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Berlin Honors Otto Piene

With the artists’ group “ZERO,” Otto Piene revolutionized post-war art. His interdisciplinary work inspired contemporary artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Tomás Saraceno. Only days ago, Otto Piene opened his two-part exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle and the Neue Nationalgalerie. Now, the pioneer of light art has died unexpectedly in Berlin; his exhibitions have become an artistic legacy.
A rainbow lights up in the dark of the night: it’s hard to think of a work of art more fitting for the closing Olympic celebrations in Munich. On September 11, 1972, Otto Piene’s 700-meter-long, helium-filled balloon sculpture presided over the lake on the Olympics grounds as a universal symbol of consolation and hope following the terrorist attack on the Israeli team.

In 1961, Otto Piene declared: “Yes, I dream of a better world.” And this optimistic, utopian spirit can be felt in every room of the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. In cooperation with the Neue Nationalgalerie, it celebrates a great artist of the 20th century whose interdisciplinary work has also inspired younger generations of artists. His grid and fire paintings, the light rooms and ballets, and not least Sky Art Events such as the Olympic Rainbow stand for a new art that seeks to transform the world into a more humane place; an art that symbolizes freedom and even conquers the sky.

At the KunstHalle, the chronologically organized exhibition sheds light on Otto Piene’s early work. The focus here is on important works of the ZERO years, presented as points of departure for his further artistic development. Drawings Piene made in 1952 shortly before he completed his studies at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf greet the visitor at the beginning of the exhibition; they convey a feeling of lightness and joy in living, with figures floating weightlessly on a white background.

Piene departed from figuration quickly. Together with Heinz Mack, he founded the pioneering artists’ group ZERO in 1957, which Günther Uecker later joined. According to Piene, ZERO stands for the “immeasurable zone in which a former state transitions into an unknown new one.” Elegant kinetic sculptures embody the new and counter the heavy, dark canvases of the Informel movement. Canvases are divested of brushstrokes: In his grid paintings, Piene works with perforated stencils through which he presses the oil paint onto the canvas. The results are patterns of raised round shapes, as in SolŒil (1958) from the collection of the Neue Nationalgalerie—a composition in yellow and gold with a magical aura. Radiating at the center of the painting is a sun in a mandorla, an almond-shaped aura of the kind found in early Christian art. Equally impressive is the series Addis Abeba from the Deutsche Bank Collection: four large-scale silkscreens with motifs reminiscent of an exploding flower. It’s hardly surprising that Piene has frequently called his works “energy fields.” At the KunstHalle, they make the darkened rooms glow.  

“We can’t possibly create enough light, because our world is dark enough and it’s been dark for too long a time,” the artist has said. “We need the light, and this is why it’s a substantial part of my work.” And indeed, the exhibition culminates in one of his hypnotic light rooms, where visitors can immerse themselves in an almost cosmic sphere in which Piene’s kinetic objects send myriad points of light and reflections dancing over the walls. The Neue Nationalgalerie invites visitors to a “poetic space flight,” where they can experience Proliferation of the Sun each evening from 10 pm to 3 am, a slide projection that premiered in 1967. Brilliantly colorful forms from over 1,000 hand-painted glass slides are projected into the open space in Mies van der Rohe’s glass cube.

The two-part show aptly opened with one of Piene’s legendary Sky Art Events, supported by Deutsche Bank. Progressing from works with floating light objects and filled balloons already made in the framework of ZERO, Piene developed his “air sculptures” in the late 1960s. On the evening of July 19, 2014, three illuminated balloon sculptures up to 90 meters high rose up into the sky above the roof of the Neue Nationalgalerie—also, now, in memorial to one of the most important German artists of the 20th century.

Otto Piene. More Sky
An exhibition cooperation between the Nationalgalerie—Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
7/17 – 8/31/2014

Sky Art Event
July 19, 2014, starting at 5 pm

Additional information can be obtained at