In the 1950s with the predominance of Art Informel and the lack of attention for young German artists, Mack and Piene conceived in their studios the Abendausstellung, evening exhibitions of aspiring local artists, each lasting only for a single night. Accompanying these exhibitions were three ZERO publications that contained a combination of artists’ writings and exhibition catalogues. In March 1959, the first major international exhibition of ZERO – Vision in Motion, Motion in Vision – opened to critical acclaim in Antwerp. Over the 1960s, ZERO artists featured in a number of major European exhibitions, most notably the exhibition Nul 1965 at the Stedelijk, where Mack and Piene invited participation from as far afield as the Japanese Gutai.
Mack and Piene’s Untitled paintings, created between 1959 and 1969, encompass the crucial decade for the movement. Made in the seminal year of ZERO’s first international show, Mack’s Untitled embodies the artist’s latest experimentation with juxtaposing countless numbers of horizontal or parallel lines to conjure an impression of mechanical dynamism. The vertical scratch-like calligraphic marks in Untitled recall Fontana’s precise incisions through the canvas in the Concetti Spaziali, conveying the artists’ shared interests in repetitious and mechanical movements.
Adopting a more alchemical strategy in the exploration of science and art, Piene appropriated fire – the Promethean spark of life – in making his work. In his famous Rauchbild series, he channelled smoke through filters to force pigment and soot onto paper and canvas. In Untitled, Piene joined together a series of these charcoal-coloured, ashen rings, conjuring a wave-like pattern that evokes the image of light particles travelling through space. For his Rasterbild series, the artist covered canvases in plaster and made intricate patterns of tiny holes on the painting’s surface. Echoing the pristine whiteness and alluring texture of fellow ZERO artist Piero Manzoni’s monochrome china clay paintings, Untitled testifies to the group’s aim in establishing a re-definition of pictorial space, in the process engendering a new dialogue between artwork and spectator.
Through their heroic efforts and utopian vision, Mack and Piene succeeded in weaving together a network that rekindled the ties between the fragmented countries and artistic groups of post-war Europe. Unleashing a much-needed optimistic energy through their exhibitions, artistic treatises and publications, ZERO not only reinvigorated European post-war avant-garde, but also left a lasting influence over subsequent international art movements, from Minimalism and Conceptualism to contemporary light and Op-art. As the major retrospective at the Solomon Guggenheim museum in 2014 demonstrated, Mack and Piene’s legacy continues to be felt and their spirit of hope remains relevant today.
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