New York

Heinz Mack, Lamellen Relief, 1967–68, aluminum, Plexiglas, wood, stainless steel, 48 1/2 x 40 3/8 x 3 1/2".

Heinz Mack, Lamellen Relief, 1967–68, aluminum, Plexiglas, wood, stainless steel, 48 1/2 x 40 3/8 x 3 1/2".

Heinz Mack

Heinz Mack, Lamellen Relief, 1967–68, aluminum, Plexiglas, wood, stainless steel, 48 1/2 x 40 3/8 x 3 1/2".

In 1958, in Düsseldorf, Heinz Mack and Otto Piene formed the group Zero, publishing a journal by the same name and staging one-night exhibitions in Piene’s studio. Expanding in 1961 to include Günther Uecker, who with Mack and Piene formed the core of the undertaking, Zero came to be associated with myriad international groups, such as Gutaï in Japan and Nove Tendencije in Yugoslavia. Yves Klein, working in the Rhineland at the time, was briefly affiliated with them.

Important to Zero’s eclectic output was a consideration of natural phenomena; the group imagined a kind of sculpture that would, in the words of Piene, “harmonize the relationship between man and nature—nature [which] offers enormous impulses, from the elements: the sky, the sea, the Arctic, the desert, air, light, water, fire.” Mack, in particular, was interested in sculpture that conveyed light’s immaterial effects. The question of this exhibition of Mack’s metal reliefs made between 1957 and 1967, the innovative years of his creativity, is whether they live up to this ideal.

It is not clear that they do. Lamellen Relief, 1967–68, fabricated from aluminum, Plexiglas, wood, and stainless steel, is unequivocally material. However responsive to light, and thus seemingly fluid, its rippling surface comprises a stable yet eccentric grid of discrepant sections: The rows gradually become thinner from bottom to top. While the amorphous light may illuminate the formal grid—as though in a perceptual epiphany, and break its silence, so to speak—the grid is primary and the light secondary. Similarly, the coils of perforated aluminum in Box of Light Spirals, 1966, are not made of “primordial” light, however much this notion may inform them. There are five kinetic works in the exhibition, but they are also formally structured, with whatever dynamic twist, and material.

Minimalism was emerging in the ’60s; and, as his interests in the repetitive character of the grid and the spiral suggest, Mack’s work embodies a Minimalist sensibility. This is further evident in his use of materials associated with industry, like metal and Plexiglas. Moreover, his steles recall Newman’s vertical “zip” sculptures (for example, Here I [To Marcia], 1950, with its contrast between richly textured and slickly smooth surfaces, both materially vivid), and his columns evince Brancusi’s Endless Column, 1918. These affinities show that Mack shares Minimalist concerns because he and the Minimalists were influenced by the same artists.

The columns, like the grid and spiral, are serial structures composed of finite geometrical forms that implicitly extend infinitely. I suppose that shows the artist’s spiritual aspiration, but their materiality reveals they are bound to the earth. The fact that Mack raised several columns in the Tunisian desert in the 1960s suggests this emphasis on matter. Do these works symbolize a hopeful new beginning for postwar Germany, however much they seem to allude to its old imperialistic triumphalism? The pieces are certainly less morbid than the backward-looking work the German neo-expressionists were making at the time.

Donald Kuspit