PRINT December 2009

Caroline A. Jones

Henk Peeters (far left), Günther Uecker, Heinz Mack, unidentified, Monika and Alfred Schmela (right), Düsseldorf, 1960.

ONLY IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY have the cargo cults of modernity given us handmade objects that mimic so intently the processes of industrial manufacture. Even more surprising are the rare instances in which those objects accurately predict the unfolding of a modernity whose future has been otherwise wrested from their makers’ hands. At times, that accuracy is exhilarating in its conceptual force; at other moments, the match between the modernist past and a commodified future is merely formal, and the art collapses into kitsch. Sperone Westwater’s show on Zero last winter in New York (organized by David Leiber, the gallery’s director, and Mattijs Visser, founding director of the Zero Foundation) gave us a good chance to gauge both outcomes for this short-lived, ambitiously international group of artists operating out of Germany in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Long marginalized for their association with what Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has called the “obvious obsolescence” of geometric abstraction in the postwar period, Group Zero is ripe for reappraisal. Otto Piene’s “raster paintings”—some of which predate the forming of Zero proper—now appear to be more than just modestly sized abstract canvases: They seem to forecast the technocratic subject to come. Digital displays made of cloth and oil paint, the Rasterbilder force us to scan small, repeating dots of a single color that have been applied by hand to a canvas in seemingly meaningless iterations. In advance of Lichtenstein and Warhol and free of their figural compulsions, Piene was “being a machine.” Indeed, raster, an uncommon term outside the German language at that time, simply describes any mechanical operation that moves back and forth in a linear fashion to convey its load onto a support: colored thread or deposits of fabric dye across a given medium, or (in a barely televisual Germany) electrons on a television screen.

The raster paintings signal the unrealized potential of the Zero group. Neither Bauhaus precise nor Hartung expressionist, they were, as Hans Haacke recalled in a recent interview, compellingly noncompositional—a way out of questionable human nature into something else altogether. On the one hand, the raster might be expected of an artist such as Piene, who was then teaching fabric design in postwar (West) Germany and struggling to catch the accelerating train of technological design and engineering that had been hijacked by the US. On the other hand, a more metaphoric usage of the raster was already being deployed in the “yes/no” signaling models of Konrad Zuse, the underfunded German tinkerer who produced the first binary computer (destroyed in an Allied air raid in 1944) and—seemingly without knowledge of Charles Babbage or Anglo-American computing—proffered an entirely digital theory of the universe.

The raster paintings intuited this future, pointing down a path of radical self-abnegation by replacing disegno with iteration. But most of the Zero artists—certainly Piene himself—subsequently detoured to a romantic, subjective middle road. They were, after all, trying to find common cause with more established European and even Asian art-world figures: Yves Klein in Paris, but eventually also Piero Manzoni and Azimuth in Milan, Nul in the Netherlands, Gutaï in Japan, and (with openly “neutral” politics) such Eastern-bloc groups as Zagreb’s Nove Tendencije and Poland’s Unism. The Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) formed themselves as Zero types in Paris around 1960, although they later rejected the Germans as being too idealist. Thus the tirelessly antinational organizing of Zero (its name chosen for its commonality across languages) modeled a kind of interchange that has since become familiar (Fluxus, anyone?). And this endeavor was frankly utopian—for postwar Germans, a decade of hysterical alienation from the rest of the world needed to be forcefully, tirelessly, and cheerfully annulled, even across new cold-war divides.

Beginning with one-night exhibitions in Piene’s crumbling studio on the edge of Düsseldorf, Zero initially managed without a market, appealing to city newspapers rather than nonexistent art critics to spread the word. Studio visits were key nodes of contact, as trains shuttled from Düsseldorf to Paris, Amsterdam, or Milan. Zero’s allies and connections are all mapped out in Heinz Mack’s diagram of 1966 (the endpaper for the terrific Zero NY 1957–1966 catalogue Sperone has published with the Zero Foundation, an English adaptation of the comprehensive exhibition catalogue assembled by Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunst Palast in 2006). A network of vectors and energies, Mack’s ideation of the Zero system is notable for its exclusion of those artists operating in the massive entities of the US and the USSR—art worlds that would truly govern the modernities emerging from Europe in the postwar period. And the invocation of systems was evinced not just in Mack’s plan but in the kinds of processes that Piene’s raster paintings had hinted at, stimulating artists and theorists at the periphery of the Zero generation, such as a young Haacke and the future “Software”-show visionary Jack Burnham. Later, these younger artists’ and theorists’ attention drifted away from what Piene himself admitted were the idealist tendencies of the core Zero group, but for about eight years it was the hottest ticket in town.

Otto Piene, Untitled (Rasterbild) (Untitled [Raster Painting]), 1957–58, oil on canvas, 38 x 26 7⁄8".

Typical of Zero’s turn to romantic idealism was Piene’s departure from the iterative raster paintings for works made with smoke (à la Klein) applied in larger shapes onto the canvas, coupled with a decisive move to kinetic projecting machines, as he began to engage the group’s overarching obsession with light. Light was the visible equivalent of Zero, “a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning as at the count-down when rockets take off—zero is the incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new,” as Piene wrote in 1964 (in one of many primary texts available in translation in the catalogue). Emanated via Piene’s Moholy-Nagy-like “light ballets” and projected performances, reflected from Günther Uecker’s white-coated surfaces studded with nails, and refracted by Mack’s beveled mirrors and geometrically molded acrylic reliefs, light formed the basis for Zero’s technolyricism (doomed, in the case of Mack, to be assimilated to the kitsch of a bed-and-bath showroom). Carved out of darkness, light furthered their mystical aims to purify color from the mud of art brut and tachism, their actions “opposed to the informel and neo-expressionism” of an earlier generation, in their own words. Light also sublimated the group’s thinly veiled fascination with what Klein had identified in 1958 as the “problem [of our] atomic age, where everything material and physical could disappear from one day to another, to be replaced by nothing but the ultimate abstraction imaginable.”

Core organizers of this parliament for ground zero were Piene, Mack, and Uecker. Fighting the impastoed tabulae rasae of Dubuffet and the “Eden of academic tachism,” they sought to utilize “the tools of actual technical invention” (Piene) in “open mechanical arrangements” (Mack). They staged exhibitions and Happening-like “demonstrations,” most of them in Düsseldorf and many at night. The “objective” (if cryptopoetic) pictures of raster operations gave way to playful encounters staged with “Zero maidens,” soap bubbles, homemade transparent-plastic hot-air balloons, and placards that reminded Germans working like dogs for the economic miracle that “Zero ist gut für Dich” (Zero is good for you). Viewing the objects of Zero today, we might want to imagine one of those historical events, where objects weren’t the half of it. We would have had to peek into a shuttered gallery to see those sculptures and pictures, the real action being the energetic demonstration outside, one of which a bemused journalist described at the time as full of “control panels, television spotlights, a lot of smoke and above all a lot of noise . . . a tape with instrumental sounds, speeches, tinny noises, popular tunes, the pealing of bells, cosmic sounds, ringing and Morse signals.” At Sperone Westwater, monochromes and reliefs predominated, but a few carefully installed kinetic pieces, including a Piene “light ballet” and a Tinguely work that incorporated a sputtering transistor radio, hinted at the more unruly atmosphere that these objects once entailed.

Like the evanescent bubbles and hot-air balloons of their “demonstrations,” the group quickly faded, dismantling after one last great party in Bonn in 1966. Allies such as Klein and Manzoni had both died by 1963, and within a few years critic-supported movements in France and Italy (Pierre Restany’s Nouveau Réalisme and Germano Celant’s Arte Povera) had gained control of the European discourse, if not its markets. It was Uecker who announced the official end of Zero, abandoning collaboration to pursue an individual art practice in 1966; Piene went to the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies in 1968; Mack moved into the design of public space. And as with so many of the embodied practices of the late ’50s and ’60s, the full range of Zero’s productions continues to elude most art histories, particularly given the erasure of their actions from the official narratives of a cyclical European avant-garde.

But while Zero did not outlive its manifestos, its objects can still be gathered to whir, glitter, brood, and project for us its members’ handmade visions of the technological sublime. We can thank Sperone Westwater for the decision to assemble the group’s now muted and denuded works. Detached from their neo-Dada events, they must be seen as perceptual and performative instigators of a fleeting sociality that only history will mourn.

Caroline A. Jones is a professor of art history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.