Zero, Utopia and The German Avant-Garde
Zero is silence. Zero is the beginning. Zero is round. Zero spins. Zero is the moon.
The sun is Zero. Zero is white. The desert Zero. The sky above Zero. The night.
Poem 1963 - Heinz Mack, Otto Piene and Gunther Uecker
In 1957 Otto Piene and Heinz Mack two artists who had met and studied together at the Dusseldorf art academy, set out to transform and redefine art by taking it back to basics and liberating it from what they saw as a state of "chaos." By 1961 Gunther Uecker had joined them and the nucleus of the "Zero" group and arguably the new German "avante garde," was intact. Over the next decade they joined forces with as many as forty other artists from around the world that shared the same desire for change in art. The result of their collaborations and impact on the next generation of artists may well be the influence that spawned a whole range of new art categories which we take for granted today. ZERO is not meant to imply "nothing" or "nullification" but rather the utopian idea of "ground zero" or a new "beginning" for art.
The Guggenheim Museum in New York currently has an exhibition showing titled "Zero: Countdown To Tomorrow, 1950's-60s" which attempts to tease out the myriad connections forged between the artists from nearly every continent that were involved with the collective and it's aims. Out of ZERO came a diverse use of media that anticipated, "Land Art," "Minimalism," "Performance" and "Conceptual Art." The artists attempted to redefine painting by promoting the "monochrome," serial structures and fire and smoke paintings. Formal and idea-based aspects of light and movement art became vitally important in the group's oeuvre. Due to the dearth of galleries in post war Europe, the ZERO artists initiated live action or performance based work in designated spaces/studios that often occurred for one night only. They used space as both subject and material and explored the connections between technology, nature and humans. There was a concerted effort to do whatever it took to take the idea of what art was (traditional, ie; think painting) and transform it to meet the needs of "future" man! In the words of Heinz Mack, for example,
"painting had overcome the mannerism of geometric abstraction, and found itself in a disorganized state, one of giddiness, after finally finding its own champions."
Simply, in order for painting to go anywhere there was a necessity to now plumb its potential with color and line as Mondrian had accomplished "par excellence" in his three final, "Boogie Woogie" paintings prior to his death. These paintings were greatly admired by the ZERO artists as having approached the zenith of what painting is about according to their philosophy of painterly structures for the new age.
In a sense, ZERO art emerges from the urge to invent objects that are meant to symbolize the shining future and the freedom that new future might offer in which to create a state-of-the-art hand crafted world. These objects are constructed for the most part from modern materials like glass, steel and plastic often combined with moving parts, motors and lights. They are harbingers of the art objects and installations that we now take as commonplace in galleries and museums everywhere minus of course the video and digital computer art not yet nascent at that time. ZERO art naturally owes some of its impetus to the freedom in Dada but instead of espousing "anarchy" as an ideal chose a more positive platform to construct the future. The refined teutonic sense of design that is so prominent today in many products can find its roots in the ZERO project and the art created by its many affiliate practitioners.
Günther Uecker, 1965
"Since the United States is relatively inattentive to new European developments, this is the first Zero exhibition here" and further, that Mack, Piene and Uecker were, "all able and convincing."
I'm inspired by ZERO because of the youthful idealistic naivety that the artists were willing to embrace for the sake of attaining their goals. Today it's easy to be cynical and indeed, suspicious, of anyone spouting visions of utopia in a world mired in warfare, poverty, division and fiscal inequity. Yet at times in human history certain individuals were courageous enough to offer a hope that (as crazy as it looked and as unattainable as it may have seemed), maybe the future could be different from the bloody past. Art as a collective activity can offer hope because it is non partisan and conducive to the possibilities inherent in humanity's "creative" urge!