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Installation view: ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 10, 2014–January 7, 2015. (Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)

In addition to the name of a formidable art moment in midcentury Germany, zero is the final digit spoken before a rocket lifts off into outer space. The term in capital letters —  ZERO — initially appeared in a publication by Otto Piene and Heinz Mack in April 1958 following a series of spontaneously organized exhibitions organized by the two artists between 1957 and 1958. There are undoubtedly many stories attributed to the founding of ZERO in post-World War II Germany, as there were with the inception of Dada during the earlier Great War that raged outside the Swiss borders from 1914–18. Just as the blindfolded artist Tristan Tzara discovered the word Dada, meaning “rocking horse” in Romanian, by pointing to the word in a Romanian/French dictionary, so it seems the discovery of ZERO transpired nearly four decades later.

According to Heinz Mack, the year was 1958. Mack and his artist-friends Otto Piene and Gunther Uecker were sitting in a café with the intent of coming up with a name for their newly founded group. Suddenly Mack feigned an extraordinary interest in a book someone was reading at a nearby table, which the artist proceeded to ask if he could borrow. As Mack flipped through the pages he found the word ZERO on the final page of the index: It was the last word in the book, and the best word for their group!

Otto Piene, Light Ballet (Lichtballett), 1961–69. Left to right: Light Ballet (Light Drum), 1969, chrome, glass, and lightbulbs, height: 45.7 cm, diameter: 124.5 cm, Moeller Fine Art, New York; Light Ballet (Light Satellite), 1969, chrome and lightbulbs, diameter: 38 cm, Moeller Fine Art, New York; Light Ballet, 1961, metal armature, lightbulbs, electric motor, and rubber, 178 x 155 x 80 cm, Foundation MUSEION. Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Bolzano, Italy (© Otto Piene. Photo: David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)

While one may argue the profound differences between artists who exhibited with Group ZERO and those connected with early Dada, both were equally prone to present high-energy events and performances, to organize single-evening exhibitions, and to publish polemical writings sympathetic to their causes. Whereas Dada was part of the original avant-garde mania during the first quarter of the twentieth century, ZERO played a key role in the avant-garde revival of the late 1950s and 1960s, referred to by many as the “neo-avant-garde.” In addition to Group ZERO, this would be concurrent with the Happenings, Fluxus, CoBrA, and Gutai, among other related manifestations.

As for their intentions, goals, and purposes, Dada and ZERO could not be further apart. While the artists affiliated with ZERO were unanimous in their exploration of new materials or employing common materials in vital new ways, the contribution of Dada was primarily in recycling history through found materials, images, and objects, thus giving them a radical new context and appearance. While ZERO was focused on evolving a future aesthetic by equating creation with destruction, often ironically based on classical forms of time and space, Dada was more concerned with arguing against the past, specifically in their abrogation of the importance of bourgeois culture.

This featured exhibition, ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s and 60s, now on view at the Guggenheim Museum, is the first of its kind in the United States since 1965, when a smaller version was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. For many New Yorkers, ZERO will offer not only a first-hand look at many of the important works mounted in the alcoves on the ramp, but will also help clarify the participation of such preeminent figures as Piene, Mack, and Uecker, along with Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Jesus Rafael Soto, Yayoi Kusama, Enrico Castellani, Gerhard von Graevenitz, among others, most of whom are considered major artists throughout Europe. In addition, the mounting of ZERO offers an important hypothesis — that it is still possible to design a major exhibition with a balance between similar and divergent works based on a consistent and clear understanding of the space around them. Having seen too many lesser designed exhibitions over the past season where a major artist is shown in a manner that makes the work appear less significant than it is, as with Lygia Clark; or the opposite, where an all-out, cracker-jack design team gives an artist of lesser significance the appearance of an exhumed ready-made master, promoted on a grand scale.

Günther Uecker, “The Yellow Picture (Das gelbe Bild)” (1957–58) Nails and oil on canvas, 87 x 85 cm, Private collection (© Günther Uecker, photo: Nic Tenwiggenhorn)

Pol Bury, “Punctuation (Ponctuation)” (1959) Wood and electric motor, diameter: 70 cm. Private collection, Brussels, courtesy Patrick Derom Gallery, Brussels (© Pol Bury, photo: Courtesy Patrick Derom Gallery, Brussels)

At the Guggenheim’s ZERO show, one cannot easily ignore the craft in the radical Achromes of Piero Manzoni (1958–61, especially) or the staggering ability of Gunther Uecker to control the optical rows of nails in a work such as “White Bird” (1964) or the delicate play of invisible motorized devices found the contemplative panels of Pol Bury (1959). Some will delight in seeing an earlier sensitive Kusama from 1960, where oil on canvas is mixed with rice blossoms, a qualitatively superior work when compared with the artist’s more recent Pop-oriented paintings. While many viewers are familiar with Yves Klein’s IKB monochrome blue paintings, some of his most precise and intricate works are found in the Fire Paintings from 1961. More than likely, these influenced the Smoke Paintings of Otto Piene two years later, which came after Piene’s monochrome Stencil Paintings, completed during his important formative period in 1957/58. These paintings constitute some of the most ebullient and expansive work included in the exhibition. The constructions by Milanese artist, Nanda Vigo, who worked with varnished tin plates, are not well-known, at least in New York, but are extraordinary works, which further enhance the efficacy of Group ZERO. One would hope to see more in related forthcoming exhibitions.

Illustration from ZERO 3 (July 1961), design by Heinz Mack (© Heinz Mack, photo: Heinz Mack)

Perhaps the most celebrated “installation” work in this exhibition is Lichtraum: Hommage a Fontana, in which ZERO’s three co-founders — Mack, Piene, and Uecker — designed a space for Documenta 3 (1964) in Kassel, Germany in which their kinetic light machines interacted together. While the project might just as well have been an homage to Moholy-Nagy’s “Light-Space Modulator” (1922–30), the honor was bestowed instead on the concetto spaziale artist Lucio Fontana whose work exalted in the combined effects of both destructive and creative synergies, a principle that engaged the ZERO artists from the beginning.

In line with the Guggenheim, such an approach to quality in mounting an exhibition may also be found at Sperone Westwater on the Bowery in Heinz Mack: from ZERO to Today, 1955–2014. Given the intention of this show to present the co-founders of ZERO in a wider, broader and more recent context, in keeping with the designated role of a gallery, the selection of works — including an early masterwork, “Der Garten Eden (The Garden of Eden)” (1966/76). The exhibition offers a more concentrated view of Mack’s paintings, metal reliefs, and ready-made sculpture, quite different in concept and scale from his “Great Space Arrow” (1976) at Grand Erg Oriental or his towering Tunisian “Light Stele” (1968), among numerous other public-scale projects (many still unrealized) involving various forms of light.

By focusing attention specifically on the artist’s crafting of materials in traditional mediums, the show at Sperone Westwater gives a glimpse of Mack’s sense of completeness, his interest in beauty and finesse. In addition to scale and concept, it is important that these qualities are understood in relation to Mack, who, despite his early desire to enter into advanced art as an open-ended exploration focused on materiality, finally emerges as a classicist as carefully concealed as that of Matisse, whose work the artist admired at the outset in his career. This further suggests the manner in which the uptown exhibition persists in presenting the inextricable connections these artists had to objects, not only as forms of representation instilled with innovative ideas, but more correctly, as objects capable of transmitting ideas that were actually intended, without losing their essence to expand outward in their carefully articulated sensory delivery.

Heinz Mack: from ZERO to Today, 1955-2014 continues at Sperone Westwater (257 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 13.

ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s and 60s continues at the Guggenheim (1071 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 7.

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Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an internationally renowned art critic, curator, artist, writer, art historian, poet, and lecturer. He holds an MFA in Sculpture from...