viewer to experience his own perception fully. In this way, Klein believes, canvases carry the viewer into a new spiritual dimension.
The ZERO artists searched for ways to arouse a sensation of movement and vibration in order to give fresh life to the static surface of traditional painting, which they regarded as dead. The surfaces of their works seemed to be set in motion and to change continuously from different viewpoints and under different light conditions, a phenomenon that the artist Günther Uecker called the “poetry of perception”, and which simultaneously invited the audience to participate in an interactive game. In this game of perception, the artworks that you walked past or set in motion, suddenly changed. At this instant when viewers confronted their own perception, aesthetic movement became visible through these works. The theme of the Eighth Evening Exhibition which Heinz Mack and Otto Piene organized in their studio in Düsseldorf in 1958 was “vibration”. In the ZERO magazine, which was produced for this exhibition, Heinz Mack poetically described the meaning of vibration as “the resting restlessness”: “What we describe as ‘vibration’ is an expression of continuous movement that we experience aesthetically through our eyes. The harmony of movement that is the life and breath of work, vibrates our soul.”
“One glance at the sky, at the sun, at the sea is enough to show that the world outside man is bigger than that inside him, that it is so immense that man needs a medium to transform the power of the sun into an illumination that is suitable to him, into a stream whose waves are like the beating of his heart.” Otto Piene, “Paths to Paradise”, ZERO 3, 1961 For many ZERO artists light was a symbol of energy and innovation, that is, of life itself, and moreover, the ideal material for creating art. Works created as a result of these academic and artistic researches are the concrete manifestation of energy: All elements vibrate, reflect and move; in the words of Otto Piene they constantly change like “the waves of a heart beating”. ZERO artists asserted that for a future in which all possibilities were once more revived, it was necessary to get away from the assumptions and restrictions of traditional art. For them the abstract and evanescent nature of light symbolized a break away from the inertia of bronze sculptures. According to the ZERO artists, art should be capable of being something very different than an expression of the inner world of the artist. In the works of Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, the dynamism of light and reflection transformed the viewer into an active participant. Light, as the ZERO artists employed it, is transformed into a material and conquers the space, thus liberating both the work itself and the viewer’s gaze. This is a testament to Otto Piene’s unshakeable belief that light is the source of life both for human beings and works of art.
“Now what I had in my hand was not a space of reflection that became visible with the canvas, but a material that entered into real space. And I tried to further develop this material, the nail, which imposed itself on the space in which we live, and which enabled the reality of that space to express itself through light and shadows.” - Günther Uecker in conversation with Freddy de Vree, 1972 Günther Uecker defined himself as an unsuccessful painter, but actually it was through painting that he discovered the nail, which presented him with an artistic idiom. While experimenting with applying paint on canvas using a brush made of nails, he realized that the canvas itself could be manipulated by the nails. In this way Uecker’s art gained a completely new dimension in terms of spatiality. Uecker’s objective was to make the canvas no longer merely a window, but a space that recalled the landscape, soil and farming activities of the Baltic Sea region where he was born; that accepted and transformed light. Long narrow nails rising from the surface of his works were according to Uecker the “materials of an optical language”: Light was refracted on these manipulated surfaces, creating an area of vibration, and so lending the same work an infinite number of different appearances. Consequently his works enter into communication, in the full sense of the term, with the space where they stand, giving the viewer the opportunity to engage with and witness this interaction in different ways.
ZERO. Countdown to the Future
The catalog of the exhibition ZERO. Countdown to the Future covers a wide range of the production of the art and thought movement ZERO, as well as exploring its avant-garde position with regards to 20th century’s political and art history. The catalog features an exclusive article by Norman Rosenthal on the movement's history. In addition to texts written by the artists Otto Piene, Heinz Mack, Günther Uecker, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, the catalog also includes interviews Hans Ulrichs Obrist had conducted with the founders of the movement, Mack, Piene, and Uecker.
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