Following the cultural wreckage wrought by World War II, European artists sought new meaning for a new world. As the long shadow of catastrophic conflict gradually diminished in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, a generation emerged that left resentment behind and embraced increasing optimism and prosperity. The ensuing explosion of creativity, groundbreaking experimentation and collaborative interchange precipitated a movement that today defines the very zeitgeist of that fast-changing new order: Zero. Founded by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene in the late 1950s, Zero grew rapidly, engendering a protean body of work that collectively presaged subsequent developments in Conceptual art, Minimalism and Land art. This autumn the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York is hosting the first major survey of Zero art by a major museum in America. ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s will chart the development of some 40 artists across Europe, Japan, North and South America, to unpack the significance of this movement and its immeasurable impact upon the development of visual culture of the past fifty years. In further celebration of the movement the Contemporary Art Evening Auction comprises a selection of keynote works by the major founders and protagonists of Zero, including a remarkable smoke picture from 1961 by Otto Piene; a nuanced monochrome by Heinz Mack; a celestial Concetto Spaziale by Lucio Fontana; a major light sculpture by Adolf Luther and a magnificent Feu painting by Yves Klein. Today we are still held in awe by the stunning vitality and relevance of these extraordinary objects, which remain the physical manifestation of Otto Piene’s iconic 1958 statement: “Zero is the incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new” (Otto Piene, 'Die Entstehung der Gruppe ‘Zero’', The Times Literary Supplement, 3 September 1964).
Experimenting with a plethora of unprecedented media and formats, Zero overturned conventional boundaries of painting and sculpture and created new forms that supplanted tangible and fixed appearances in art. Zero artists realised historic advancements in light and space art as well as forms of performance, kinetic and environmental art. The Zero phenomenon enveloped some of the most important names from across Europe and beyond. From Otto Piene, Heinz Mack, Günther Uecker, Gotthard Graubner, Adolf Luther, Gerhard von Graevenitz, Hermann Goepfert, and Raimund Girke in Germany; to Yves Klein, Arman, François Morellet, Victor Vasarely and Jesús Rafael Soto working in Paris; Jan Schoonhoven and Herman de Vries of the Netherlands; the Belgians Pol Bury, Walter Leblanc and Jef Verheyen; from Italy, Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Enrico Castellani, Agostino Bonalumi, Piero Dorazio, Gianni Colombo, and Turi Simeti; Christian Megert from Switzerland; and finally Roman Opalka in Warsaw. Despite having developed quite independent aesthetic dialects, these artists shared a communal spirit of inquiry: to explore relationships between art, nature and technology through the dynamics of colour, light, and movement. The group’s chief proponents insisted that Zero emerged as a collection of like-minded individuals who shared certain ideals, and that artistic association developed organically through mutual inspiration and friendship.
Otto Piene and Heinz Mack had met in 1950 at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. They shared a studio above an old lathe shop in a partially ruined building at 69 Gladbacher Straße on Dusseldorf’s outskirts, and in 1956 joined Gruppe 53, which was cultivating a growing artistic reputation in the Rhineland. As illustrated by Rauchbild, Piene started to create works with smoke and fire, forcing pigment and soot through filters onto paper and canvas, while Mack’s early paintings, as propounded by Die Vibration der Stille were loaded impasto monochromes before he developed multi-faceted structures fashioned in reflective aluminium and stainless steel. Acutely conscious of the absence of institutional support for artists, these two highly resourceful and energetic young artists resolved to orchestrate their own arena for presenting work. On 11th April 1957, after more than a year’s planning, the first of a total of nine evening exhibitions took place under the leaking roof of their very modest studio. These one-night proto-Happenings, typically involving a lecture and a gathering of guest artists in a party-like atmosphere, were to transform the tradition of the formal exhibition.
Just weeks later Alfred Schmela opened a gallery in a tiny, twenty-seven square metre space on Hunsrückenstraße and this was to become the epicentre of Zero activity. Dynamic and charismatic, Schmela (1918-1980) was a trained architect and painter and later in his career would go on to host solo shows by Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Jörg Immendorff among many others. For his very first exhibition he decided to show Yves Klein despite, apparently, never having seen one of the artist’s works. Although Mack had first met Klein during a previous visit to his Paris studio, at the Schmela opening they saw each other again in the context of the exhibition. Both Piene and Mack were deeply impressed by his revolutionary ideas involving colour and the creative potential of fire and light. Soon after the show they visited Klein in Paris, and the importance of these early encounters was later testified by Piene: “Yves Klein has perhaps been the real motor in provoking a Zero movement. His personal influence as our friend and his artistic power may have set loose our activity in 1957 toward Zero …His influence, however, came from his personal genius” (Otto Piene, 'Die Entstehung der Gruppe ‘Zero’', op. cit.).
As Piene and Mack’s Evening Exhibitions grew in ambition, participation and content, it became clear that their new project required a more formal identity. After the fourth show on 26th September 1957, in the bar opposite Schmela’s gallery called Fatty’s Atelier, they decided on the name Zero. With this they chose a word that could be universally understood and so represent a truly international association. It signified a break with the past and a positive future: “The title Zero was the result of months of search and was finally found more or less by chance. From the beginning we looked upon the term not as an expression of nihilism – or a dada-like gag, but as a word indicating a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning as at the count-down when rockets take off” (Otto Piene, 'Die Entstehung der Gruppe ‘Zero’', op. cit. ).
In tandem with the rapid proliferation of the movement, in 1959 Mack was introduced to Lucio Fontana. Mack had been profoundly impressed by Fontana’s Spatialist holes and slashes at the 1956 Venice Biennale and the inclusion of the already widely-renowned Fontana within Zero was to markedly change the scope and profile of the movement. Twenty or thirty years older than most of the Zero artists, he was admired for his very considerable reputation as well as his generosity of spirit. Piene met Fontana for the first time in 1961 and in his opening address for the 1962 Fontana exhibition at the Schloss Morsbroich in Leverkusen declared: “Fontana’s piercing of the canvas with the stiletto and the knife tears the curtain from prejudices that want to make us believe the world has to be and must remain the way it is of necessity. Behind Fontana’s canvas, directly through it, space opens out…Defining this space, which becomes visible, which is not made up or calculated, is as impossible as describing freedom. This is where we begin to feel space” (Otto Piene quoted in: Feuilleton, 3 April 1962, n.p.).
Inevitably this collective recognition led to fluctuating opinions of individual reputations, and most Zero artists began to establish themselves with galleries and became only partly dependent on Zero collaboration. Eventually Zero disbanded in 1966 after a final joint exhibition at the Städtische Kunstsammlungen Bonn under the motto Zero is good for you. The final elegy for the passing of this epic decade of artistic endeavour has been deftly provided by Heinz Mack: “In 1966, Zero ended on a positive note. On one night, over a thousand people celebrated. I myself had hoped for an end like this: an end that I found just as liberating as Zero’s beginning” (Heinz Mack quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Dusseldorf, Galerie Schoeller, Gruppe Zero, 1989, p. 18). Ultimately the legacy of Zero and its hugely varied output has been immense and can be readily identified amid artistic tendencies from the late 1960s onwards, from the Fluxus movement to Arte Povera, Conceptual Art, Land Art and Minimalism to name but a few. Indeed, as magnificently redolent within each of the following works by Piene, Fontana, Mack, Luther and Klein, the collective ambition and pioneering strength of Zero has bestowed a legacy of unqualified art historical import.
Header: Heinz Mack, Zero Diagram, 1966 © DACS 2014