One of my favorite exhibitions of 2014 was “ZERO, Countdown to Tomorrow.” Open through tomorrow, the show features work by European artists who sought to redefine art following Europe’s devastation in World War II–in essence, to start art over in a world that wholesale violence had physically, politically, psychologically, and philosophically transformed. Their experimental approaches and use of unorthodox materials like smoke, fire, metal, glass, and nails led to the development of innovative painting forms including the monochrome and the serially structured painting. Anticipating Minimalism and Conceptual Art, the ZERO artists crafted idea-based objects that incorporated movement and light, pulsating and blinking an urgent SOS, exhorting us to look more closely at nature, technology, and our interaction with both.
[Image: Enrico Castellani, b. 1930, Castelmassa, Italy. Untitled, 1959, nails and paint on canvas, 79 × 59 cm. Private collection, courtesy Tournabuoni Art © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rom]
Founded in 1957 by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene in Dusseldorf, ZERO eventually grew to include Günther Uecker and a loose affiliation of like-minded artists from other countries who believed that art must change to reflect their new political and cultural reality. The artists succeeded in re-establishing bonds that had been broken during the war, and cultivated new pockets of avant-garde activity in less well-known art communities like Amsterdam, Antwerp, Düsseldorf, and Milan.
Although some critics have compared the paintings in this show unfavorably with the “atemporal” abstraction (formerly known as Zombie Formalism) popular among collectors and auction houses today, the artists of ZERO couldn’t have been more different. They were passionately interested in progress, moving art forward, testing ideas, and creating something new–not providing product for an over-heated market. Unfortunately, the look of this work, rather than its important engagement with politics and culture, is apparently what most interests audiences today.
One important thought I took away from the show was that “newness” and “progress” are not in and of themselves content. During the ZERO era, creating a new type of art was a metaphor for starting over, for remaking a badly broken continent.
Yves Klein, b. 1928, Nice, France; d. 1962, Paris. Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 44), 1955, dry pigment in synthetic resin on canvas, mounted on panel, 41 × 136 × 3 cm. Private collection © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.
Henk Peeters, b. 1925, The Hague; d. 2013, Hall, Netherlands. Pyrography 60-06 (Pyrografie 60-06), 1960, burned plastic, 100 × 120 cm. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Pictoright Amsterdam. Photo: Courtesy Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Piero Manzoni, b. 1933, Soncino, Italy; d. 1963. MilanUntitled, 1961, soot on paper, 41.5 × 58.5 cm. Private collection, Brussels © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Herman Huys, courtesy Galerij De Vuyst.
Rejecting the then-dominant styles in European art, Tachisme and Art Informel, which emphasized gestural abstraction and personal expression, the emerging generation of ZERO artists devised new approaches to painting. They explored the use of single colors and serial structures to achieve a minimal aesthetic. Klein’s Monochromes series proved influential. By limiting his palette to one color and applying dense layers of pigment in an all-over treatment, he downplayed the hand of the artist. Rather than focusing on the personal expression that was central to Art Informel, he pointed to painting’s capacity to convey immaterial concepts. Starting in the late 1950s, a number of ZERO artists also experimented with monochrome painting, developing distinctive interpretations and exploring parallel interests in light, structure, and new materials. Otto Piene used stencils to lay paint on canvas in grid-like patterns intended to emphasize the play of light. In a related approach, Brazilian artist Almir Mavignier created works with patterns of colored paint droplets with pointed tips. Heinz Mack applied serial lines to his paintings to generate a sensation of dynamism. Günther Uecker enlivened the surface of his monochromes with utilitarian materials like corks and nails, while Enrico Castellani used nails to create pictures that initially look like flat, single-color paintings, yet upon closer examination reveal themselves to be dimensional reliefs. Other members of the ZERO network also turned to everyday materials ranging from cotton threads to roof tiles. In his Achromes (1957–63), Piero Manzoni tested the limits of the medium by employing unusual, colorless materials like bread and Styrofoam.
The potential to create the optical impression of vibration through serial structures and grid formats was a source of great interest to ZERO artists, who explored both real and virtual movement in their works. Mack and Piene co-edited three issues of a magazine titled ZERO (1958–61); the second volume included a frontispiece repeating the word vibration, the theme of that issue and a concept underlying much of the work made by artists in the network. As the exhibition demonstrates, many ZERO artists used motors to create kinetic artworks. A prime example is Uecker’s remarkable New York Dancer I (1965). Reflecting the simultaneous influences of Sufi whirling and the energy of New York, the dynamic sculpture represents the stirring of the burgeoning youth movement in the 1960s and creates a cacophonous soundtrack as nails strike one another.
ZERO artists emerged from their individual experiences of World War II determined to embrace a positive approach to both art and life. In their hands, such ostensibly destructive acts as burning, cutting, and nailing became creative ones. Photographs and film footage (a selection of which are shown in the exhibition) capture these physical engagements, from Fontana slashing through canvas to Uecker shooting arrows into his pictures to Klein, Peeters, and Piene “painting” with fire and smoke. Action—and actively engaging the viewer—was also the key to a series of live events undertaken by ZERO artists. A notable example is ZERO: Edition, Exposition, Demonstration, held in and outside Düsseldorf’s Galerie Schmela in 1961 and conceived by Group Zero. The performative evening involved Günther Uecker marking a “Zero zone” with white paint, and other participants blowing bubbles and launching a balloon in the night sky. It unfolded around a large and enthusiastic crowd that included artists like Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik.
Throughout the course of ZERO’s history, light, movement, and space remained central concerns. The artists broadened their work beyond painting and sculpture to include the creation of installations and explored unorthodox sites for showing art. By the early 1960s, artists in the ZERO network had begun wide-ranging experiments with innovative formats, materials, and techniques. They insisted on having total freedom to create art in new ways and show it in nontraditional exhibition spaces. This in part reflected a palpable excitement about new frontiers in the wake of the historic space exploration projects of the era. ZERO artists embraced the potential of space—in both its literal and conceptual senses—by filling whole galleries with their environmental works and turning to nature, specifically the desert and sky, as a viable site for art. The elements of air, earth, and fire figured prominently in many projects, and light continued to be an important subject and material. Piene used light and air to animate his sculptures of the period, while Uecker’s sand spirals, which were presented on the floor, brought nature into the space of culture. Mack’s Sahara Project (described in print in 1961) proposed the placement of works in the desert in order to facilitate various experiences and promote a heightened awareness of light and space. ZERO artists saw no contradiction in drawing on both nature and technology for materials and sources of inspiration in t heir efforts to call attention to the significance of light, movement, and space in contemporary society and culture.
Concluding the exhibition is Light Room: Homage to Fontana ( Lichtraum: Hommage à Fontana), an installation Group Zero presented at Documenta 3 (Kassel, West Germany) in 1964. This installation, which is being shown for the first time in the United States, includes a slide projection of a painting by Fontana; individual contributions by Mack, Piene, and Uecker; and, most importantly, the only two works made collaboratively by the trio. Lichtraum encapsulates the ZERO artists’ innovative approaches to light and movement and encourages experiential encounters rather than mere looking. It also reflects the network’s ambitions to foster connections among artists without obscuring individual authorship.
An excellent 5-minute video in which curator Valerie Hillings talks about the ZERO project and some of the artists talk about their work:
“ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s and 60s,” curated by Valerie Hillings, Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY. Through January 7, 2015. Artists include: Arman, Armando, Bernard Aubertin, Agostino Bonalumi, Robert Breer, Pol Bury, Enrico Castellani, Gianni Colombo, Dadamaino, Paul DeVree, Piero Dorazio, Lucio Fontana, Hermann Goepfert, Gerhard von Graevenitz, Gotthard Graubner, Jan Henderikse, Paul Van Hoeydonck, Oskar Holweck, Yves Klein, Yayoi Kusama, Walter Leblanc, Francesco Lo Savio, Adolf Luther, Heinz Mack, Piero Manzoni, Almir Mavignier, Christian Megert, Henk Peeters, Otto Piene, Uli Pohl, George Rickey, Dieter Roth, Hans Salentin, Jan Schoonhoven, Jesús Rafael Soto, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, Günther Uecker, Jef Verheyen, Nanda Vigo, and herman de vries. Related posts: Otto Piene is dead Responses to “Zombie Formalism” Speculating on Andy Boot and Zombie Formalism New Image Painters challenge Zombie Formalists
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