WALKING INTO OTTO PIENE’S OFFICE at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge in 1999, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew Piene was one of the founders of the German artists’ group Zero and had been a practicing artist since the 1950s. I also knew he had enjoyed a long and illustrious career as the director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, having succeeded György Kepes in 1974 and served in that role for twenty years. The man I met was as distinguished in his demeanor as I had imagined, and yet he was also immediately open and generous, treating me as a worthy colleague even though I was a graduate student at the start of researching a doctoral thesis. Before that first meeting ended, he entrusted me with a manuscript of an unpublished, incredibly illuminating text he had written in the mid-’60s, “Zero and the Attitude,” and a few months later he and his wife Elizabeth took me under their wings in Esslingen, Germany, at the opening of the exhibition “ZERO aus Deutschland 1957–1966. Und heute” (ZERO out of Germany 1957 – 1966. And today), a show that gave me the first concrete glimpse into a history that had until then only existed for me in words and images.
These two personal anecdotes illustrate Piene’s dual role as author and teacher, a figure who imparted an important chapter in the history of art of the ’50s and ’60s to subsequent generations of artists, scholars, and curators, and an artist who continuously advocated for exhibitions that brought visibility not only to his own work and the original German group Zero but also to ZERO, the larger, international network in its various manifestations. Up to the very end of his life, he remained faithful to the ethos and spirit that inspired him and his friend Heinz Mack to undertake the challenging task of reviving the experimental art scene in post–World War II Germany. They did so by organizing single-evening exhibitions in their Düsseldorf studio, self-publishing three issues of ZERO magazine, and establishing relationships with colleagues working in various countries on the European continent, which had so recently and violently been divided by war. Rather than being paralyzed by the past, Piene was energized by the future, looking ahead to “tomorrow” and daring to hope for and dream of a better world. This positive outlook is certainly an important aspect of his legacy.
For Piene, such a world came into focus through his art, which often underscored that creation could arise from destruction (as, for example, with his fire and smoke works), and through his active efforts to connect with others, exchanging ideas and formulating joint—and often multidisciplinary—projects on various scales over many decades. Writing about Zero in 1964, he contended, “We are fond of collaborating and occasionally doing teamwork . . . but we are at the same time convinced that teamwork is nonsense if it tries to be an alternative to or rules out individuality or personal sensibility.” This paradoxical condition—wanting to clearly and forcefully express one’s own views yet simultaneously striving to collaborate with others—defined Piene’s career and life.
I feel fortunate indeed to have had the opportunity to spend so much time with Otto over the course of the last two years, as I prepared for the 2014 exhibition “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s,” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Just before traveling to Berlin last June, Otto came to the Guggenheim to discuss his works being presented there with me and my team. We finalized the scale and placement of a refabrication of his 1969 inflatable sculpture Venus of Willendorf. I continued to debate the details with him, since the 2014 version was significantly larger than the ’60s original (and so effectively a new work in what I had conceived as a historical show). But in the end, we agreed to proceed according to his wishes. Before he left for Germany, Otto said, “Valerie, I trust you.” Those simple words held so much meaning after the many years we had spent building a relationship that started out as that of teacher and student and ended up as a profound and productive combination of artist and curator and friends.
Otto passed away about three months before the show opened. Throughout “ZERO”’s run, I watched the inner and outer balloons comprising his Venus deflate to nothing and repeatedly be restored to their full size. Every time I looked at the sculpture, I felt Otto’s quiet presence. I understood the ways in which this work captured his fundamental belief that opposites can coexist; that what may at first seem to be lost can be reimagined and reborn in the present.
Valerie Hillings is curator and manager of curatorial affairs at the Abu Dhabi Project for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and is curator of “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s,” which was on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from October 10, 2014–January 7, 2015.