»Zero is silence. Zero is the beginning.« (From the Zero Manifesto, 1963)

The beginning of the avant-garde in Germany has a name: Zero. The group´s first appearance in 1958 had a profound and lasting impact on the face of post-war art, and its effects are still noticeable today. It all began in Düsseldorf, when two impoverished young artists and former fellow students, Otto Piene (*1928) and Heinz Mack (*1931), moved into a studio in an old warehouse building. As a response to the lack of opportunities for presenting new art to the public, they cleared space in the courtyard behind the building on Gladbacher Strasse and issued invitations to the first of nine evening exhibitions.

Less than two months later, Alfred Schmela, a former painter himself, opened a new gallery in the Old City of Düsseldorf. It soon became a meeting place for the international avant-garde and a source of important impulses for the Düsseldorf art scene. For Mack and Piene, the first exhibition at Schmela´s gallery was an event that would have far-reaching consequences. The show was devoted to Yves Klein (1928–1962), who was virtually unknown in Germany at the time, and his monochrome paintings.

Klein´s exhibition attracted considerable attention in the »color-flooded« world of Abstract Expressionism, and the charismatic artist succeeded in impressing his colleagues. He fueled the fires of their opposition to Art Informel (Art without Form) and Tachism and encouraged them to develop a new self-concept. Klein is regarded as a direct source of inspiration for Zero. His concept of monochrome painting offered pointed the way to an investigation of the phenomenon of color. Piene and Mack regarded Klein´s work as the end of painting but the beginning of renewal in art. Zero represents the starting point for the new exploration of art. The two artists began to experiment, and Piene discovered a method of using a grid, rather than a brush, as a means of achieving a strict structure, a non-manual form of art, in the design of color.

The seventh evening exhibition presented on April 24, 1958 offered a radical revelation of the new principles of art. Color was reduced to monochrome manifestations. The gestural painting style gave way to the dynamics of the pictorial surface and a complete renunciation of composition. Light, movement, and structure were the elements that brought forth original qualities of color. The exhibition also coincided with the release of the ZERO 1, the first issue of the journal that served as a forum for the artists´ public relations efforts. It became the vehicle for the presentation of their texts and images; it documented their ideas and theories and promoted dialogue with like-minded artists and critics in Düsseldorf and elsewhere.

By that time, Günther Uecker (*1930) had joined the group, initially as a guest in 1958 and then as an active Zero artist beginning in 1961. The courses on which they had embarked independently – away from composition and toward the uniformly structured surface and the themes of light and motion – exhibit marked similarities. Like Klein, the Zero artists began to incorporate surrounding space into their works of art and to carry out public actions to accompany their exhibitions.

»Art is no longer the act of viewing a finished object; art has become a living process. It is realized in the empty human being. The picture itself has no meaning; it is merely a stimulus for the visualization of an idea, of an impulse.« (Günther Uecker, 1965)

ZERO 2 was released on the occasion of the eight evening exhibition on October 2, 1958. Mack published his essay entitled »Die Ruhe der Unruhe,« a poetic profession of allegiance to ZERO in the spirit of Hegelian dialectics. He hailed a style of art that loves dynamism and rhythm. The visualization of the movement of light, of vibration, became a trademark. Mack discovered a new medium when he accidentally stepped on a piece of metal foil lying on a sisal carpet. When he picked up the foil, he found that it bore an imprint of the structure of the rug. The serial silver relief evoked a visual sense of motion. Mack wrote: »Polished to mirror smoothness, all that is required is a subtle relief to disturb the tranquility of the light and cause it to vibrate. The potential beauty of this structure would be a pure expression of the beauty of light.«

Mack´s light impulses or light vibrations were supplemented by motor movements beginning in 1959. The inspiration came from Jean Tinguely (1925–1991) and his exhibition at Schmela´s gallery. His experiments in the use of speed as a means of achieving dematerialization were in complete conformity with the intentions of Mack, Piene and Uecker. The movement that appears in the viewer´s eye is enhanced by setting an object or a source of light in motion. They now began to create »light objects,« »light dynamos,« and »light ballets.« The use of motors introduced a theatrical element to art. Piene anticipated the »Licht- und Himmelstheater« (Theater of Light and the Heavens) in 1961; Mack dreamed of an »artificial garden« in the Sahara. The »dynamo« became a leitmotif.

The three artists made their first international presentation at the Hessenhuis in Antwerp in 1959, and it was by no means their last. As representatives of the first German art movement of the post-war period, they celebrated noteworthy success in the new art Mecca of New York. They also forged contacts with like-minded artists. Düsseldorf became a point of attraction for the international art scene. Daniel Spoerri lived there for several years. Christian Megert came and stayed. Castellani, Fontana, and Manzoni exhibited in Düsseldorf, Marcel Broodthaers worked there, Nam June Paik visited the city, and Joseph Beuys was appointed professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.

ZERO 3, the most important and extensive issue of the magazine, revealed a new position at the zenith of Zero´s international activity. What had proceeded gradually through the replacement of the traditional painting by the object and the integration of real movement and real light culminated in the concept of uniting art and living space through art. ZERO 3 appealed for a symbiosis of nature, mankind, and technology, and thus the boundaries between Zero, Fluxus, the New Realism, and Conceptual Art became increasingly blurred. The Zero group in Germany disbanded in 1966.

20.03.2006 Monika Wolz 

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