Tracing The Origins of the Zero Art Group

July 28, 2020

The early post-WW II period was marked by the rise of abstraction, as artists felt uneasy to handle figuration after the horrors of the Holocaust. Abstract expressionism and Art Informel were the leading painterly tendencies, although by the mid-1950s a significant number of avant-garde impulses such as NeoDada, Fluxus, and Situationism which ultimately led to an explosion of different experimental practices in the 1960s.

This was a decade of major transformations in the art world, and different stylistic and formal persuasions overlapped with each other as they radically dismantled the traditional representational canons and the way we perceive artwork.

When it comes to the matter of perception, the most important art movement at the time that took into consideration how the observer interacts with a work of art in a swirl of different visual and spatial manifestations was the ZERO art group. Founded by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene in Düsseldorf in 1957, and joined by Günther Uecker in 1961, the group introduced bold demand for "a creation a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning." By delivering their own view of the tabula rasa, or clean slate concept in a fashion similar to the Dadaists', the proponents of Zero produced an array of multidisciplinary artworks that paved the way for further experimentation.

Left: Günther Uecker by Lothar Wolleh / Right: Gallerist Alfred Schmela at his gallery with the poster for Zero exhibition. Images via creative commons.

ZERO As a Catalyst of International Avant-garde

The proponents of the Zero art movement encouraged the use of monochrome to distance themselves from the Expressionistic and Abstract works of their contemporaries and the early postwar movements. They used it as a tool for exploring the light, as the use of a single color underlined the painterly surface along with its highlights and shadows. Aside from light, the Zero artists approached motion, space, and seriality with equal interest.

ZERO was not functioning as a national association, nor did it have a manifesto or any form of strict membership. It was a broad and international network of artists from countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Italy, all affiliated with other movements such as including Arte Povera, Nouveau réalisme, Op Art, Minimalism, and Kinetic art.

For instance, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, and Lucio Fontana worked closely with Zero; Fontana was a generation older than the others and so he acted as a father figure to both the Zero group and the Azimuth initiative in Italy, as he supported Heinz Mack as a young artist by purchasing the only work that was sold in the artist's first Paris exhibition. On the other hand, Klein was responsible for establishing the relations between Düsseldorf and Paris, more specifically between Galerie Schemla (one of three then-new galleries in Düsseldorf) and Galerie Iris Cert in Paris.

Governed by the principle of collaboration, many of these international artists participated in Zero events, and in exchange, they included Zero artists in their activities.

ZERO - Radical Art of the '50s and '60s

The Exhibitions

Initially, the Zero founders had difficulty to promote their work due to the lack of gallery system in postwar Germany, a country that was ideologically divided by the time became active. Therefore, Piene and Mack started organizing one-evening pop-up exhibitions, and the first one was held in Piene’s studio in 1957. The fourth edition of this pop-up exhibition, held at the end of the same year, was when the artists agreed upon the name "Zero" at a bar called Fatty’s Atelier, located across from Galerie Schemla. Piene emphasized once:

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

Mack and Piene published the first of the three ZERO magazine-catalogs for the seventh evening exhibition. Under the title The Red Painting, ZERO 1 (April 1958) contained artists’ observations on color, and monochrome; titled Vibration, ZERO 2 (October 1958) was published for the eighth evening exhibition and was centered on the relationship between nature/man/technology, while ZERO 3 (July 5, 1961), titled Dynamo was published for the exhibition Edition, Exposition, Demonstration at Galerie Schemla.

By the end of 1950s Zero received institutional attention primarily with 1959 exhibition Vision in Motion—Motion in Vision held in Antwerp. The similar installment was presented in 1964, when Mack, Piene, and Uecker collaborated on an installation Lichtraum (Hommage à Fontana) [Light Room (Homage to Fontana)] for dOCUMENTA 3; it included automated objects of varying materials, textures, and heights that were equipped with timers so they would turn on, move, and light up in a choreographed fashion.

Left: Otto Piene photographed by Lothar Wolleh / Right: Heinz Mack by Lothar Wolleh. Images via creative commons.

The Historical Significance of the ZERO Art Group

In 2008 the founding fathers of the group/movement along with the Museum Kunst Palast established the ZERO Foundation funded by the city of Düsseldorf. The artists willingly donated their works and archives (invitation cards, photographs, correspondence, newspaper clippings, and other documents from that period), as the foundation carries the mission of preserving, presenting, and analyzing the work of the international ZERO movement.

Throughout the 1990s four ZERO exhibitions took place at Galerie Villa Merkel in Esslingen, curated by art historian Renate Wiehager, followed by the publication of series of four studies, including the first comprehensive multilingual overview of ZERO as a European movement. The 2000s brought a larger number of the ZERO surveys in respectable institutions worldwide such as The Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, the Neuberger Museum of Art, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Martin-Gropius-Bau Berlin, and the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart Tasmania.

Although discarded at the time as the movement of charlatans producing irrelevant and meaningless art, Zero left a significant mark in the art history of the second half of the 20th century especially for the artists and scholars interested in continuity of practices focused on merging art and science.

Editors’ Tip: Witness to Phenomenon: Group Zero and the Development of New Media in Postwar European Art (International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics)

Witness of Phenomenon articulates a fresh examination of the German Group Zero-Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, Günter Uecker, and other new tendency artists, who rejected painting and introduced new art media in postwar Europe. Group ZERO evolved into a network across Europe- Amsterdam, Milan, Paris, and Zagreb. This pan-European affiliation of artists generated a continuous stream of innovative artistic statements through the 1960s, incorporating non-traditional materials and new technologies to create kinetic art, light installations, performances, immersive multimedia installations, monumental land art, and the communication media of video and television. Drawing from a decade of research on unpublished archives of the artists and critics of this period, this publication positions Group ZERO as a catalytic art moment in the transition from modern to contemporary art.

Featured image: The work of Gunther Uecker at Martin Gropius-bau; Zero art group exhibition at Guggenheim New York. Images via creative commons.

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