A Journey into Light
How Otto Piene Revolutionized Art

In cooperation with the Neue Nationalgalerie, the KunstHalle is celebrating Otto Piene. The double show became his artistic legacy: right after the opening the light-art pioneer died unexpectedly in Berlin at the age of 86. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on one of the most influential renewers of 20th-century art.
Scorching suns and supernovae—if you immerse yourself in Otto Piene’s color and fire images created between the 1950s and the 1970s, you might be reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. During the final sequence of the classic science-fiction movie from 1968, an astronaut arrives at a cosmic stellar gate, through which he reaches another dimension. He experiences a mind-blowing trip of light, color, and form, attaining a state of overwhelming seeing. His journey embodies a psychedelic evolution of humanity—overcoming the boundaries of space and time, the arrival of a new person.

The notion of a radical new beginning, setting out for unknown artistic, technological, and spiritual shores, are motifs that characterized Piene’s work for nearly six decades. Piene is of course synonymous with ZERO, the legendary artists’ group he founded in Düsseldorf in 1958 together with Heinz Mack, joined later by Günther Uecker. ZERO stands for the “0” of rocket launch countdowns, the “zero hour” for postwar Germany, reaching for the stars. “For the generation of Dubuffet and Tàpies, for the entire generation preceding us, the war and the soil were the defining experience: soil, matter, sand, mud,” said Piene in a 1961 interview with the art critic Wieland Schmied. “That meant taking refuge in a hole in the ground, in trenches, in dugouts, a final shelter from the horrible threats of war.” Piene—who was born in 1928, drafted into the military as a 16-year-old, and taken prisoner before studying art in Munich and Düsseldorf until 1953—was not traumatized in this way. In a very short time, he and the ZERO artists formed an international network, to which Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, Jean Tinguely also belonged. Piene set his sights very high: “Our defining experience was living an age when people dreamt of astronomic and cosmonautic adventures, in which they were capable of leaving Earth, of overcoming gravity. We are interested in light, in fire, in airstreams, in the unlimited possibilities for creating a better, more perfect world …”

The Deutsche Bank KunstHalle is devoting itself to the trailblazing early work of Otto Piene—with works from the Deutsche Bank Collection, smoke drawings, and light sculptures. The exhibition culminates in a light room created expressly for the show. At the same time, the Neue Nationalgalerie is presenting Piene’s slide performance The Proliferation of the Sun from 10 pm to 3 am. The double exhibition kicked off on July 19 with one of the artist’s spectacular Sky Art Events.

In retrospect, such optimism is touching. And the idea that people in the digital age could master technology and live in accordance with nature is virtually romantic in the face of all the social and ecological disasters. Nevertheless, the ZERO artists are experiencing a renaissance and being celebrated in exhibitions around the world. That may have something to do with the retro-chic quality of the works ZERO left behind: the happenings of the early 1960s with girls wearing oversized ZERO cardboard rolls, with spotlit balloons rising to the sky, with kinetic light rooms and psychedelic environments.

But perhaps people are fascinated by the optimism conveyed by the works of the ZERO artists, a sanguinity that is lacking today. The double exhibition More Sky, on view in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle and the Neue Nationalgalerie, gives us the opportunity to discover Piene in several respects. The interplay between the exhibition in the KunstHalle, which sheds light on the artist’s early work with international loans and many works from the Deutsche Bank Collection, and his slide performance The Proliferation of the Sun in the Neue Nationalgalerie, makes one thing perfectly clear: Piene was not just a romantic idealist and a pioneer of light and multimedia art. Working in close cooperation with technicians and scientists, he was a forerunner of a generation of artists today who work and conduct research scientifically, ecologically, and technologically. Without him and the light of ZERO we would surely view artists such as Ólafur Elíasson and Tomás Saraceno differently.

At the same time—and this is documented by More Sky—the interdisciplinary, multimedia revolution stems directly from his painting. As a reaction to the psychologically charged style of Tachism and Informel, Piene developed an entirely new technique. For him, the paintings of the “old world” are like suits of armor with “heavy frames” that the viewer is “forced into.” He wants his painting to be free of such obstacles, “the burden of the past, the blisters of the psyche.” The old, for Piene, is the dark: “I pierce it with light, I make it transparent, I take its terror from it, I turn it into a volume of power with the breath of my life like my own body, and I take smoke so it can fly.” The “grid pictures” and “smoke drawings” he has made since 1959 are dizzying and shimmering, vibrating with energy. They are executed mechanically: no brushstroke touches the canvas, but rather paint or smoke streams through cardboard or metal stencil sieves perforated by hand. The constellations created in this way recall images from space, atoms, and stars, as well as computer punch cards. For Piene, the painting becomes “an oscillation field for the appearance of pure energy and thus, finally, to the confirmation of the living.” From his “smoke drawings,” he soon developed “fire paintings” for which he burned pigment on the canvas. The bubbles and crusts that form give the circular compositions a strange depth, an alchemistic quality.

In 1959, Piene made use of the stencil sieves for his paintings to stage his first “archaic light ballet,” for which he used hand-held lamps and foils. “The light paints,” he says. He shines it through thousands of holes and, with every movement, different patterns are projected in the space. This effect inspired him to create mechanical light sculptures, which he later used to make kinetic environments: light theater or opera, multimedia pieces or light rooms, including Hommage à Fontana, the installation that Mack, Piene, and Uecker developed for documenta III in 1964. Rotating light radiates from perforated spheres and cubes, making the room vibrate. Viewers feel they are being penetrated by light, are at one with it.

When Piene arrived in New York with his Light Ballet in 1965, his light changed and made inroads into mass culture. He increasingly dispensed with the common understanding of art, combining high art with high tech, design, and film. For his exhibitions, he used the latest computer technology, and in his legendary Sky Events, which he realized with MIT in Boston starting in 1968, he had radiant polyethylene tubing, more than 300 meters long, float in the sky. His multimedia show The Proliferation of the Sun was conceived expressly for the Black Gate Theater he founded in 1967 with the film artist Aldo Tambellini as the first “electromedia” theater in New York. In the downstairs area of a cinema on Second Avenue underground films are shown continuously seven days a week, the audience lies on black pillows on the first floor. Slide projectors and carousel slide changers project a visual overload of film and over one thousand hand-painted slides into the dark space.

Piene’s art conveys alternative experiences —of community, dissolution of boundaries, immateriality. Thus, it is in tune with the zeitgeist. America is shaken by the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement is on the rise. Young peoples’ and subcultures’ experiments with sex, drugs, and music reach the mainstream. Kinetic art and experimentation with light come to epitomize modern life. Department stores in Manhattan decorate their windows with light art. Discotheques like the Electric Circus in New York unleash stroboscopic storms. As the art historian Tina Rivers writes in Group ZERO and the Medium of Light in 1960s America, Piene’s light sculptures were shown 1969 in the magazine American Home as an inspiration for home furnishing and even for people’s own living room light shows.

The ZERO light of romantic idealism in the European tradition, writes Rivers, was “domesticated” by the USA in the late 1960s. By becoming part of mass culture, she says, it is no longer the light of utopia, but of a very real technological world. Anyone who engages with Piene’s early work in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle and sees how The Proliferation of the Sun lights up the Neue Nationalgalerie designed by Mies van der Rohe might not find the vision of this art utopian, but very contemporary: a constant investigation of technology —without mastering it or being mastered by it.