Otto Piene, 1928-2014


Otto Piene, German artist and co-founder of the postwar art group Zero, died July 17 in Berlin at 86. The cause of death has not been revealed. Piene is known for his technology-based artworks, which often used light in kinetic sculptures. He lived and worked between Düsseldorf and Groton, Mass. He was in Berlin for the opening of “Otto Piene, Open Sky,” a retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle (through Aug. 31).

After studying art education in Munich and Düsseldorf and earning a degree in philosophy from the University of Cologne, Piene founded Zero with fellow German artist Heinz Mack in 1957. Zero aimed to reinvigorate Germany’s art scene by creating dynamic, minimalist works using common industrial materials­­. In the 1960s, the group grew to become an international art movement, with followers like Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni.

Piene’s work often employed combinations of art, nature and technology. Light projected through one of his perforated paintings in 1958 led to a fascination that would last the rest of his career, as Stephen Maine wrote in A.i.A. in 2009. In 1965, he first showed Light Ballet, a kinetic sculpture involving light, metal and glass, at New York’s Howard Wise Gallery; he would create several subsequent versions of the work. In 1972, he unveiled Olympic Rainbow, a sculpture comprising five 1,500-foot-long colored inflatable tubes, which were released into the sky at the close of the Munich Summer Olympics. Piene participated in three editions (1960, 1964 and 1977) of the quinquennial contemporary art exhibition Documenta in Kassel, Germany.

The artist served as director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1974 to 1994.

“[Piene’s] paintings and installations entail extraordinary means and rudimentary technologies,” Cheryl Kalpan wrote in an interview on the occasion of the artist’s 2010 exhibition at Sperone Westwater in New York. “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.”