It’s often the case that the most self-consciously futuristic art of its time seems the most dated in retrospect. So it is with much of the output of the ZERO group, a movement founded in Dusseldorf in 1957 by the German artists Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, and later expanded to include Günther Uecker. (A show of Mack’s work from the 1950s runs concurrently at Sperone Westwater, and his sci-fi looking photographs are worth the visit alone.)
ZERO emerged at a time when artists across Europe were reacting against the Tachist and Expressionist painting then in vogue. Its name conveyed the group’s desire to reassert avant-gardism in the aftermath of WWII—to make it new by starting from zero. Combining utopian and spiritual aspirations with a faith in modern materials and technology, Piene, Mack and Uecker found their language in light, space, color and motion. (It would take another few years before younger German painters such as Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter would confront the legacy of the Third Reich in their art.)
Throughout the 1960s, Piene, Mack, and Uecker formed affiliations with likeminded artists in Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Latin America, the US and Japan through visits, correspondence, exhibitions and publications. This thoroughly researched and beautifully realized exhibition at the Guggenheim traces the connections (and disconnections) between the artists of ZERO and their global counterparts—the so-called ZERO network—and makes the case for their anticipation of conceptual, performance, participatory and site-specific art.
A highlight of the exhibition, and an example of the active cross-pollination among the ZERO artists and their transnational peers, occurs early on, with a room that partially recreates “Vision in Motion-Motion in Vision” a seminal 1959 show in Antwerp organized by Jean Tinguely from France, Daniel Spoerri from Switzerland, and Pol Bury and Paul Van Hoeydonck from Belgium. Here, artworks by Piene, Mack, Uecker, Dieter Roth, Tinguely, Robert Breer and Yves Klein (whose 1957 show of monochromes in Dusseldorf was a catalyst for the original ZERO group, flicker or rotate or chime at set intervals. (Today, most of the kinetic works can only be seen in motion for a few minutes every hour, due to the age of their mechanisms.)
Spoerri’s contribution is a rotating rod on a stand holding three loops of paper that asked questions of viewers (How banal can art be?) or exhorted them to act (Blow your nose!). Fellow Swiss artist Dieter Roth’s piece is huge metal ring crisscrossed by strings that viewers could once rearrange, while Piene’s is a sunshine yellow monochrome canvas with a design of raised dots made by pressing paint through a handmade stencil. An optically confounding work by Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto consists of a squiggle of black wire mounted onto a horizontally striped support, which appears as a buzzing, broken line. There’s also a jazzy animation by the American, Robert Breer, featuring an interplay between colored lines and rectangles. Yves Klein is represented by an empty space: During the original exhibition’s opening, he stood in his assigned area, smoking cigarettes and quoting the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s writings on the color blue, before leaving without actually putting anything into the show.
The Antwerp exhibition paved the way for a decade of exchanges between these artists and others, even as many became famous for other reasons. Unfortunately, seen out of the context of ZERO network happenings, evening exhibitions, lectures and light shows (described in detail in curator Valerie Hillings’s catalog essay), much of the art looks homogenous, undemanding and decorator friendly. (Adolf Luther’s grid of concave mirrors, Mack’s rotating, aluminum covered discs behind ridged glass and Enrico Casetellani’s shaped canvases stretched over nails seem particularly so.)
Many of the most notable exceptions are works by artists not primarily known for their connections to ZERO: a small machine featuring a spinning ultramarine disc by Klein and Tinguely, for example; or a deep frame filled with prettily pink, highly toxic, cobalt chloride crystals by Piero Manzoni, co-founder of Azimut Gallery in Milan. Nevertheless, a room filled with Piene’s “light sculptures”—mechanized artworks that send sparks of light and amorphous shadows chasing over walls—is a revelation, as are Mack’s 1960s sculptural interventions in the Tunisian desert.
Also welcome are the exhibition’s inclusion of works by lesser-known artists, including Italian Francesco Lo Savio’s gray monochrome, which seems to glow with inner light and, subtly colored dot paintings by Brazilian Almir Mavignier, a pioneer of abstraction in Brazil who moved to Germany in 1950.
With the passage of time, certain pieces, especially those that appear more organic than technophile, seem out of place. These include Spoerri’s wall mounted remains of a meal eaten by Noma Copley, Klein’s spectacular assemblage of painted sponge and painted rock, and Lucio Fontana’s puffball-like bronze “Natura” sculptures. But it’s one of the great strengths of this exhibition that art history’s many loose threads and passing alliances, so often weeded out in retrospect, are left in evidence.–Anne Doran