Light Years Ahead


“Otto Piene: Light Ballet and Fire Paintings, 1960–1967,” currently on view at Sperone Westwater in New York, offers rare witness to Otto Piene’s philsophical inquiries into technology’s potential to reboot humanity. The 82-year-old artist’s paintings and installations entail extraordinary means and rudimentary technologies: fire, smoke, light, and electricity deployed as methods by which to intervene in the traditional formats of sculpture, painting and installation.



The use of electric light in contemporary art is frequently associated with Dan Flavin’s pulsating, custom-designed flourescents or James Turrell’s believe-it-or-not forms, but Piene offers an early, modest precedent. Piene uses soot or peek-a-boo rays of light to penetrate the monumentality of sold forms. In 1957, Piene founded Group Zero with Heinz Mack as a way to investigate technology’s complicity in the trauma of WWII, and thus the legacy of perfectionist, technocratic modernity. “Zero was about the pure possibilities for a new beginning … The incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new,” says the artist, describing the utopian character of any project dedicated both to healing and preserving historical memory in the post-war era. For years, Piene would both research and pass on his aims to communicate simultaneously via art and technology, as a professor at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at MIT; he served as director for two decades. This is Otto Piene’s first solo show in New York since 1985.

CHERYL KAPLAN: How do you link the development of Group Zero in 1957 to your early paintings in the 1960s?

OTTO PIENE: I was one of the principals of Group Zero with Heinz Mack. We met on May 1, 1950, at the Academy in Dusseldorf. Later, we collaborated on an exhibition that intended to visualize the progress of science and engineering in Germany since WWII. The idea was, “Everybody should have a better life.”  At that time, I saw the first applied computers. But artists after the war turned against technology, because war is technology.

KAPLAN: You have continually looked to different technologies to create new ways of painting. Painting’s indexicality is immediately disrupted, although not entirely relinquished, because it’s not just about taking brush to canvas alone.

PIENE: In my mind, [technology] comes after the canvas.

KAPLAN: You mean as a way to transcend the conventional definition of a painting on canvas?

PIENE: Yes, which is why I introduced technical methods into the paintings.

KAPLAN: Throughout his six-volume anthology, Vision + Value (1965–66), Hungarian artist Gyorgy Kepes, founder of the Center for Advanced Visual Studiesat MIT, discussed art’s relationship to scientific, mathematic and architectural structures.

PIENE: I remember in 1964, a solemn gentleman walked into my first exhibition in the United States. I was showing works of light art and painting. It was Gyorgy Kepes, who was then teaching at MIT and wanted to create a new institute of art, science and technology. I became Kepes’ successor from 1974 to 1994. Kepes had a strong connection to Bauhaus and [Walter] Gropius.

KAPLAN: Kepes seems to have adapted the bureacratic structures of the war to his purposes. For instance, German scientists and mathematicians had been hired by MIT by the end of the war, to do advanced work in the theoretical and practical applications of computers and technology.

PIENE: Yes, [he was interested in] integrative thinking. In the 60s, the computer began to be used as a common tool in science and engineering. I first became interested in creating “sky art,” a term I invented for large outdoor sky and light projects that I was working on. One such project was for the 1972 Munich Olympics and involved a 1,600-foot Olympic Rainbow I created with “Doc” Edgerton, the inventor of the strobe light.

KAPLAN: In your work, Light Ballet (1959), you shined a light through stencils of grid paintings to make projections in the room. The projections have a surpising physicality, and instability. But it seems ironic that you would use the grid to demonstrate imperfection.

PIENE: Light is not only technical; it’s also about nature. At MIT, we believed technology wasn’t only a war medium, but could be used for healing, and to expand communication as a human means. After World War II. There’s a lot of negative, destructive light play in war. It was about grandiose terrible theater. A major element in war is communication both in terms of spy networks.

KAPLAN: Both light and communication function according to intervals and on/off switching. A signal is never constantly transmitted.

PIENE: That’s right. Light Ballet developed in relation to the [functions] of light and fire.

KAPLAN: Light Ballet is a work that comes directly out of a system of dots and dashes—codes, and an  interrupted signal where light is dispersed through a filter.

PIENE: In Light Ballet, light was projected through stencils. Those stencils came out of my earlier series of grid paintings. As a projection, i’s an interactive surface, not just a screen of photographic paper, but something influenced by movement in the room or of a player. Karlheinz Stockhausen did a corresponding performance. Later, I completed another project with the American Center in Paris, for which we sent and image of Ronald Reagan to Paris to be assembled, while someone in Paris sent us Giscard d’Estaing to reassemble here.

KAPLAN: Sounds like Reagan and d’Estaing were pixilated and reformatted, a kind of Star Trek “beam me up” moment where the body is turned into particles and then regains its corporeal self. When you were a soldier in Nazi Germany, did you see Speer’s “Cathedral of Light,” the 130 anti-aircraft searchlights that spectacularly dramatized the divine power of Nazi Party?

PIENE: No, I only saw pictures of it. But that [kind of display] didn’t start with Speer; it started in the early 1900s, with the battleships from the Kaiser Friedrich III maneuvers that were equipped with searchlights and paraded in front of the emperor. It was a big spectacle of technology. These things were frightening, impulsive and, I hate to say it, productive. It’s the dosage that makes the difference.

KAPLAN: In the 1960s, light and art became associated with experimental films, from Stan Brakhage to Michael Snow. It also was important in Ad Reinhardt’s work. Reinhardt used the “optical” as a way to change the terms of painting and perception.

PIENE: Ad Reinhardt was close in his attitudes to Group Zero. I was also one of the founders of the Black Gate Theater with Aldo Tambellini, which is often [attributed as the first TV program by artists].

KAPLAN: What’s your most recent project?

PIENE: I’m working on an architectural sculpture in Germany on a slag pile of a defunct mine. The memorial is a 30 meter high mining lamp, addressing coal mining and its economic history. The ongoing message is that the “Angel of Progress” can easily become the Devil over-night.