Otto Piene (German, 1928–2014) was a painter, printmaker, environmental artist, and co-founder of the ZERO group. Born in Laasphe in Westphalia, Piene attended the Hochschule für Bildenden Künste in Munich and the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf as an art student, and then studied philosophy at Cologne University. After graduating in 1957, he and Heinz Mack founded the ZERO group, which, in contrast to Abstract Expressionism, emphasized art void of color, emotion, and individual expression.

In the same year, he developed the Grid Picture, a type of stenciled painting made from half-tone screens with systematically placed points in single colors. These works were thematically focused on a play of light, using patterns and shadows to distort the viewer’s depth perception. Piene sought to create objective art by eliminating any painterly gestures from his work, and increasingly focused on the intersections of art, nature, and technology.

Out of his Grid Pictures, Piene developed The Light Ballets, a series of sculptural installations in which light was projected from moving globes and brass columns through grids. Simultaneously, the combination of these grids with sources of fire (candles, gas-burners) produced smoke-traces and fire paintings, in which the paint was burned.

Beginning in the 1960s, he produced the Black Sun paintings and the Fauna and Flora paintings, which made reference to themes of nature. This led to Piene’s involvement with Sky Art, a term he coined in 1969, in which landscapes and cities became the focal point of his work. In 1972, he produced the Olympic Rainbow for the Summer Olympics in Munich, made up of five differently colored, helium-filled tubes, each more than 1,500 feet long.

He went to the United States in 1964, and taught at the University of Pennsylvania before becoming the director for the Center of Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he served for nearly two decades. In 1996, Piene was awarded a prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and, in 2003, received the Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts.

He died in Berlin at the age of 86.

Today, his works can be found in numerous museum collections around the world, including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

Timeline

1928
Born in Laasphe, Westfalen, Germany
1948–1953
Studies at the Blocherer Schule
1948–1953
Kunstakademie Munich
1948–1953
Kunstakademie Düsseldorf
1953–1957
Studied philosophy at the University of Cologne
1957
Foundation of the artist group ZERO together with Heinz Mack and Günther Uecker
1959
Prize, Deutsche Kunst, Baden-Baden, Germany
1960
Participation at Documenta 2 in Kassel
1963
Grand Prize for Group ZERO, IV Biennale Internazionale d'Arte, San Marino, Italy
1964
Participation at Documenta 3 in Kassel
1967
Prize, International Exhibitions of Graphic Art, Ljublijana, Yugoslavia
1964–1968
teaching activity at the University of Pennsylvania
1968
Center for Advanced Visual Studies
1968
Konrad von Soest Prize, Munster, Germany
1969
Prize, International Exhibitions of Graphic Art, Ljublijana, Yugoslavia
1970
Prize, Ile Exposition International de Dessins Originaux, Rijeka, Yugoslavia
1972
Professorship at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge
1972
Prize of the National Museum of Modern art, The Eighth International Biennial Exhibition of Prints in Tokyo, Japan
1976
Prize, International Graphics Biennale, Frederikstad, Norway
1977
Participation at Documenta 6 in Kassel
1974–1994
Director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies
1994
Honorary doctorate at Maryland University
1996
Sculpture Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
2003
UNESCO Joan Miro Medal, presented at the Bremen Kunsthalle, Germany
2003
Leonardo da Vinci World Art Prize from Consejo Cultural Mundial of Mexico City
2014
Died in Berlin, Germany

Exhibitions

2013
The Encyclopedic Palace, 55. Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy
2013
ZERO | Paris-Düsseldorf, Passage de Retz, Paris, France
2010
Otto Piene – Le Rouge et le Noir / Keramiken, Leopold-Hoesch-Museum, Düren, Germany
2009–2010
Es werde Licht, Kunstverein Langenfeld, Germany
2009
Galerie Bode,Nuremberg, Germany (solo)
2008–2009
Verwandlung, Kunstmuseum Celle mit Sammlung Robert Simon K., Germany
2008
Otto Piene, Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund, Germany
2001
Lichtjahre 1957–2001, Kunstmuseum Celle mit Sammlung Robert Simon, Celle, Germany
1996
Otto Piene – Retrospektive 1952–1996, Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf im Ehrenhof, Düsseldorf, Germany
1985
German pavilion at the Biennial in Sao Paulo, Brasil
1977
documenta 6, Kassel, Germany
1972
Sky Installation Pax for the Olympic Summer Games in Munich, Germany
1971
German pavilion at the Biennial in Venice, Italy
1967
German pavilion at the Biennial in Venice, Italy
1959
documenta 2, Kassel, Germany

Literature

1999
Susanne Rennert, Stephan von Wiese (Hrsg.): Otto Piene – Sky Art 1968–1996, Wienand, Köln 1999
1989
Karl Ruhrberg (Hrsg.): Zeitzeichen. Stationen Bildender Kunst in Nordrhein-Westfalen. DuMont, Köln 1989