Otto Piene, “Die Sonne reist” (1966), oil and fire on canvas, 26 3/4 x 37 3/8 inches (all images courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York) (click to enlarge)

The victors and the vanquished approached the development of avant-garde art in the aftermath of World War II in markedly different ways. The American side, canonized as the Abstract Expressionists, responded with excessive emotion, violent brushwork, and epic scale. The Germans who turned to abstraction sought instead to erase the artist’s touch from their works, along with conventional materials and at times the object itself.

This was the stance adopted by the Zero Group, which was founded in Düsseldorf in 1957 by Otto Piene (1928–2014) and Heinz Mack (b. 1931), and later joined by Günther Uecker (b. 1931). The ideas promulgated by the group anticipated the concerns of the Minimalists and Conceptualists in the U.S., but where the latter two camps saw their work as the inexorable endgame of formal purity, the Zero artists envisioned their art in terms of “a new beginning,” as Piene wrote in an article published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1964: “as at the countdown when rockets take off—zero is the incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new.”

Otto Piene: Sundew and Selected Works 1957–2014 at Sperone Westwater on the Lower East Side is something of a follow-up to the gallery’s Heinz Mack: From ZERO to Today, 1955-2014, which coincided with ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s, the historical survey held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, from October 10, 2014 through January 7, 2015.

The Sundew in the title refers to “Red Sundew 2” (1970), the maraschino-cherry-colored kinetic vinyl sculpture that dominates the gallery’s ground floor. Stretched nearly from wall to wall, the piece resembles a wide curtain with an entryway cut in the middle, where six pneumatic tentacles emerge and ultimately blossom into clusters of long, finger-like cones. Every so often a compressor sitting on the floor kicks in with a vexing roar, filling the tubes and cones with air for several minutes before the motor turns off and they droop back into flaccidity. The effect is sweet, funny, sad, and menacing.

Otto Piene, “Red Sundew 2” (1970), 119 x 220 x 48 inches (click to enlarge)

Originally made for an exhibition that took place in Hawaii in 1970, the only previous time it was ever shown, “Red Sundew 2,” with its whimsical theatricality, seems to operate on an entirely different plane from the paintings surrounding it. Dating between 1966 and 2000, all of these works were made by first covering a canvas in oil paint, then squirting it with solvent and setting it on fire. (The cover of the exhibition catalogue features a black-and-white photo of the young Piene gripping the edges of one such canvas, manipulating the direction of the flames as they shoot dangerously off its surface.)

Besides their scorch marks, these paintings are characterized by the repeated use of the color red, but a darker, dirtier, nastier version than the one enlivening “Sundew.” The earliest of the lot, “Die Sonne reist” (“The Sun Travels,” 1966) is a red circle on a white field, with a vector of sooty blackness, presumably the residue from the fiery solvent, spreading across the upper right quadrant like a dark comet. It is impossible not to think of the Nazi colors of red, white, and black, as well as the Japanese imperial flag.

In an apparent apostasy from Zero’s antithesis to Expressionism, these works come off as wildly emotional, barely holding together in formal terms. A canvas such as “Sky Writing” (1993) is composed of black, loosely brushed slashes and squiggles that travel upward from a smoky crucible engulfing the lower half of the picture, only to trail off into unresolved space, while “Cyclops” (1993-1994) features broad, swirling smears of crimson paint that seem to slosh around in the middle of nowhere.

But the act of painting, as manifested here, would seem to be merely a pretext for the burn, which in most instances provides the black that joins the red in an evocation of Nazism. Consequently, the painting surface becomes an arena of simultaneous creation and destruction, a microcosm of the flameout of German society in the years 1933-45.

It is a tenet of the Zero Group that the work of art is experiential at its core and not grounded in a formal object, which links it more to the Vienna Actionists, in their own crazed way, and to the Happenings in the U.S., than to Minimalism, despite the surface similarities. This belief was the group’s way of tearing up what had gone before, the culture that brought on the cataclysm, not unlike the Dadaists during World War I.

But Piene, for one, didn’t define the group’s work as anti-art, or as anything less than deadly serious. His quote from the TLS (found on the Guggenheim’s exhibition site for ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow) reads in full:

From the beginning we looked upon the term [ZERO] not as an expression of nihilism—or as a dada-like gag, but as a word indicating a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning as at the countdown when rockets take off—zero is the incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new.

It’s compelling, in a paradoxical way, that an art movement committed to the removal of personal expression would take such a Romantic outlook on the renewal of art and society, since Romanticism was at the root of the irrational impulse in German culture (epitomized by the ecstatic yearnings of Wagnerian opera) that transmogrified into Nazism. But the paradox of idealism and terror, as it is intertwined in these works and typified in the eye-candy horror of “Red Sundew 2,” is what holds their fascination.

The fire paintings push the artwork to the edge of obliteration, creating something new through a deliberate act of destruction, a paradigm that invokes the final moment’s of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, in which the ashes of Valhalla give birth to a world redeemed for humankind. This action is repeated in a series of late works on the gallery’s second floor, in which fire is unleashed on gold and silver sheets of paper, which buckle and crumple under the assault.

My first reaction to these works was to question why, if he wanted to work with a reflective surface, he didn’t use copper or aluminum, which would bear the heat of the flames. But I soon realized that this was a formalist response (thinking, perhaps, of Jackie Winsor’s burnt wood sculptures of the 1970s); the point was not the element of fire as an aesthetic agent, but the action’s potential for annihilation.

Otto Piene, “Untitled (Rasterbild)” (1957/1982), oil on board, 28 3/4 x 40 inches (left); “Untitled” (1957/1967), oil on board, 28 3/4 x 40 inches (right) (click to enlarge)

As Joachim Jäger points out in his catalogue essay, “Otto Piene and the Fluidity of Art,” the “performative surface” is a “primary component of Piene’s practice.” This is as true for his fire paintings as it is for his Rasterbilder series, which I found to be among the most riveting objects in the show — dense, largely monochromatic hybrids of painting and bas-relief whose fabrication is simultaneously sensuous and impersonal. For these works, the artist used a screen punctured with hundreds of holes to create non-hierarchical patterns on the surface, mostly rows of raised dots. He might press oil paint through the screen onto a board or sheet of paper, or pour ceramic glaze over a clay slab, or set the screen on fire and let the chips fall where they may.

Look carefully and you’ll see that most of these works are dated twice: the year he made the screen (at this exhibition, all the screens are from 1957) and the one in which he created the work, often a decade or more later. In other words, the concept (as embodied in the template of the screen) and execution of the work are separate and repeatable actions — much in the way that Sol Lewitt’s conceptual wall drawings are devised, but years before American Conceptualism came into being. (Or Process Art, or Conceptual Painting, for that matter.)

Piene was well-known for his Sky Art — large inflatables resembling trees or banners or snakes that rose into the air from parks, plazas and rooftops — and for his nighttime light projections, often on the façades of buildings. Jäger notes in his essay that the artist “perceived the illumination of German cities after the blackouts of World War II as a sign of freedom. Light as the experience of a new coming to life is what he always cited as the source of inspiration for his light and fire works.”

Otto Piene, “Light Ballet Room (2016), installation view (click to enlarge)

On the gallery’s darkened top floor, there is an installation of Piene’s Lichtballet (Light Ballet), an assembly of several original or rebuilt sculptures from 1963 through 2013. There is the “Mönchengladbach light wall” (2013), nearly 12 feet high and more than 16 feet across, with light shining through holes drilled in large concentric patterns, while all around it, various motorized (but surprisingly quiet) geometric shapes (primarily cubes and spheres) project pinpoint beams of light everywhere. The effect is pure analogue magic, as if you’ve stepped inside a multidimensional planetarium or swum to the bottom of a phosphorescent sea.

With Lichtballet, a work meant to be reconfigured endlessly according to the shape of the space and the number and variety of projectors, Piene is able to slip the deep historical context embedded in his material works and transform darkness into a realm of artless wonderment. This embrace of the ephemeral conveys what Jäger calls the artist’s “almost unshakable optimism and sweeping idealism” in terms of the beautiful and the intangible, a pairing that rings true because it can so easily vanish at the flick of a switch.

Otto Piene: Sundew and Selected Works 1957–2014 continues at Sperone Westwater (257 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 12.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.