Otto Piene: Light Ballet on Wheels, 1965, aluminum drum, 4 wheels, glass, paint, 161⁄2 inches high by 30 inches in diameter. All photos this article, unless otherwise noted, courtesy Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York.

The past season in New York was a particularly rich time for devotees of the movement Zero, whose reputation in Europe has been secure for decades. A motor of avant-garde activity centered in Düsseldorf from 1957 to 1966, Zero made important innovations in performance, kinetic, environmental, reductivist and light-and-space art—pursuits that were then nascent globally. At the nucleus of this loose affiliation were the artists Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, who had met in May 1950 as students at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. A recent, altogether absorbing exhibition at Sperone Westwater Gallery, “Zero in New York,” assembled works by these two and by later Zero member Günther Uecker, as well as by 18 other artists from across Europe, both familiar and obscure, who were involved with Zero. It was curated by gallery director David Leiber and Mattijs Visser, founding director of the recently established Zero Foundation.1 Among the artists included were Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani, co-founders of the short-lived Milanese gallery Azimuth (and its spin-off publication, Azimut); both have since been given retrospective surveys in New York (at Gagosian and Haunch of Venison galleries, respectively), fleshing out the portrait of this dynamic juncture in European art. 

Zero began with a series of one-evening protests/exhibitions held monthly, starting in April 1957, at Mack’s and Piene’s adjoining studios and elsewhere around town. Guest artists from Düsseldorf and beyond were invited to participate in these proto-Happenings; the roster of collaborators includes key figures of postwar European art, among them Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri and Jean Tinguely. Enamored of the metaphorical possibilities of natural elements, and excited by the potential of advances in technology to suggest new forms and provide new materials, Zero championed no particular esthetic strategy but strongly opposed the celebration of subjectivity and ego—of existential anxiety—embodied in the gestural abstraction of Tachism and Art Informel, then dominant across Europe. A constructivist bent led Zero artists to look to precursors from the Bauhaus (difficult to do at the time, since the institution’s achievements had been suppressed by the Nazis), including László Moholy-Nagy, whose Light-Space Modulator (1922-30) was a groundbreaking instance of the machine esthetic brought to a fine art context.

Above all, Zero was about light. Piene had been producing “raster” paintings and drawings by forcing various materials (pigment, soot) through patterned sieves of perforated cardboard when, one day in 1958, he idly aimed an electric lamp through one of the sieves and was captivated by the resulting play of light on the wall. Beginning soon thereafter, much of his work had to be plugged in. Light Ballet on Wheels (1965), included in the Sperone Westwater exhibition, features incandescent bulbs shining upward through small, precisely placed holes in a slowly rotating black-painted glass disk atop a black aluminum drum, producing squiggling, ever-changing configurations across the walls and ceiling.

Mack’s development followed a similar course, from his heavily impastoed monochrome canvases of choppy grids to the sparkling steles and rotating, coruscating “dynamos” in aluminum, stainless steel and Plexiglas seen in his first New York solo show, held in in 1966 at Howard Wise Gallery.2 Barely hinting at the snazzy grandeur of those works was the Sperone Westwater show’s Folium Argentum (1968), an aluminum sheet etched with competing diamond patterns. (Mostly smallish, the works in the exhibition belied the transformational ambitions of Zero.)

Uecker, who was invited to join Zero’s inner circle in 1961, was known for swirling fields of nails partly driven into wood-backed canvas, usually painted white, which create undulating patterns of light and shadow that are both atmospheric and concrete. The works’ optical sizzle depends on raking light, which the installation at Sperone Westwater provided. The White Mill (1964) is a pair of disks covered with twin thickets of nails and joined by an axlelike rod; as they rotated around the top of a cylindrical pedestal, the bristling disks caught the spotlight.

Düsseldorf had been nearly demolished by Allied bombs in World War II, and an oppressive, conservative attitude marked Germany’s rebuilding and social retrenchment. In the 1950s it was, Mack says, “a gray emptiness . . . a cultural cemetery and a knowledge vacuum.”3 By 1967, Time magazine could call the Düsseldorf art scene “Paris on the Rhine.”4 Joseph Beuys’s appointment to the Academy in 1961 contributed mightily to the city’s growing avant-garde fervor. But before that, Piene told me,5 progressive artists coalesced in the city primarily for three reasons: cheap studio space, the Academy and dealer Albert Schmela.6

Schmela opened his eponymous gallery in May 1957 with an exhibition by Yves Klein reprising the mercurial Frenchman’s “Propositions Monochromes,” seen earlier that year at Iris Clert’s gallery in Paris. The Zero group, while taken with Klein’s self-confidence and charisma, and similarly invested in the creative potential of such natural elements as fire and light, didn’t have much use for his conceptual, spiritual orientation. They were also opposed to the idea of the artist as a messianic personality.

Nevertheless, Klein was included in Zero’s seventh evening exhibition, held in April 1958 and called “The Red Painting,” its manifest theme; Klein was represented in “Zero in New York” by a trio of diminutive, radiant monochromes (gold, rose, International Klein Blue) and a pair of small “Fire Paintings,” all 1960.

The participation of Lucio Fontana and Manzoni in Zero’s eighth evening exhibition, in May 1958, linked the group to Italy’s leading vanguard artists and two important precursors of Arte Povera. Fontana, some 30 years older than Zero’s initiators, shared their interest in the role of the artist in society, and in the interchange between art and science. At Documenta 3 in 1964, Piene, Mack and Uecker took the unusual step of collaborating on several pieces for their “Homage to Fontana.” Of the three Fontanas in the Sperone Westwater show (each titled Concetto spaziale), the earliest, dated 1958, in which a whitish surface is punctured by a lyrical tracery of knife cuts, seems the most at home among the ashen and silver tonalities favored by the Düsseldorf trio. The peripatetic Manzoni brought to Düsseldorf the radical procedural and material ideas percolating in Milan within the Azimuth group, which included his companion Nanda Vigo and Castellani. The Sperone Westwater show featured two beautiful, ghostly Manzoni “Achromes” from around 1960, one a kaolin-soaked canvas ribbed with horizontal pleats, the other a slab of polyester striated by cobalt chloride.

Dozens more “Achromes” could be seen a month later in the sprawling “Manzoni: A Retrospective,” curated by Germano Celant and presented at Gagosian’s Chelsea space. (It echoed, but did not duplicate, a Manzoni show Celant curated in 2007 for the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina in Naples.) Showman and provocateur, Manzoni achieved notoriety through gestures such as canning his own feces and offering it for sale at the going price of gold (Merda d’artiste, 1962). Though he claimed to be unconcerned with beauty, this son of a count made abjectly beautiful objects: the acid-etched polyester Achrome from 1961 seen at Gagosian, an unusually large (7-by-6-foot) expanse of horizontal, inch-wide furrows, has a regal presence.

The same year yielded a stunning Achrome in the round, loaned from the extensive Manzoni holdings of the Herning Kunstmuseum in Denmark: a cube composed of charred wood blocks, surmounted by a furry, whitish sphere the size of a basketball. Even behind its protective Lucite shield, the waist-high work projects an exquisite vulnerability. Formally, it is a warm-up to Socle du Monde (1961), an upside-down iron plinth 3 feet wide that was included in the Gagosian show and is widely known through documentation. With this “base of the world,” Manzoni claimed the entire globe as an artwork—his artwork. The optimism fueled by the postwar revitalization dubbed the “Italian Miracle” is herein matched by conceptual chutzpah,neo-Dada swagger and startling economy of means.

The Gagosian show, which included work from 1956 to 1963, the year of the artist’s death at the age of 29, contextualized his brief, blazing career with a broad range of contemporaneous works, including a white painting by Robert Rauschenberg, compact but pungent pieces by Fontana and Klein, and Mack’s White Rotor (1958), an irregularly subdivided circular relief boxed behind a distorting sheet of rippled glass. (The viewer could only wonder what this turgid tondo would have looked like had it rotated.) Quietly holding its own in this company was Castellani’s Superficie bianca (1961). An early example of the artist’s signature idiom of linen stretched over an arrangement of nails and carefully tacked to the substrate, this demure but arresting painting-as-low-relief captures ambient illumination, shaping it as a spinal column of gentle highlights and shadows. Throughout the following decade, Castellani’s eccentric formats and patterning of nails would become more elaborate, as in the hexagonal Superficie bianca (1969) included in the Sperone Westwater show.

Castellani’s first New York solo exhibition in over 40 years is on view through June 27 at Haunch of Venison. Curated by Adachiara Zevi in collaboration with the Castellani Archive in Milan, the show comprises vintage and new work. Among the former are such plums as the magisterial Superficie argento of 1966, a 5-by-10-foot “silver surface” on loan from the Fondazione Prada in Milan. Syncopated rhythms of nail-heads in orderly rows are channeled into nesting trapezoids. Austere means and self-evident structure continue to characterize works dated 2008 and 2009, in silver or white, in which the placement of nails, in undulating rows of progressive density, suggest layered or interfering wave patterns. Two titled Superficie bianca, each 6½ feet wide, even hint at spatial illusionism. The restraint and discipline of Castellani’s expression contrast to Manzoni’s taste for farce and spectacle. His latest exhibition demonstrates that, at 79, Castellani still produces work of great power, rigor and understated poetry.

Nul, a Zero spin-off that cropped up in Holland in 1961 under the leadership of Henk Peeters, was also represented at Sperone Westwater. His nr 60-11 Pyrografie (90 walmulehen), 1960, is a sheet of white plastic with a loose grid of nasty-looking scorches—one example of the use of fire as a mark-making device that also figured in the practices of Piene, Klein and others. Nul’s Armando (now resident in Berlin) takes up the idea of the white monochrome in Stacheldraht (1962), one of a series of stark paintings that include lengths of barbed wire. The subtly disjointed reflections in Mirror Piece with Three Cuts, a small 1963 work by the Nul artist Christian Megret, can only hint at the spatial complexity and optical confusion of his room-filling works, seen in one of the dozens of period photographs at Sperone Westwater. One such photo, of a floor-to-ceiling stack of corrugated cardboard by Nul’s Jan Schoonhoven, instantly brings to mind Tara Donovan’s installations.

Paris-based Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) was tangential to Zero, but by the mid-1960s, François Morellet was making kinetic sculpture with neon components that won Zero’s blessing. His Op inclinations are evident in a smallish, vertiginous painting of superimposed red grids on a deep blue ground, dated 1959-69. It is like a cleaned-up, jazzy version of one of Piene’s smoky “raster” drawings. Zero’s association with artists of Nouveau réalisme explains the inclusion, in “Zero in New York,” of Jean Tinguely’s delightful Radio WNYR (ca. 1962). Looking (and behaving) a bit like a demented waterfowl, it activates at the viewer’s approach, waving a bedraggled feather at the end of a wire and switching on a small speaker tethered precariously to a disheveled radio receiver. The juxtaposition of Klein’s monochrome intimations of the immaterial and Tinguely’s busy contraption underscored Zero’s catholicity. Also associated with Nouveau réalisme was Daniel Spoerri, represented by an untitled 1964 painting that the artist seems to have abandoned mid-stroke, leaving even his brush behind, its bristles still stuck to the canvas. In this company, the contemporary viewer begins to understand the impact of Arman’s early work, of which four examples were shown at Sperone Westwater. Accumulation Lampes Fiat Lux (1960), in which scores of spent bulbs are encased under glass, exemplifies his poker-faced equation of consumer detritus with beauty, and his vehement repudiation of “touch” as a painterly virtue.

Though the Zero groundswell became a trans-European phenomenon as part of a sweeping, research-based sensibility named The New Tendency (“Nove Tendencije”) in 1961 by Zagreb-based art historian and critic Matko Mestrovic, it reflected a conscious expression of the founders’ Germanness. To this day, Mack rails against curators who represent 20th-century German art with “barbaric, aggressive” Expressionism rather than the rationality of the Bauhaus: “We hated all forms of expressionism,” he recently remarked. Of the Zero members’ position as Germans at midcentury, Piene has said, “we were quite aware of the historical situation. . . . Guilt had to be translated into a positive alternative.”7

A lively addition to the artwork at Sperone Westwater was early and fascinating if technically crude documentary video footage. Culled from German television archives, it shows Piene executing a soot painting with a stout candle, Mack texturing an aluminum panel by means of elaborate frottage and Uecker shooting a canvas full of arrows. Arman blows up a roadster and picks through the debris; Gutai artist Shiraga Kazuo, clinging to a rope overhead, paints a large canvas with his bare feet. A film records the cheery cacophony of a “demonstration” on the street outside Galerie Schmela marking Zero’s 1961 show, a free-form gathering that was repeated the next year on the banks of the Rhine.

The show’s catalogue reprints texts by Piene, Mack and Klein that were originally published in ZERO magazine, two issues of which appeared in 1958 and the third and final one in 1961.8 By far the most elaborate of these, “Dynamo,” from ZERO 3, includes Mack’s fantastic description of “The Sahara Project,” his (still unrealized) vision of a vast constructed “reservation” in the blazing North African desert. This huge environmental work would consist of 13 distinct “stations,” each with its own function—beacon, garden, labyrinth, symposium—built of mirrors, mercury and marble, and with fountains of burning gas visible from the moon. Among other notable contributions to ZERO 3 is engineer Billy Klüver’s “The Garden Party,” in which he describes the frantic preparations for Tinguely’s legendary performance of self-destructing sculpture, Homage to New York,in the garden of MoMA in March of 1960.9

Howard Wise Gallery mounted “Group Zero: Mack, Piene, Uecker,” the group’s debut U.S. show, in 1964.10 The first sizable Zero exhibition was seen at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia the next year; solos for Piene and Mack at Wise soon followed. Zero disbanded in 1967, in part because of tensions among the inner circle. Subsequently, Piene would move his work increasingly into the public domain. Among what he terms his “sky works” was the 1,600-foot-long, helium-filled rainbow that spanned the closing ceremonies of the 1972 Munich Olympics; his experiments with “manned sculpture” included Sky Kiss (1982), in which a cello-playing Charlotte Moorman was sent 300 feet aloft above the town of Linz in a star-shaped helium balloon. In 1968, Piene became a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, and in 1974 he succeeded Gyorgy Kepes as director there, serving for 20 years. He now divides his time between the Boston area and Düsseldorf. Uecker lives and works in Düsseldorf; Mack is based in nearby Mönchengladbach.

In an essay accompanying a 2006 exhibition of Piene’s work, art historian Wulf Herzogenrath helpfully distinguishes Piene’s transient works, which are effectively collaborations with the public, from Mack’s large-scale sculptures and fountains, which are permanent, self-contained works, and also from Uecker’s enclosed, psychically dense spaces, for example the prayer room he designed in 2000 for the Reichstag building in Berlin.11

On Dec. 15, 2008, Piene, Mack and Uecker joined forces with Visser and Hans Georg Lohe, the Cultural Commissioner of Düsseldorf, to establish the Zero Foundation, which, in Piene’s words, aims at “the consolidation of the historical role of Zero and the continuation of work in the spirit of Zero.”12 Looking toward establishing a museum or other working institution as well as a fellowship program, the Foundation hopes to bring new generations of artists and scholars into the Zero zone. The passing of 50 years has done little to diminish the excitement of the moment when the intermingling of art and technology enjoyed a fresh beginning, when new media were just around the corner and when art could be born “out of purity, and out of close to nothing.”13

1 The Sperone Westwater show was a compact reformulation of “Zero: International Avantgarde of the Fifties and Sixties,” a 2006 exhibition organized for museums in Düsseldorf and Saint-Etienne by Visser with Jean-Hubert Martin and Heike van den Valentyn. 

2 Writing in the New York Times, Apr. 17, 1966, Grace Glueck called the show “a dazzler that combines jet-age materials and know-how with the ’thirties stardust of a Busby Berkeley movie.” Reprinted in Mackazin, the Years 1957-67 (no date), “published by Mack for Mack” and distributed in New York by Howard Wise Gallery and in Düsseldorf by Galerie Schmela. 

3 From Mack’s statements at the Zero 50th Anniversary Symposium, Mar. 22, 2008, moderated by Joe Ketner, held at the Milwaukee Art Museum in conjunction with the exhibition “Sensory Overload: Light, Motion, Sound, and the Optical in Art Since 1945.” The exhibition included works by Piene, Mack and Lucio Fontana. 

4 “Paris on the Rhine,” Time, June 2, 1967, accessed online at www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,902071,00.html

5 Otto Piene in conversation with the author, Dec. 3, 2008. 

6 The energetic and adventurous Schmela (1918-1980) would later mount solo shows by Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Jörg Immendorff, among many others. Schmela’s daughter, Ulrike, now runs the space as Galerie Ulrike Schmela and plans to relocate the operation to Berlin. The first venue for Informel in Düsseldorf, Jean-Pierre Wilhelm’s Galerie 22, opened about two weeks before Schmela in 1957. 

7 Statements at 2008 Milwaukee symposium.  

8 All three issues are reprinted in Zero, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1973. In addition to the original illustrations and German texts, this volume contains English translations and an introduction by Lawrence Alloway. 

9 Within a few years, Klüver would collaborate with Robert Rauschenberg and others on EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology). 

10 Wise, an enthusiastic supporter of experimental media, operated his gallery from 1960 to 1970, and in 1971 founded Electronic Arts Intermix. In his review of the 1964 Zero show for Arts magazine (January 1965), Donald Judd opined that “in general the work is unusual and unlike anything here,” and proclaimed Mack the most original of the three. “Mack, Piene, Uecker” is reprinted in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975, Halifax, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2005, p. 157. 

11 Wulf Herzogenrath, Otto Piene: Solo, Düsseldorf, Halle 6—Galerie Christine Hölz, 2006. 

12 Otto Piene in conversation with the author.  13 Ibid.

“ZERO in New York” was on view at Sperone Westwater, New York [Nov. 6-Dec. 20, 2008]. It was accompanied by a book published by MER Paper Kunsthalle, edited by Mattijs Visser, with essays by Catherine Millet and Valerie Hillings and texts by Otto Piene, Heinz Mack and Yves Klein. “ZERO Lives—European Avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s” is on view at the Kunsthalle Weishaupt Ulm, Germany through June 7, 2009. Many of the Zero artists are represented in “In-Finitum” at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Italy [June 6-Nov. 15]. “Manzoni: A Retrospective” was on view at Gagosian Gallery, New York [Jan. 24-Mar. 21], and “Enrico Castellani” is at Haunch of Venison, New York [May 11-June 27].

Stephen Maine is an artist and writer wholives in Brooklyn.