Otto Piene


In 1957 Otto Piene founded the Zero group, with Heinz Mack, in an emphatic rejection of tachiste painting. He then began making his “Rasterbilder” (Dot compositions), “shadow drawings” and “shadow pictures,” and fascinating light sculptures. These “Lichtballette” (Light ballets) exhibited in Cologne in the early ’70s, were quasi-hallucinogenic light shows involving mechanical objects rigged with countless lightbulbs resembling lamps or disco balls, projected into dark spaces. The recent retrospective of Piene’s projects confirmed the strength of these works, as well as his “Sky Art” pieces and more recent pictures.

In his early compositions, Piene sought to create painting out of light, claiming that art could, through a synthesis of nature and technology, simultaneously address emotion and reason. His biography suggests how much his activities helped to transform his youthful “Zero” ideas into a cohesive concept. Born in 1928, he attended the Düsseldorf Akademie for several years, before studying philosophy in Cologne. During this period, however, he was also publishing Zero magazine, in collaboration with Mack, and in 1968 he created the first artist’s television production for the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, a broadcast station in Cologne. A performance in the studio, this piece involved “light ballet,” inflatable objects, and actors.

In 1968 Piene was invited to work under the auspices of CAVS (The Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), eventually serving as its director from 1974 to 1993. His work at the Institute and his research experiences at CAVS/MIT were included only in the catalogue to his retrospective, but the importance of innovative technology to his project could be gleaned from the works on display. Before his light objects of the ’70s had become the works for which he would be best known, and before their design qualities began to overwhelm his artistic concept, he developed wind sculptures, which he called “Sky Art,” in which flags, banners, articles of clothing, and balloons fluttered through the air or rose straight up into the sky. These gigantic objects included flowers or abstract forms inflated with helium. In 1978 CAVS launched its first large, collective project. Called Centerbeam, this forty-four-meter-long artmaking machine yielded a theater piece involving light, video, and even lasers. And, memorably, as part of the “Ars Electronica” exhibition in Austria in 1982, Piene sent Charlotte Moorman up into the air with her cello.

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.