Active between 1957 and '67, the Zero Group recently had a moment in the spotlight with a comprehensive survey at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (up through Jan. 7). A concurrent three-floor retrospective at Sperone Westwater of the work of Heinz Mack (Zero cofounder, with the late Otto Piene) included paintings, reliefs, photographs and kinetic sculpture spanning 1955 to 2014. The scorching, mutilating and jerry-rigging that characterizes the art of Zero often makes the artists appear more like mad scientists than postwar abstractionists. In the shadow of a collapsed German economy, the Zero Group worked in a cooperative manner. Invention and experimentation, often involving cheap, quotidian materials, dictated their efforts.
The first floor of the exhibition exemplified the way Mack's focus on process and a particular medium (shiny metal) created a recognizable individual style, which also occurred with other Zero artists. An enormous four-panel abstraction, The Garden of Eden (1966-76), dominated one wall. It is composed of aluminum and stainless steel sheets and filters—ranging from pale silver to metallic black—that have been cut into giant abstracted blossoms, stalks and lily pads. These shapes are sandwiched between metal and plexiglass. A Victorian pressed flower valentine for a mechanical age, the piece is related to Mack's ongoing "light reliefs." An example on the opposite wall, Kinetic Movement (Blade Relief), 1967, consists of four rows of reflective aluminum, which has been cut into fringes resembling oversized tinsel, on a wood base. The surroundings in which this artwork is displayed are mirrored on its surface, albeit fractured into an abstraction that changes with the viewer's position. In addition, body movement causes the fringe to rustle. Mack first made these reliefs by embossing aluminum with various patterns, a process he discovered by accidentally stepping on metal foil lying on a sisal mat. Believing that his light reliefs had the potential to be "a pure expression of the beauty of light," he made many. Light is always key in Mack's work, taking on a role somewhat like a collaborator. From Zero's heyday to today, the artist has committed to a discursive, yet strikingly coherent, practice, balancing mystical explorations with silver-plated, space-age wonder.
A smaller gallery housed a grouping of six sculptures,dating from 1955 to 2009. Though several were tall and narrow, one untitled piece (2009) is a 20-inch plexiglass cube resting on a mirrored disc on a black pedestal. It brought to mind the translucent cube sculptures of Larry Bell, a member of another group of mad-scientist types, the California Light and Space artists. Both Mack and Bell have been working with this form since the 1960s.
The star of the show, on the second floor, was a large kinetic sculpture titled Poème de Silence (1994-2010). Resembling a console television from the Jetsons's living room, the work encompasses a corrugated glass screen in front of a black circular surface, strewn with small white batons, that rotates slowly counterclockwise. The corrugated glass creates an optical illusion, making the batons appear to wiggle like tiny white eels.
The third floor gallery featured a selection of new and older paintings. Trained as a painter, Mack gave it up in the early 1970s. He came back to the medium in 1991, and the acrylic-on-canvas Golden Wing (1992) indicates a triumphant return. With its delicate honey tones and a title conjuring the mythical, the work presents a pleated fan shape that recalls nothing so much as a simple lampshade. It is the quotidian made otherwordly, Zero-style.