Fire Paintings and Sky Art: A Q&A with Otto Piene

“Otto Piene: Light Ballet/Fire Paintings 1957-67,”a remarkable exhibition at Sperone Westwater Gallery consisting of paintings, works on paper, and multimedia light sculptures by Otto Piene, closes on Saturday, May 22nd. It is the gallery's last show at its 415 West 13th Street location before it moves to a new stand-alone building on the Bowery designed by super-architect Norman Foster.

A member of the radical, postwar Zero Group, which also included Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, and Lucio Fontana (who have recently become stars in the secondary art market), Piene used a variety of unconventional techniques to create a singular body of work. In his smoke paintings, he applied soot to canvas with stencil sieves, while in his light sculptures, he placed stencils over hand-operated lamps.

Piene describes the paintings in a brochure prepared for the Sperone Westwater exhibition. “To me they were a liberation from the rules of optical exploitation of geometry and a turning towards organic forms which derive from melting and technological processes,” he writes. The show has largely sold out, with two of the major paintings selling to trustees of the Guggenheim and MoMA, and a third canvas heading to a major Chicago museum, for sums that ranged from $185,000 to $300,000, according to Sperone Westwater director and partner David Leiber.

The soot on paper works on paper and board, from 1967, sold out at prices ranging from $35,000 to $55,000, and the light sculptures — still operating flawlessly since their creation in the period between 1961 to 1972 were priced between $120,000 and $160,000.

Leiber was also able to borrow Rauchbild, a 1961 oiland charcoal on canvas, a key work from Peine's early 1960s period, which sold inthe Zero-Group-heavy Lenz Schoenberg sale at Sotheby's London back in February for an artist record £223,250 ($329,000).

The Piene exhibition is an apt sequel to Sperone Westwater's late 2008 show, which was held before the headline-making and record-price-setting auction in London. In the decades since the dissolution of the Zero group, in 1966, Piene has worked on environmental and ephemeral work he calls Sky Art. Art+Auction editor at large Judd Tully spoke with Otto Piene about his involvement with Zero, and his most recent projects.

Judd Tully: I was in London last February for Sotheby’s extraordinary £23 million ($36 million) sale of Zero Group work, from the Lenz Schoenberg collection.

Otto Peine: You were actually there?

Yes, and I saw the impressively-installed presale exhibition ofthe 49 Zero Group works that were culled from the Lenz-Schoenberg’s much larger collection of 600 works. What do you make of that sale? Were you shocked?

In the mid-1960s, I’d written a play, a participatory play for the stage, on auctions. It was not a success, but it was exciting and at the time it represented my fascination with auctions, because it was atime when the contemporary art auctions were new. Except for a few people, no one knew Sotheby’s. It was a different world.

Where did that take place, the play?

In Frankfurt, at a festival called, I think, Experimenta. I invented some rules for the play that were not complicated, but a little more complex than what you usually do when you walk into a theater, and sit in a chair and watch Shakespeare. It was about the fear of materialism in an emerging art world.

The fear of materialism?

Yes, that’s about as much as I can say about it now. The play has never been produced again. It has never happened again, but I was fascinated by what was happening there, because the auctions I visited at the time in New York around 1966 were attended by some of the artists that we respected. Barney Newman sat next to me and was very excited that his big painting that was auctioned off at Sotheby’s Parke Bernet sold for $42,000.


He was excited.

Had you met the Lenzes, the couple who acquired this gigantic collection of Zero Art?

With my wife, I had been invited by them to their place in Austria. They’re German. Anna, the lady, is from one of the richest families in Düsseldorf, in Germany. Rich families are often fromDüsseldorf. She was a friend of a lot of artists long before this auction happened.

So, do I like it? No, I don’t think we need it. But some people build their collections very carefully and create interesting collections. Have you seen the catalogue they published last year? The Zero book? It’s themost professionally made piece of craft, of bookbinding, that I’ve seen in a long time.

Right, but how do you feel about that kind of "throwing money" — or holding your paddle — at art, so to speak?

They have a right to do what they’re doing. It’s all part of freedom of the arts. I actually didn't know the Lenz auction was happening. I learned about the auction and its results from David Leiber at Sperone Westwater. He called me in Germany and said, “This has happened. Isn’t it wonderful?” I think it was a remarkable acknowledgment of Zero. We had done something substantial that deserved all this attention. People paid money for it, what we’d done at the time with materials that were essentially in the field of Arte Povera.

Expendable more or less, not high-end canvas with expensive oil paints or whatever.

Yes. And you know I have to respect what some collectors do. What they do also feeds the artists, to a degree, which I think is conscionable. People who are lucky enough to get wealthy with the help of the arts should at leastdo something with their money that is for the greater good.

Does your 1961 painting, Rauchbild [which sold for £223,250 ($349,944) in London] and the period still resonate with you? Or was it a kind of “one-off” moment?

It’s a real Zero painting. It really represents what I did in the early years of Zero, and there are very few of those paintings left. The play of auctions and what auctions do is something that nowadays is really far away from what interests me. I’m interested in Sky Art [Piene’s ephemeralform of art making, sans tangible materials]. Certainly there are some artists mostly interested in making wares that are likely to attract riches. Nobody so far has yet tried to buy Sky Art.

Just out of curiosity, do you still have some of the work of thepigment and soot fire paintings from that Zero period?

Very few, a few works on paper.

Was there a manifesto written specifically for Zero, or was the group more of an amalgam of like-minded figures that happened to come together?

Three Zero artists who were tentacles of the original group — Heinz Mack, Gunther Uecker and I — wrote a manifesto, and it was a poem.

That seems appropriate.

Yeah. Zero was never a strictly organized association or anything like that. No president, no manager, no PR person, noelected organizer. Much of what we did was spontaneous, and it was done in the spirit of friendship and, let's say, shared values and friends. Many were Germans, but Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana were there too, and they are anything but German. They were very much respected by us, and we did not seek a “style.” We’ve never seen Zero as a style. The shared interest, values, fascinations, impulses from nature, from science, from areas that are not typically considered artistic were very important.

When did your involvement with Zero end, or is there no definitive date?

There was an official announcement that Zero was no longer doing exhibitions or other activities, which was made by the three main Zero artists around 1966. I was not involved, I was in New York, or at least in the US, but I agreed once they’d done it. I didn't want to undo what they'd done, so that was the quite quasi-official endof Zero as a group.

Tell me about your new, most recent project.

It began a year and a half ago, in Germany. It is a light tower in the shape of a miner’s lamp on a hill by the Rhine, in Düsseldorf, where the Rhine is low.  It is a monument to the dying mining industry, which was very prominent in the district and in the area.

Is that coal mining?

Coal and ore. There are steelworks there, and there are still some coal mines. It’s very interesting how the miners built traditions over the centuries, and how they are still practicing these rituals that have to do with their lives as miners. It was a kind of very interesting experience to come up with the idea for this monument and then go through the steps of having it approved by the miners, the mining community, and the mining leaders.

So it’s a permanent work?

Yes, it’s 30 meters high, kind of a real monument, except that its medium is light and color.

Do you sense that artists have a freedom to make what they want today? Does itfeel more limited than it did when you were part ofthe Zero group, becoming an artist in your own right?

What’s feels limiting now is that there’s not much of a spirit of adventure in the arts. For a long time I’ve been interested in environmental art, that’s what I’ve been practicing, at MIT [where Piene has taught for decades], and with group Zero. That’s really where my heart is, and as I said already, Sky Art, and similar forces that deal with the elements and that deal with natural forces andnatural elements. That’s what interests me most and what has interested me for years. What I’m exhibiting at Sperone Westwater waswork almost from 50 years ago, of the Zero time, meaning up to 1967, nothing newer.

What do you think of current art practices?

As far as I’m concerned, there’s a lot of room in the arts for, let’s not call it adventure, but for a search that’s neither scientific research nor an economic pursuit. I have a quasi-friend in Germany who publishes Art Investor; it’s a magazine that’s about investing in art, so I’m not totally naïve about the market. Still, I have yetto see new and different art that is the result of auction results.

Do you collect?

Yes, everything I collect is connected to what I’ve done, to Zero and to my friends and so on and so forth. I don’t have a "collection collection." I have some works by Fontana, I have some works by Klein, all things that I got from them in the context of mutual enterprise. But they’re not great works. I don’t particularly need them,they’re not extraordinary valuable, they’re works by my friends, and that’s the point.

When did you stage your first show here of mixed media light works, such as the Light Ballet?

It was 1966, at the Howard Wise Gallery. That was our first appearance in New York. It was good, but it was not a commercial success.

Where was the gallery then?

It was at 50 West 57th Street. Howard, he was a very rich man, but a very nice man and a generous man, a man of integrity. Obviously that’s possible.