Sperone Westwater presents a retrospective of painting, sculpture, and installation by Otto Piene, the co-founder of the ZERO group, who died in 2014 at the age of 86. Embodying several important themes in the artist’s work across six decades, the exhibition is the first solo presentation of Piene’s work in New York since his 2010 exhibition at Sperone Westwater. Piene was featured prominently in the Guggenheim’s 2014–2015 survey exhibition “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–1960s,” as well as in major ZERO group exhibitions in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Istanbul. In the past two years, Piene has been the subject of four solo retrospectives in Germany and one in Iran.
Red Sundew 2, 1970, an early inflatable sculpture, is installed for the first time since its initial exhibition at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Piene’s first inflatable sculptures, the Fleurs du Mal, 1967–1969, initiated an influential series of projects the artist called Sky Art. These large-scale, outdoor inflatable sculptures took the sky itself as a backdrop and introduced a performative element into the artist’s work. The earliestSky Art events later evolved into massive technological feats contextualized by their surroundings.
A selection of major red paintings in the main gallery, including Kilauea, 1975, spans the artist’s career. These works underscore both Piene’s fascination with the color as it relates to fire and the ZERO group’s preference for the monochrome as a testing ground for light and its manifold effects. In 1963 Piene wrote, “My greater dream concerns the projection of light into the wide night sky, the feel of the universe, as presented in the light, pristine and unhindered—the sky is the only place that offers to humankind almost unlimited freedom.” With their performative sense of gesture, these paintings should be seen in relation to the ongoing Sky Art projects.
Light was Piene’s primary source of inspiration, and his series of Rasterbilder (screen pictures) gave this theme significant form. The series began in 1957 with Piene’s development of the technique in which he pressed oil paint through cardboard and metal screens onto paper and canvas. Using screens he made in 1957, Piene returned repeatedly to the Rasterbilder over a period of nearly sixty years, expanding the technique into new areas of his research. Important early raster paintings on board are juxtaposed in the gallery with later raster paintings incorporating fire from the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the early 2000s, Piene extended the technique into an innovative series of ceramic works employing special metallic glazes.
The radical Lichtballette (light ballets), in which Piene first projected light from electric hand lamps through his raster screens, produce an otherworldly spectral dance engaging science, nature, and technology. Among the earliest extant Lichtballet objects is a painted and punctured cardboard disc from 1960, once mounted on a manual turning apparatus. An eight-part Lichtballet installation is dominated by theMönchengladbach Light Wall, 2013, reflecting Piene’s ongoing exploration of this concept. Four unique examples of Piene’s Lichtgrafik (light graphic) series from 1959 to 1962 capture fleeting glimpses of the Lichtballette in diazotype on light-sensitive paper.
Die Sonne reist (The Sun Travels), 1966, a rare depiction of a red sun moving through the sky, suggests a dynamic cycle of light, fire, and energy. Along with other early works made with fire, this ZERO-period canvas contextualizes a suite of “fire gouaches” made a few months before Piene’s death. Utilizing metallic and black papers for the first time, these works are marked by an unusual luminosity, both heightened and diffuse. With their robust dimensionality, the 2014 “fire gouaches” are a bold final experiment from a restless innovator.