'Zero is the silence. Zero is the beginning. Zero is round. Zero is turning'
W hen Heinz Mack, Otto Piene and Günther Uecker penned their manifesto together in 1963, the Düsseldorf-based artist group Zero had already been in existence for four years and had sparked a movement that, hailing from the Rhine, threw the post-war art world into turmoil. Zero meant the zero hour, the new beginning after the destruction of World War II, the start of a new art without the baggage of the past, which was now suddenly more than just painting and sculpture – an art that used light, glass, fire and mirrors, that created objects and surfaces which shimmered and cast shadows, that set its surroundings and beholders in motion. In short, Zero ignited a rocket that flies to this day.
This positive background noise was reflected in the group’s purist aesthetic. Vibrating light structures, series of sequences, monochrome surfaces and kinetic constructions - up-ended everything viewers had previously believed they knew about art. White was the colour of the day: grids and lattices transformed the hierarchy of the gaze towards a holistic perception.
The Zero artists and their like-minded friends abroad, who also formed groups such as the Nul group in the Netherlands, strove to do justice to a modern reality and a general sense of progress and new awakening, after the world had looked into the abyss of humanity during the War. They wanted to express a new intimacy with life and the cosmos; they were enthused by unexplored spaces and aesthetic utopias at a time when the still-fashionable gestural painting of Informalism remained firmly rooted in death and the earth, resembling an abstract war trauma.
What Zero contributed to the future of art, particularly to the concurrent and subsequent artistic movements, as Io Art, Arte Povera, Minimal Art and Conceptual Art, can therefore not be overstated.
‘The central theme of Zero is the new beginning, the reflection on the essential and the silence that emerges when the concentration is reduced to space, light and shadow'
‘The central theme of Zero is the new beginning, the reflection on the essential and the silence that emerges when the concentration is reduced to space, light and shadow. This approach is incredibly relevant today and something that many people can identify with,’ says Eva Donnerhack, Head of Fine Art Sales, Germany. ‘Zero is synonymous worldwide with the ground-breaking art movement from Germany, which asserted its international influence early on and inspired numerous subsequent art movements’.
As part of the September 2022 Modern & Contemporary Auction at Sotheby’s Germany, at the Palais Oppenheim in Cologne, is a small, delicate aluminium relief, Lichtstruktur (Light Structure) by Heinz Mack, who founded Zero together with Otto Piene in 1959.
Mack’s work, in its kinetic fashion, dynamically incorporated its environment and represented something completely new.
Mack, the pioneer of the movement, toyed with the medium in a hitherto-unprecedented fashion, leading to his artworks being perceived as neither paintings nor sculptures, but rather as objects – a concept that is taken for granted in art today but was completely new at the time. In addition to this, he breathed life into his mirrored surfaces by means of reflections of light, a touch that had never been deliberately employed in Europe before. Despite building on the reduced abstraction of Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich or Antoine Pevsner, Mack’s work, in its kinetic fashion, dynamically incorporated its environment and represented something completely new.
Playing with light and shadow in space is also a main theme in the work of Günther Uecker, who joined the group in 1961. One of the highlights of the auction, his 1962 work Reihung (Sequence) dates from a time when the artist, today probably the best-known of all the Zero artists, was still working in a notably stripped-down manner. In this case, he added nails to a whitewashed wooden panel in a distinct grid formation, thus creating a unique Uecker trademark.
The underlying energy that radiates from Uecker’s work as a whole can already be discerned in this work - the eye perceives a slight vibration in the structure, almost as if it were created by a ghostly hand, the effect varying, depending on the angle of the light and the movement of the eye. Nails and wooden structures, originally industrial objects, here become a softer-looking, poetically-charged piece that forms an intriguing relationship between space and the beholder. The origin of Reihung from the Stiftung für Konkrete Kunst in Deutschland (Foundation for Concrete Art in Germany) underpins the indisputable relevance of this early work.
The Dutchman Jan Schoonhoven belonged to the Nul group in his native country, which embraced the Zero idea in 1961, with a programmatic show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Schoonhoven's white wall objects are also characterised by repetitive, non-hierarchal grid forms that offer the eye no fixed point. His R 70-41 offered here dates from 1970. The handcrafted nature of the work, a clear contrast to the lattice structures of Minimal Art, generates small imperfections that give Schoonhoven's work a wonderfully organic quality.
Light, captured by the three-dimensional surface lattice, once again plays the central role - the grid seems to wander as you look at it. This piece comes from the collection of Max Imdahl, one of the most influential German art historians of the post-war period. Imdahl, who also consulted for documenta, was closely affiliated with Galerie m in Bochum – a central location for Concrete art, with which Schoonhoven is also associated.
With the inclusion of works by the renowned Düsseldorf sculptor Norbert Kricke, Sotheby’s is bringing an important forerunner to the Zero movement to the auction. Kricke would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year – the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg is dedicating an exhibition to him in late autumn 2022 to mark the occasion. The works on offer have been part of an important European private collection for more than 30 years and are now being auctioned for the first time.
The two sculptures, Raumplastik (1955-56) and Flächenbahn (1957) are emblematic of Kricke's idea of drawing in space: his consistently abstract works consist of metallic, dynamically- composed lines that stand for movement and untethered penetration into their surroundings. He can be regarded in this sense as a pioneer of the Zero Group, who understood art above all, as being about energy, movement and freedom.