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Heinz Mack, Otton Piene and Gunter Uecker at the "Zero" exhibition in Brussels, 1962

Photos from Zero 1958-1968 tra Germania e Italia (Silvana Editoriale)

Heinz Mack
Zero Rocket

Otto Piene
Ein Fest für das licht

Günther Uecker
Das gelbe Bild

Heinz Mack

Lucio Fontana
Concetto spaziale, I Quanta

Edoardo Landi
Struttura Visuale

Enrico Castellani
Superficie angolare rossa

Hans Haacke
Condensation Cube

Piero Manzoni
Cotone a rettangoli (Ovatta)

Günther Uecker
New York Dancer I

Nanda Vigo and Lucio Fontana at the Zarathustra gallery in Milan in 1964

Starting at Zero
by Michèle C. Cone

"Zero 1958-1968 tra Germania e Italia," May 29-Sept. 19, 2004, at the Palazzo delle Papesse, Siena, Italy

In recent years, Siena has become a place where contemporary art pleasantly competes with medieval architecture, the art of Duccio and the yearly Palio horse race held around the shell-shaped Campo. Two years ago, the small orange buses that carry people up and down the dark narrow streets of this hilly old town harbored an Italian version of the famous Barbara Kruger poster, "I shop therefore I am," as part of her show at the Palazzo delle Papesse.

This year, the same 15th-century Papal palace and center for contemporary art has organized a retrospective show that any large city would be proud to host. It features works by Otto Piene, Günther Uecker, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana and other European artists who went through a painterly crisis at about the same time as their American counterparts.

Included are works from the late 1950s and early- to mid-60s by artists whose commonality of purpose was signing off on the past and starting again at zero. Hence the title of the show, a title that also refers to the name of the German group that stood at the center of this European-wide postwar art movement and to their publication, Zero (which had three issues between 1958 and 1961). As the exhibition demonstrates, the art produced in Europe was both like and unlike U.S. Minimalism.

Anyone who admires Agnes Martin's paintings will be intrigued by the variety of monochrome gridded squares in the show. Several of them are by Otto Piene, famous for his "light ballets." Ein Fest für das licht (1958) is a subtle pale yellow surface, one meter square, that registers slight variations of color.

Uecker, known for his paintings that double as beds of nails, has a number of square monochromes in this show. His surfaces are usually covered with nails, but some of his paintings can also be structured by other small shapes in slight relief. In Das gelbe Bild (1957-58), the artist has planted black nails around the edges of a garish yellow diamond.

Heinz Mack, the well-known master of luminous reliefs, is another German practitioner of the gridded surface in the late 50s. His work is the most painterly, with vibrating lines of paint parallel to the edges of mostly rectangular canvasses.

One surprise is the number of Italians who belonged to Zero. Best known is Lucio Fontana, here represented by two of his Concetto Spaziale, large groupings of slashed, hard-edged forms done in a single bold color, and the neo-Dadaist Manzoni, here represented by one of his "achrome."

But lesser-known artists, including Edoardo Landi (who marked one of his white squares with a cross pattern made with dark thread), Enrico Castellani (present with a red right-angled wall piece), Nanda Vigo (one of the rare women in the group and, in fact, Manzoni's girlfriend), Gianni Colombo, Grazia Varisco and Dadamaino also worked in a monochromatic vein in the early 60s.

Another surprise is the short list of Minimalist sculptures made by members of the group. Hans Haacke -- better known in America for his politically loaded environments -- is here represented by small cubes and columns in translucent plastic dotted on the inside with drops of condensed water vapor.

The exhibition does include sculpture, of course, but its concerns are with movement, light and magnetic fields of changing color. The most successful piece is by Uecker, entitled New York Dancer and dated 1965. It is a life-size vertical column covered over by draped cloth adorned with long black nails that stick out. This suggestive humanoid shape opens its "wings" in a frenzied fashion when its rotary motor is turned on. During the evening of the reception, a large balloon, the familiar inflatable icon of Otto Piene, floated above the Piazza del Campo.

If Minimalism in American art was about stretching the limits of perception, Zero art did the same in Europe. Monochromatic surfaces that appear textureless reveal upon close inspection small holes, bulges, lines and patterns. Seemingly still surfaces show minute changes over time. Objects become dematerialized when animated or filled with air.

To this observer, the European mode is more playful. Words that come to mind with respect to perception are "play," "games" and "tricks," and those same terms apply to a number of works in this show, particularly those created in the mid-60s and those that are interactive. After all, Kinetic Art and Op Art came out of this transitional Minimalist trend.

Overall, what comes to mind with respect to the works in this show is a visible shift of interest from je to jeu -- a play on the French words for "I" and for "game" coined by the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Such a shift away from subjectivity is also visible in American Minimalism, but the je of German artists was certainly in serious need of debriefing. For unlike their American counterparts (also born around 1930), the German artists had spent their youth under Hitler, gone to Nazified schools and sung Nazi hymns, and in the case of Otto Piene, who was born in 1928, had fought in the German army. Hence the erasure of subjectivity, the Zero, the blank slate in question had its own raison d'etre within the German Zero Group and, to a lesser extent, within the Italian group raised under Mussolini.

"We were the heirs of guilt for voluntary acceptance," Uecker explains in a conversation transcribed in Italian in the catalogue. "With this heritage, it was inevitable to take a position when facing the question of what happened that made it possible for all of this hurt, human degradation, subjugation and annihilation to take place. This question was the creative one for our generation." For Uecker, the revolutionary constructive culture of the early 20th century was useful as a new way of thinking and a new way of artistic action. Thus, for him confronting the Minimalist impetus of the Polish Constructivist Wladyslaw Strzeminski and the Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich was "spritually stabilizing."

Among their contemporaries, Fontana with his 1946 Manifesto Blanco (White manifesto), Manzoni with his Achrome (works in noncolor) and Yves Klein with his monochrome were also inspirational. Manzoni's statement, "Empty the container, set the surface free," was particularly relevant to artists who had until then been exorcizing their [guilty] consciences with dark expressionist brushwork, and needed a way out.

How Zero came to be formed is not exactly clear. What seems to have happened is that in the late 50s artists from Düsseldorf met their counterparts from Milan, possibly in Paris, and discussed their shared attraction for near silence in their art practice. They apparently found that they liked each other enough to invite each other to write in their publications and exhibit their latest work in their respective countries. The Galerie Schmela in Dusseldorf and Azimuth in Milan were instrumental.

Udo Kultermann, who became the director of the museum SchloB Morsbroich at Leverkusen near Düsseldorf in September 1959, cemented the connection. The exhibition he organized, "Monochrome Malerei," opened in May of 1960, and though the place was Germany, many of the artists on display were Italian. Kultermann's actions in favor of the Zero Group cannot be underestimated. He invited Ad Reinhardt to show in 1961, and he invited Theodor Adorno to speak on Samuel Beckett as part of the multi-disciplinary festival he organized in 1962 (titled "Morsebroicher Kunstage").

"The period around 1960," Kultermann writes in his contribution to the Siena catalogue, "was marked by the tendency to generate productive chaos that opened up scores of possibilities, while giving rise to hope for the achievement of a new harmonious cultural level." He named the situation at the time a "gentle revolution."

In July 1961, Uecker joined Piene and Mack, the initiators of the Zero Group, on an outdoor stage that blocked the entrance of the Schmela Gallery. His action sums up what Zero was about. With the end of a broom, he drew a large circle. He called it his "zero circle of freedom."

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).