Otto Piene (1928-2014)


Born in 1928 in Bad Laasphe, Germany, and raised in Lübeck, Otto Piene studied painting at the Fine Arts Academy of Munich and Düsseldorf from 1949 until 1953, as well as philosophy at University of Cologne from 1952 until 1957.

With Heinz Mack in 1957 he created the group ZERO, which aimed to give art a new definition after the cataclysm of the Second World War. The war generated a heavy sense of guilt among the youth: in order to exorcise the past, one must shed the old habits of the European culture by making art free from all circumstances – notably from growing materialism. The group also advocated attaching oneself to the representation of light, the dematerialised element and harmonious bearer of universality.

From 1958 until 1967, the homonymous art journal conveyed the principles of this revival, which rapidly flourished. The ZERO group became known throughout the world, not only in Europe but also in the Americas and in Japan. The group’s founders were joined by German Günther Uecker in 1961; in addition to the founders the group comprised 133 diverse artist collaborators, including Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana, and Jean Tinguely. Frequent group exhibitions were held, the first at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1965.

Otto Piene created the ‘grid picture’ in 1957: a stencil painting composed of semitone screens and covered with regular dots all in a single colour (yellow, white, silver), represented by Pure Energy (1958, MoMA).

Otto Piene experimented with the grid picture in 1959: he developed the Lichtballette (‘light ballet’) inspired by both Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), and László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator (1930). The Lichtballette featured mobile torches that project light through grids in order to stimulate and expand the viewer’s perception of space. Piene also invented the Rauchbilder or ‘fire paintings’ using natural sources of energy: candles or gas burners. A layer of solvent, once ignited, burns the paper support, which becomes covered with soot and creates organic forms. Otto Piene continued to use fire throughout his painting career.

Along with his partners the artist sought to intervene in the media. In 1963, he became the spokesperson for the ‘New Idealism’ (Neuen Idealismus), and in 1968 he created the first television programme produced by a visual artist (Aldo Tambellini Black Gate Cologne).

In 1967 Piene developed the concept of ‘Sky Art’ (so-called in 1969): he designed large helium-inflated installations in collaboration with scientists and amateurs, installed in rural or urban landscapes. The most famous is Olympic Rainbow, a giant flying sculpture – each of its five coloured tubes measuring 600m long – created for the closing of the Summer Olympics in Munich in 1972.

In 1968 Otto Piene joined the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), founded in 1967 by György Kepes, protagonist of the New Bauhaus in Chicago and proponent of collaboration between science and the arts. Piene became Professor of Environmental Art at MIT before succeeding Kepes as director of CAVS from 1974 through 1993.

He collaborated on the development of kinetic sculpture, Centerbeam, based on an idea by artist Lowry Burgess, first exhibited in Kassel, Germany in 1977, before being installed at the National Mall in Washington. The installation consists of laser images projected onto moving steam screens from a 44m long prism of water, solar-powered holograms, and helium structures rising in the sky.

Born from the most advanced artistic and technological innovations of the time, this ‘environmental’ work which, at night, becomes an ‘exuberant and friendly hell’, according to Piene, testifies to an art committed to living together, from its conception through to its installation in situ. For him, it is the ‘metaphor of a community of volunteers working in symbiosis every day (relations worthy of a democratic society)’.

In 1999, Piene presented the idea of Das Geleucht sculpture in the form of a miner’s lamp, a project for a 30m tall monument that he wanted to install on the Halde Rheinpreussen in Moers, Germany. In 2006, the sponsors gathered and the work, made of steel, glass, and LED lights, illuminated the night until 2007.

Otto Piene’s art bore, until his death in 2014, a renewed spirituality brought about by sharing – indispensable to the harmonious development of modern societies.

Piene’s work is represented in numerous museums including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

(Martine Heudron)

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