Otto Piene


(Originally published in Art New England, May, 1982.)

For Otto Piene, director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, technology provides “beautiful, enticing tools” that allow artists “to make visible more messages of the soul.” Like perspective in the Renaissance, it permits more complex expressive means. Those means have changed dramatically in our time, but the process of generating images has not. “Media have always influenced the formal messages,” he told me, “but the human concerns remain the same – the age-old movements of the human soul.” In his art and in his teaching Piene works towards a synthesis of indelible, private imagery with the most advanced means of expression available.

It all began with Zero. Piene told me that after the war young artists in Europe asked themselves, “Does an artist ride a motorcycle?” Some of them answered “No, he only looks at nature and has pure ideas and thinks pure thoughts.” Piene thought otherwise. In the mid-1950s he joined with other artists – Heinz Mack, then Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Paul von Hoeydonck, and others – to use art “to contribute to efforts to reconcile man, nature, and technology.” They called themselves Group Zero, choosing the name, he has written, “not as an expression of nihilism or a dada-like gag, but as a word indicating a zone of silence and pure possibilities for a new beginning as at the countdown when rockets take off – zero as in the incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new.” Group Zero exhibitions and happenings explored light and color, “quiet and unquiet,” “lightlight,” and “vision in motion, motion in vision.”

Piene created light ballets, using images of light and movement at first in traditional forms of painting and sculpture. His work gradually moved away from metaphor. Instead of making art about light and sky, he began to make art with light and air and in the real space of the sky, moving from the private to the monumental to what he calls “the third scale.”

Third scale art pushes to expand the scale both of the work and of the audience for the work. Immense in scale, bound up with performance, environmental art is, Piene believes, a way for artists to recapture lost territory and regain a connection both with daily life and with its transcendence.

The Lascaux Caves, pyramids, amphitheaters, and cathedrals dear to environmental artists were group projects, vast, public monumental art forms used for celebration and affirmation of the spiritual life of the people. All art was public, much of it outdoors, Piene told me, until “the bourgeois idea of the citizen domesticated art, reduced to little pictures – funny, little, anemic things you buy in a store and hang on the wall,” while public art became “non-art, voided of artistic spirit and imagination and vitality.”

By 1968 each of the Group Zero artists had spun off into his own orbit. Piene came to the center as a fellow to pursue sky art. His works have included Olympic Rainbow, an immense flying sculpture made to soar over the 1972 Olympic Games, with five polyethylene tubes, each one 1600 feet long and sixteen feet wide, in a rainbow of colors; Milwaukee Anemone, a forty-five-foot diameter, 250-foot-long star-shaped flower, inflated with gases and lifted up in the air; Iowa Star, Icarus, Brussels Flower, and Blue Star Linz, all of similar scale and flying. He is faithful to an imagery of stars and flowers, archetypal forms that allow a potentially infinite variety of transformations and variations to occur. The scale of his work, central to its conception, continues to increase.

Piene has been director of the Center of Advanced Visual Studies since 1974. Of his commitment there, he has written,

“I want to transport highly visible, legible, moving imagery into the day and night sky. My means – partly traditional, partly new – are inflatables (flying sculpture); ‘flying messages’ (video, TV satellite communication); sky penetration with the help of lights, particularly space-articulating and image-projecting lasers. I am advertising these means to every able contemporary artist.”

The center was founded by Gyorgy Kepes in the early 1960s to explore the use and promise of technology for art. It is a research institute with researchers, most of whom are artists but some of whom are scientists and engineers working on the edge of science, on the edge of art. The center depends on MIT for “spinal support” but seeks its own funding for many projects from grants and other sources. “Life at the center is frugal,” Piene told me, “as it is for other artists.” In association with MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, students in a Master of Science in Visual Studies program work with the twenty-five current fellows on interdisciplinary group and individual projects.

Piene sees the center as a place for artists “who want a contemporary mode of expression, to struggle with contemporary media, to look to the future.” It is “a fermenting vat,” he told me, where artists and scientists “can generate electricity by rubbing together.”

One of the center’s projects was Centerbeam, a 144-foot-long composite performing sculpture created by twenty-two artists, five scientists, and five engineers. It was exhibited in Kassel, West Germany, in 1977 and in Washington, D.C., in 1978. Centerbeam involved laser projections programmed steam emissions and steam art, gas-filled polyethylene and fabric flying flowers, laser beams of white-green light producing colored lines, white light transmission holograms, hugely written poems reflected in air and water, performance events, video images, recorded instrumental, vocal, and electronic music.

The center is preoccupied with sky art now. The first of four planned international sky art conferences was held there last fall with works by fellows and other sky artists – sky poems, holograms, laser projections, steam and video works, and Piene’s flying sculpture Blue Star Linz elated the sky. Sky Art ’82, in Linz, Austria, will focus on telecommunications. In conjunction with a Bruckner Festival, center artists will present sky events while producing a new amplification system for a Bruckner symphony. Sky Art ’83 will be in Paris and ’84 in Los Angeles and, by telecommunication, simultaneously in Tokyo.

Fellows of the center are artists working together like repertory players on revolving projects. Paul Earls in a composer who combines laser beams with music to produce simultaneous patterns of music and light. Mark Mendel is an environmental poet whose poems have appeared on walls around Cambridge, projected onto steam screens, on billboards, and circling in the sky behind yellow airplanes. Joan Brigham works in steam. Joan Brigham likes to quote Merleau-Ponty: “No more is it a question of speaking of space and light; the question is to make the space and light, which is there, speak to us.” She has said, “Steam enters the space like a dancer onstage, and energizes that space through continuous movement.”

For Piene, whose own walls are covered with pictures, the evolution from sculpture to sky art was a natural extension of form and scale. It was propelled by a fusion of his thought and experimentation of a radicalizing decade with an older, more purely personal image. He spoke about a vision of the sky that has been one of the sources of his inspiration to make and encourage sky art. In May 1945, at the end of the agonies of the Sky War over Europe, Piene, then a very young man, saw from an airplane the sky reflected in a sea at long last calm: “The feeling of being reborn has never left me.” Out of this rebirth came “a love for the sky, the desire to point at it, to show how beautiful it is, how it makes us live and feel alive.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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