São Paulo

Christian Megert, Parede espelhada e móbile (Mirrored Wall and Mobile), 1963, mirrors, wood, thread. Installation view. From “Zero.”

Christian Megert, Parede espelhada e móbile (Mirrored Wall and Mobile), 1963, mirrors, wood, thread. Installation view. From “Zero.”


Christian Megert, Parede espelhada e móbile (Mirrored Wall and Mobile), 1963, mirrors, wood, thread. Installation view. From “Zero.”

Arriving in São Paulo after stops in two other regional centers in Brazil, “ZERO” opened with a darkened gallery featuring three works by Otto Piene, in which volumetric forms housing electronic lamps cast a dance of light and shadow on the surrounding walls, owing to their static and rotating perforated surfaces. As a curatorial statement, this selection of work (which included the artist’s well-known Light Ballet, 1961) affirmed Piene’s statement in the first issue of ZERO, the official magazine of the eponymous Düsseldorf-based group, which he founded with Heinz Mack in 1958. He explains that art should arrive at “color as true color, as light, as energy.” The words evince how explicitly these artists framed their enterprise against the dominant trend of art informel. In place of subjective expressionism and painterly materiality, the Zero artists harnessed movement and light, both natural and artificial, in response to the new technological conditions of the postwar period.

In line with such shifts, the adjacent gallery displayed Piene’s Light in August, and Mack’s Light Vibration, both 1958, demonstrating how their engagement with light encompassed both painterly application and evanescent reflections on an aluminum surface, respectively. Tellingly, this gallery included works by members of the pairs’ loosely knit circle of collaborators. Here, Yves Klein’s presence was exemplary; he consistently explored changing notions of the material and immaterial in his work. Moreover, Klein was a key reference for Zero—for instance, in his use of natural elements such as fire to produce the exhibited Blue Monochrome with Burn Holes, 1957, made the same year that he created invisible work of “immaterial pictorial sensibility.”

Though she showed with Zero artists in an exhibition of kinetic art in Bern, Switzerland, in 1965, the inclusion of Lygia Clark’s Bicho—Rélogio de sol (Critter—Sundial), 1960, points to both the exhibition’s strength and its shortcoming: The show demonstrated Zero’s international scope but failed to articulate crucial differences between artistic practices and contexts. That Zero and Brazil’s Neo-concrete artists, such as Clark, both challenged the conventions of painting is not at issue. But Zero-affiliated artists (e.g., Piene, but also Klein and Jean Tinguely) increasingly moved their work toward mechanization and kept an eye on its possible reception via television. As the journalist Gerd Winkler put it, Zero produced “art that is meant to be screened.” In contrast, the short-lived Neo-concrete movement was deeply invested in the here and now of an art object’s phenomenological perception. Clark’s Bicho, composed of intersecting metal planes on hinges, literally requires spectators to push on a plane to create a new relation with the work.

An insistence on continuity, rather than discontinuity, also pervades the exhibition catalogue, in which curator Heike van den Valentyn and art historian Paulo Venancio Filho assimilate such international movements to a univocal understanding of kinetic art, as in Valentyn’s forced comparison between Gego and Klein. Despite such misrepresentations, it’s important to remember that other South American practitioners who were represented in the exhibition, such as Almir Mavignier and Jesús Rafael Soto, directly collaborated with Zero, often producing work that formally approximated the group’s concerns. In this regard, Abraham Palatnik’s chromo-kinetic Vertical Sequence S-30, 1965, was a welcome inclusion. His use of moving light began as early as 1949, the year of Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Environment, which uses ultraviolet light. Indeed, it is on account of these contacts and common experiments across continents that one begins to take stock of Zero’s variegated international network, which included cities such as Düsseldorf, Paris, and Milan, and participation in exhibitions, both in Europe and beyond, with artists from Mexico (curiously absent from the exhibition), Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina. This exhibition plainly showed how the group remains an important, but certainly not the only, reference for the postwar period’s kinetic and transnational trends.

Kaira M. Cabañas