Countdown to the Future
ZERO at the Guggenheim in New York

The Deutsche Bank KunstHalle and Neue Nationalgalerie recently celebrated one of the most influential protagonists of West German avant-garde art, Otto Piene. Shortly after the opening the cofounder of ZERO died in Berlin. Now visitors to New York’s Guggenheim Museum can gain insight into this artist group’s spirit of optimism and revolutionary aesthetics. The Guggenheim is mounting the first large-scale ZERO survey in the USA. Subsequently, the exhibition will move on to Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. This comprehensive show, which has different emphases at each venue, is the culmination of the rediscovery of this movement, which began with the ZERO show at Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf in 2006.

The current exhibition embeds the three ZERO pioneers Otto Piene, Heinz Mack, and Günther Uecker in an international network of pioneering artists. Among the forty positions on view throughout the rotunda and the adjoining gallery rooms are likeminded artists such as Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Yayoi Kusama, Piero Manzoni, and Jesús Rafael Soto. And some of the artists on exhibit have almost been forgotten, including Hermann Goepfert, Gerhard von Graevenitz, and Uli Pohl.

The name ZERO, said Otto Piene, stands for “pure possibilities for a new beginning as at the countdown when rockets take off―zero is the incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new.” Fittingly, the programmatic title of the show is Countdown to Tomorrow. The exhibition focuses on artworks from the peak period of the movement in the 1950s and 60s. The works on show, including Piene’s kinetic metal sculptures with their reflective surfaces and light rooms, as well as Uecker’s nail works that play with light and shadow and Mack’s radiantly colorful “color constellations”, convey the upbeat sanguinity of ZERO.

With their slick and “impersonal” surfaces, the works of these artists were diametrically opposed to the gestural, expressive brushstrokes of Art Informel and Tachism. After the horrors of World War II, they sought a new beginning together and offset the past with a pure, bright world. Instead of using brushes and canvas, the ZERO artists worked with fire, light, and smoke, created artworks out of nails, aluminum plates or glass. Rotors and mirrors gave the light reflections infinite scope. They even dreamed of conquering the sky and the desert with their art. And they actually implemented these plans – Piene with balloon sculptures at his legendary Sky Events, while Mack traveled to the Tunisian desert and the Arctic to stage his objects in barren landscapes, which he subsequently documented in his film Tele-Mack (1969).

At the end of the show is the Lichtraum: Hommage à Fontana (Light Room: Homage to Fontana) that the ZERO group created for documenta 3 in 1964. With the Silvermill and the White Light Mill, it includes the only works made together by all three artists. A timer controls rotating machines that dynamize the room with light. Here exhibition visitors can immerse themselves in a virtually cosmic sphere. Light and movement, continual change that dissolves space and time – that is the essence of ZERO.

ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s
10/10/2014 – 1/7/2015
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York