Zero is silence. Zero is the beginning. Zero is round. Zero spins. Zero is the moon. The sun is Zero. Zero is white. The desert Zero. The sky above Zero. The night.
–from a 1963 poem by Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Günther Uecker
Forged in the pessimism and exhaustion of post-war Germany, ZERO explored the artistic areas of color, light, motion, space and seriality. Art works from the ZERO group have a rising cloud on the art scene. In 2010 a private collection sale at Sotheby’s realized 19 world records for ZERO group artists. Further, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum exhibited the first large-scale historical survey of the group in the U.SA.
How it all started:
ZERO was formed as a response to Abstract Expressionism, which advocates lack of emotion in art, and the pessimism of the post-WWII era by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, later joined by Günther Uecker, in Düsseldorf, Germany. The name “ZERO” comes from the magazine Heinz Mack founded in 1957. For Mack and Piene, the founding fathers, “zero” didn’t express a negative non-existence, but rather “ a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning.”
Abstract Expressionism argues art should lack color, emotion and individual expression. ZERO artists wanted the opposite. Many of them are also affiliated with other art movements including Nouveau Realisme, Arte Povera, Minimalism, Op Art and Kinetic Art.
In late 50s Düsseldorf, a bunch of young artists weren’t able to find a gallery to exhibit their works in the war struck art world. Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, artists who combined their art works with their philosophy education, decided that “art must start from zero”. They wanted to create a “ZERO area” where the foundation of new beginnings could be set. Günther Uecker joined them a few years later and their shared genius yielded a creative energy that still has momentum today. They were soon joined by other artists throughout Europe and started organizing one-day-only evening exhibitions, often in their studios. The most important members of the ZERO group are Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, Günther Uecker, Agostino Bonalumi, Yves Klein and Arman.
ZERO is unusual among post-war avant-garde movements because they didn’t have a manifesto other than some small poems written and some quotes said by their founders, or a certain national association. It was a free flowing and uniting movement that got war-stricken Europe together through a new art movement. French, Italian and German artists were working side by side, exploring the core elements of art such as color (usually in monochrome), light, motion, space and seriality.
The use of monochrome colors separated them from expressionistic and abstract works of Art Informel and other early post-war movements. Use of color complemented their exploration of light, since color is a perception of light. Monochrome, using a single color and its tones, emphasized the surface of the artworks and created highlights and shadows.
Light was another important material for ZERO. A pioneer in working with light, Mack started using the medium in late ‘50s. He created his first Licht-Reliefs (light reliefs), Lichtkuben (light cubes) and Lichtstelen (light pillars) in 1958-59. While Piene, having served in the German antiaircraft unit when he was only 15 years old, created his Light Ballet works which Guggenheim drew a direct link between his works and his time in the army, resembling “the night sky being lit up by the intensive aerial campaign”.
Seriality was also another fixation of the ZERO artists, in terms of organizing space while proving the possible infinity of it. Examples of this are Uecker’s nail-covered canvases and Mack’s slashed aluminium reliefs. An art work from Uecker’s nail series is exhibited in the Bundestag (The Parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany).
In October 2014 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum organized the first historical survey exhibition of the ZERO group called “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s” which featured more than 40 artists from over 20 countries. The exhibition was a great success. From September 2015 to January 2016, Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul, Turkey organized “ZERO: Countdown to the Future” was a highly popular exhibition that increased the standing of the group in a dynamic market like Istanbul.
The art market interest in ZERO has been skyrocketing in recent years with record breaking prices at auctions. In 2010 Sotheby’s auctioned off some parts of the private collection of Gerhard and Anna Lenz in London. The 49 paintings, drawings and low relief panels had a total price estimate of 12 million pounds. However, they sold way above that, for 54.07 million pounds, and quite unusual for a contemporary sale, 74 of the 77 lots were sold. This sale realized 19 auction records for ZERO artists.
Established German auction house Ketterer Kunst has many art works by ZERO artists that are on post auction sale right now.
Photos courtesy of Ketterer Kunst website.