New York

View of “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s,” 2014–15, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. From left: Otto Piene, Light Ballet (Light Drum), 1969; Otto Piene, Light Ballet (Light Satellite), 1969. Photo: David Heald. All Otto Piene works © Otto Piene/Artists Rights Society   (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Germany.

View of “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s,” 2014–15, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. From left: Otto Piene, Light Ballet (Light Drum), 1969; Otto Piene, Light Ballet (Light Satellite), 1969. Photo: David Heald. All Otto Piene works © Otto Piene/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Germany.

“ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s”

View of “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s,” 2014–15, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. From left: Otto Piene, Light Ballet (Light Drum), 1969; Otto Piene, Light Ballet (Light Satellite), 1969. Photo: David Heald. All Otto Piene works © Otto Piene/Artists Rights Society   (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Germany.

RATHER THAN ARTWORKS, visitors entering the ambitious “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s” exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York were immediately confronted by a large glowing screen. Mesmerically cycling (and visible from either side), the projection showed a celebratory crowd of mostly young people standing on a nighttime street—cute girls in strange outfits stamped with the number 0, a man swabbing the same 0 onto the pavement with white paint, a group launching an oddly shaped hot-air balloon into the sky. Made for the Hier und heute (Here and Today) television program of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (whose watermark, WDR, graced every frame), the loop inserted us into its telegenic circuit—confirming that before ZERO could be understood as art, it was a media event.

This curatorial strategy produced a dramatically different context from the spotlit drama of Sperone Westwater Gallery’s exhilarating 2009 show of Zero in New York. If the gallery elevated the objects at the expense of the group’s actions, the Guggenheim reversed the equation, emphasizing the artists’ own historical efforts at magnification and contagion through advertising—evidenced through such precise “branding” as the orthographic detail of using the mixed-case “Zero” moniker to signify the core founders (Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Günther Uecker) while reserving the all-uppercase “ZERO” for a looser network of multinational artists. Significantly, the Guggenheim adopted the latter spelling for its exhibition title and excellent catalogue, allowing for the incorporation of several artists (Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana) whose fame preceded and attracted the young Zeros and others not usually associated with the group (Daniel Spoerri, Robert Breer). Rather than attempting to codify the German Zeros’ mentality directly, this grab-bag approach shadows the larger group’s own historical patterns of curation. As this show argued, the common purpose of artists in this sprawling array was their opposition to Parisian Informel, along with a commitment to non-figurative abstraction. The emerging emphasis was on a kind of geometry that gradually questioned the stasis of painting and moved into kinetic, serial, and ostensibly participatory modes.

The Guggenheim narrative does little with the quiet 1957 coinage of the “Zero” name in a Düsseldorf bar by Piene and Mack. It shows instead how artist-led initiatives throughout Europe amplified the Zeros’ antiexpressionist concerns: how the Belgian G58 artists embraced the Zeros in 1959; how the German group was swept into shows in the Milan gallery Azimut (run by artists Manzoni and Enrico Castellani) in 1960; and how the Dutch assimilated Zero into their Nul exhibitions after 1961. Although the show was studded with gorgeous objects and attentive to the collectors and artists who provided them, its true engine was ZERO as a branded conglomerate magnifying artist-organized exhibitions through sympathetic coverage by postwar media outlets hungry for change. “ZERO” thus became greater than the sum of these artworks—but also lesser, as objects faded into the background. The exhibition’s curator, Valerie Hillings, its catalogue essayists, and even its artists stayed on message throughout: “ZERO” was telenetworked.

But what, exactly, were the Zeros’ many Demonstrationen demonstrating? Telegenicity itself, perhaps, but also the glimmerings of what German sociologist Gerhard Schulze would eventually castigate as Erlebnisgesellschaft (the experience society). For the Zeros in 1961, the street events were never to be confused with the art itself, which could be traded in a recovering art market (signaled by important new venues such as Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf and Howard Wise Gallery in New York). Occupying the street to announce a show and a publication, “demonstrating” in favor of art and nothing else, was point enough—the WDR film crew clearly shared the sentiment in that 1961 clip looping at the Guggenheim’s entrance. A dour housewife is shown looking out her window, hand skeptically framing pursed lips as she watches Uecker clownishly painting his big 0 on the pavement; a few minutes later, she is cut back into the footage, utterly transformed. Her arms relaxed and open, she smiles broadly at the merrymakers down below: those “Zero maidens” in bouffant hairdos, crowds blowing soap bubbles, Piene and Mack burning selected pages of their third ZERO book as the hot-air balloon makes its drunken ascent.

Streets in Germany had not been this playful for quite some time. The Zeros’ message emerges here as media in and of itself (a supergraphic arrow pointing in 1961 to the gallery entrance, no less than the WDR coverage), but it also signals the possibility of art-as-event. Even if the Zeros would not capitalize on this aspect of their production (which would also be ignored by Harald Szeemann and Wolf Vostell in their curatorial promotion of such “Aktionen” in the late 1960s, focusing instead on the New York “Happenings and Environments” group and the Fluxus network that it fueled), their demonstrations proved that artists didn’t need anyone to work their own publicity. Emphasizing art’s capacity to cultivate a specific relation to audiences, they proclaimed: “ZERO sind für alles” (ZERO is for all). By 1966 there was another slogan, this one created by a marketing firm and posted over the Bahnhof Rolandseck in promotion of a ZERO show in Bonn: “Zero ist gut für Dich” (Zero is good for you). Germany’s toxic recent past was systematically converted by each of these gestures into optimistic carnival—explicit in the Zeros’ publications, in the cooperative media coverage they solicited, and, finally, in their shimmering objects, whether white (Uecker), silver (Mack), or kinetically projected light (Piene). This is the ready critique of “ZERO,” that their silver-glitter technofuturism (not so different from Warhol’s) was utterly inappropriate to the German “situation.” Was it somehow more permissible for the Belgian, Netherlandish, or French artists who got on the same bandwagon?

In bringing ZERO’s dazzling objects together in the face of such persistent historical questions, the Guggenheim did us all a favor. Even if crammed into an awkward, poorly lit space, treasures such as Mack’s 1964 Silver Dynamo offered a completely satisfying aesthetic experience. Purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York the year it was made but rarely seen since, it comprises a slowly rotating ridged metallic disk that serenely pulsates and shimmers behind banded glass, the emerging interference patterns forming a fully legal hallucinogen. No wonder the Wall Street Journal judged this Guggenheim show to be “one of the most cheerful . . . this season.” A crowd-pleaser then and now, yet somehow forgotten in between: This is the conundrum that attends both Zero and ZERO.

ZERO’s evanescent message did come through, even if it was somewhat muddied by sloppily inconsistent labels and descriptions. (Does it matter if a 1961 film is now described as “digital black-and-white video” despite obvious transferred hairs and dust from celluloid? And should we accept the translation of Piene’s Rasterbild as merely “stencil painting,” destroying the redolent techno-history of the raster?) Parallel streams of discourse converged: Even as labels, catalogue, and numerous projected videos reminded us of the tireless events animating the ZERO conglomerate, the art objects on view, austere and mutely abstract, still held their ground. But that contrast was artificial. Documentation only emphasized that the kinetic objects in this installation were, for the most part, silent and still. Their stasis must largely be blamed on the museum’s decision to provide electricity to historically active artworks for absurdly brief spans (one minute on the hour, three minutes on the half hour, fifteen seconds every ten minutes, and so forth; the happy exceptions were the recently refabricated version of Spoerri’s 1959 Auto-Theater and the still-functioning but glitchy 1962 Acentric Structure by Gianni Colombo). These restrictions had their rationality. They recalled, on the one hand, the historical conventions by which the Zeros themselves choreographed kineticism among assembled works (as in their showing at Documenta 3 in Kassel in 1964), and they presumably preserved fragile mechanisms. But on the other hand, they constituted the exhibition’s most intensely frustrating aspect, silently reminding visitors of the museum’s deadening relation to a humming past.

Simulacra of that activity were offered aplenty, at both ZERO and Zero scale, from documentary footage of patron saint Klein orchestrating a fire painting to a conservationist-approved contemporary film of Uecker’s whirling cloak of nails, New York Dancer, 1965, in shimmying action. All of this documentation seemed to be condensed into a very specific media bubble by a single second of the WDR Hier und heute segment of the show: There, among the bubbleblowers, one could spy Joseph Beuys raising a little plastic wand, another zero, to add his breath to the evanescent orbs of soap wafting from the crowd.

The presence of Beuys at that 1961 event—where, as the catalogue reports, he “accidentally” kicked over Uecker’s bucket of whitewash and interrupted the promotional Zero painting—mobilized an uncanny echo in the Guggenheim. After all, it was here that Beuys’s honey pumps, felt-laden sleds, and fat once sagged on Frank Lloyd Wright’s ceremonial ramps (in 1979). The contrast with ZERO is nachträglich—belated, a deferred echo of history as it actually, traumatically, happened. For all of their touching handworked technology and hopeful messaging, the Zeros’ brand died, whereas Beuys’s (for better or worse) ruled the century. The fact that both art entities emerged from Düsseldorf sharpens the irony of their juxtaposition. Navigating the inframince between blood and soil as charged ideology versus alchemical media, Beuys occupied an exceptionally messy site, in which his own wartime Nazism secured a radioactive contact zone with the past. By contrast, Mack, Piene, and Uecker offered the koine of sublimation: beautiful, technologically romantic, sometimes even transformative, but above all strategically transcending the recent past.

Of course, this transcendence was useful for others looking to “move on,” in contrast to the mire of Beuys’s faux history, celebrated by Szeemann as “individual mythologies” or “obsessions.” There was only one Beuys, but for the ZEROs, as long as you were optimistic, energetic, and abstract, you could join their game. And that generosity paid off, at least for a while. This exhibition made it possible to sense how the ZERO operation could curatorially encompass, if only for a moment, works that ranged from Breer’s suprematist romp of a film, Form Phases IV (1954), to the fabulously erotic undulations of Pol Bury’s 1961 Soft Erection, to Hermann Goepfert’s elegantly theatrical Optophonium, 1961–62, to Manzoni’s 1963 Achrome, its kaolin-coated Styrofoam pellets looking fresh as a daisy.

But does ZERO’s diverse brief cohere into a discernible politics? Are Uecker’s literally whitewashed streets connected to the creepy hygiene of the Italian ZERO Castellani? The latter had castigated tachism and Informel in terms all too familiar from the days of “degenerate” expressionism, decrying “a fashionable tendency arising out of a macabre taste for all that is pathological and materially fetid in the human condition.” Piene’s delicious 1961 dream of “expansion on every side, the shooting of the viewer into space, where he can breathe deeply of fresh air” similarly sours in the context of Mack’s 1968 implantation of Zero in the Sahara. Finally realizing a vision from 1959, Mack’s crusade was waged largely for the production of Tele Mack, a forty-five-minute 16-mm film in which, again, WDR had a hand. Here the proposal for thirteen “stations” (would one more yield a via dolorosa?) becomes activated by a Mylar-suited, now middle-aged German artist, throwing and planting mirrors and plastics in the pristine North African sand—a sculptural conquest that can’t help but recall Marx’s aphorism: first as tragedy, then as farce.

Caroline A. Jones is a professor of art history in the history, theory, and criticism program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA.