Following the horror of World War II a new kind of idealistic experimentation took hold for artists such as Otto Piene and Heinz Mack. They strove for new beginnings, their utopian ambition pushing them to dissolve global art boundaries and embrace the elemental forces of nature. By exploring the relationship between art, nature and technology through a wide range of media and the dynamics of colour, light and movement, the ZERO group opened up a new realm for art’s experiential possibilities. Having met in 1950 at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, Piene and Mack shared a studio on Dusseldorf’s outskirts and in 1956 they joined Gruppe 53, which was cultivating an artistic reputation in the Rhineland. Owing to the lack of institutional support for young artists at the time, Piene and Mack held their own late night exhibition viewings in their studio. Weeks after these one night proto-Happenings, Alfred Schmela opened a gallery close by which was to become the epicentre of ZERO activity. Schmela decided to host a show with Yves Klein, a pivotal moment in the development of the movement, and Klein’s revolutionary ideas regarding colour and the creative potential of fire and light inspired and impressed Piene and Mack.
The impact of his influence resonates throughout Rauchbild, the interplay of red and black echoing Klein’s respect for the power of colour. Klein’s work had expanded Piene and Mack’s horizons as well as their sense of a collective identity and as such their evening exhibitions grew in ambition and content. In need of formal expression for this newly developed mutual inspiration and modes of experimentation, the name ZERO was chosen late night in a bar close to their workshops. A title which could be universally understood, the term ZERO indicated “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'', The Times Literary Supplement, 3 September 1964, online).
ZERO disbanded in 1966 as the artists began to follow individual paths and take up gallery representation. However, the legacy of their varied output and engagement with one another still underpinned many of Piene’s works. A visionary artist of the twentieth-century avant-garde, his career spanned over five decades with Piene representing Germany at the Venice Biennale in 1967 and 1971. Today, his works are housed in numerous international museum collections that include: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the National Museum of Modern Art (MOMAT), Tokyo; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Investigating the notions of ephemerality, synaesthesia – the blending of the senses – and aesthetic experience, Rauchbild captures Piene’s obsession with the interconnection between nature and art, the piece itself suspending forever the alchemical process of burning. With its abstract aesthetic and unorthodox mode of production, the work perfectly embodies the zeitgeist of a generation of artists who radically changed the landscape of European art through an innovative and experimental approach to art-making.
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