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Otto Piene, Sketchbook: Groton, 2012. Photo: Charles Sternaimolo.

Harvard Art Museums Gifted Seventy of Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks

The Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has received a gift of seventy sketchbooks by German artist Otto Piene, a founder of the Zero Group. The works were donated by Piene’s widow, the poet and author Elizabeth Goldring. Dating from 1935 to 2014, the largely unpublished sketchbooks span the entirety of Piene’s career.

Piene began keeping sketchbooks when he was just a child and continued when he was conscripted as a Kindersoldat (child soldier) during World War II. According to the artist, “Even during the last weeks of the war, I constantly had a sketchbook and box of watercolors with me. [By war’s end,] I had finally lost all my belongings. I did not even have a toothbrush, but I always had my sketchpad and a box of watercolors.”

With Heinz Mack, Piene cofounded the Zero Group in Düsseldorf in 1957. Together, they reimagined art in postwar Germany and were joined by Günther Uecker in 1961. After the group dissolved, Piene traveled to the United States, where he became a fellow at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies; he later directed the institution from 1974 and 1994. At MIT, Piene integrated art and technology in a wide array of projects, ranging from his monumental kinetic installation Centerbeam, which was commissioned by Documenta 6 in 1977 and later restaged in Washington, DC, to his Sky Art events.

While Piene traveled extensively and retained a studio in Düsseldorf, which today houses the ZERO Foundation, he made most of his sketchbooks in Massachusetts. In the mid-1980s, he and Goldring converted a farm in Groton, Massachusetts, into their home and studio.

Commenting on the sketchbooks, Goldring said: “Otto’s sketchbook practice informed our lives together. He carried sketchbooks everywhere—on vacations, and to and from MIT. Every time he had a few minutes, he would sketch. The sketchbooks are the essence of what we did and what we were thinking. On the one hand, they are very personal; on the other, they aren’t personal—at least not in an anecdotal way—but rather universal.”

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