Exhibition // 50 years of ZERO: A Retrospective at Martin-Gropius-Bau

Article by Nora Kovacs in Berlin; Thursday, Apr. 02, 2015.

Over 50 years ago, artists Otto Piene and Heinz Mack founded Zero, an international art movement in response to the limits and constraints of post-war artistic paradigms. In a time of technological innovation, industrial growth, political unrest, and the atom bomb, Zero set itself apart as more than just a group of artists with similar styles and ideologies, but as an outcry of activism in all its forms. Developing alongside minimalism, these artists were not only stifled by the painterly styles of their predecessors, but also by the prescribed, conventional ways of viewing art in galleries and museums. “We amble along the rows of a museum while our old-fashioned pictures carry out an imaginary march-past!”, Otto Piene lamented in 1961, urging for a revitalization in the way we engage our imaginations and, more importantly, our senses through art. The word ‘Zero’, for Piene, did not imply an erasure of any aspect of the creative process, but rather indicated a “zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning as at the count-down when rockets take off”; both a departure from the past and an exercise on the power of silence. Martin-Gropius-Bau recently opened its retrospective on all things Zero, with accompanying exhibitions at numerous galleries in Berlin, paying homage to “The International Art Movement of the 50s and 60s” and giving each of its artists their time to (figuratively and literally) shine.

The exhibition is reminiscent of the massive Dynamo show that was put on at the Grand Palais in Paris a couple of years ago, with works from Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, Günther Uecker, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Francois Morellet, Jésus Rafael Soto, and many more, spanning across all forms of kinetic and synesthetic art. Flashing lights, reflective mirrors, trompe-l’oeils, monochrome. After a brief walk-through of the history of the movement in the museum’s main hall, the viewer enters the main exhibition, where each piece seems to present its own visual and conceptual challenge.

From rotating disks and platforms to canvases that have been slashed and stabbed, the Zero movement took the focus away from representational subject matter and instead placed it upon the technical process, both how the artist creates and how the viewer perceives. Zero artists wished to “tear down the temple veil of the studio”, to remove the romanticism and mystique of what goes on in an artist’s studio, and to accentuate that very process as a beautiful act in itself. Fontana’s slashing of his canvas, for instance, can not only be seen as a destructive act of rebellion, but as a commentary on artistic inquiry, on what is “behind” works of art, and Otto Piene’s burning of the canvas in ‘Venus von Willendorf’ can be viewed in a similar light. The Zero movement laid the foundations for conceptual art and expanded the possibilities of what could, in fact, be considered art in the age of modernism.

Employing notions of reduction and negative space similar to those of the minimalist movement, Zero sought to both isolate and liberate each element of their pieces and to find a balance therein. Heinz Mack spoke of “overcoming polychromaticism” by rendering each color self-sufficient; hence, the overwhelming amount of monochrome and seemingly simplified structures, which the Zero artists manipulated in pursuit of something more complex. With only the slightest deviations in color, Zero artists found a way to trigger an infinitude of visual experiences. Using new technological means, they introduced time and motion into their pieces as had never been seen before: “The dialectics of static and dynamic elements produce virtual vibration, i.e., pure, perpetually creative movement, which cannot be found in nature. It is free of all suggestive illusion; it is directionless and therefore never finalized. Time cannot be actualized in it,”. Heinz Mack’s distinction between static and kinetic elements and the manipulation of time therein echoes an even more essential dynamism, between artwork and viewer.

Finding a sort of hyper-objectivity of color/form also means highlighting a hyper-subjectivity in the viewer, the power of the pieces relying almost entirely on the perception of the audience. Without the viewer’s eye, the visual exploitations of the Zero movement would be irrelevant, would go unnoticed, and this relationship is something that the group heavily focused on in their works. Art that stimulates the senses necessitates a simultaneous control and loss of control over the viewer and how they experience any given piece. The concrete, industrial style of the pieces does not, by any means, implicate a structured response from the viewer. Instead, the Zero artists tampered with artistic authorship, marking a shift from the subjective experience of the artist to the subjective experience of the viewer. “The heart beats without thought on our part; the mind cannot stop it”, artist Yves Klein famously said, “Digestion works without our intervention, be it emotional or intellectual. We breathe without reflection,”. The Zero artists thus activated the audience’s senses, but the experiential outcome was entirely out of their (and the viewer’s) control.

By creating voids, zones of silence, in their pieces, the Zero group found something in nothingness. They allowed the audience to fill the empty space with their own thoughts and emotions – what Yves Klein described as the “impregnation of space with human sensitivity…For human sensitivity is omnipotent in immaterial reality”. The Zero movement gave form to human experience, not by attempting to represent it or mimic it, but by catalyzing it through the simplest of means. In a time of political tension, the Zero artists argued that the “conquest of space” could not be achieved through violence and war, but through the power of pacifism, and the retrospective at Martin-Gropius-Bau provides a nice glimpse of this ideological conflict. With just the right amount of ease and discomfort, calm and chaos, silence and noise, the exhibition is a sensory overload in the best way possible, and for those who cannot seem to appreciate the conceptual significance of the pieces, Yves Klein has this to say: “Great beauty is only a reality when it contains, intelligently mixed into it, genuine bad taste, irritating and intentional artificiality, with just a dash of dishonesty!”. The exhibition should be viewed not once, but twice, three times, even four, giving each artist the proper chance to be zeroed in on.

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