Otto Piene
Paths to Paradise

Otto Piene, «Manned Helium Sculpture», 5 January 1969, Boston, for «The Medium Is the Medium», WGBH-TV. © 2024 ProLitteris, Zurich: Otto Piene Estate, photo: Otto Piene archive; Connie White

Otto Piene
Paths to Paradise
7 February – 12 May 2024

Otto Piene (1928−2014) aimed high with his art: to shape a more harmonious, peaceful, and sustainable world. His expansive view explored new media and projected aesthetic forms and experiences into new spatial realms.

Structured thematically, the monographic exhibition Otto Piene: Paths to Paradise traces his utopian vision as expressed in works from his most significant series and projects in conversation with his lifelong practice of sketching. Together these works reveal Piene’s use of sketching and drawing in both narrow and broad, literal and figurative senses, and provide an expanded definition in connection to a visionary practice that embraced the application of new technology.

Skizze Black

Otto Piene, Untitled (text and bleed-through of previous page, left page); Untitled (designs for wind socks, right page)
Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Elizabeth Goldring Piene
© 2024 ProLitteris, Zurich: Otto Piene Estate
Photo: © President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2019.11.13

black

Otto Piene, Black Stacks Helium Sculpture, 30 October 1976
Installation view, Minneapolis
Color photograph, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
© 2024 ProLitteris, Zurich: Otto Piene Estate
Photo: courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Through a transmedial perspective that bridges periods of his practice often viewed as distinct, this presentation offers a complex reading of Piene’s work that includes several immersive installations and rarely seen works. The exhibition invites audiences to rediscover Otto Piene’s oeuvre, beyond a critique of technological naivety or romantic idealism, and thus provides the viewer transformative and imaginatively expansive tools in an increasingly uncertain world.

Yes, I dream of a better world.
Should I dream of a worse?

Yes, I desire a wider world.
Should I desire a narrower?

Otto Piene, «Paths to Paradise», in: ZERO 3, 1961

Otto Piene, Inflation trial

Otto Piene, Inflation trial for Olympic Rainbow, 1972, St. Paul, MN, USA, August 1, 1972.
© 2024 Pro Litteris, Zurich; Otto Piene Estate
Photo: Jean Nelson, Otto Piene archive

Fleur du mal

Otto Piene, Fleur du Mal, 1968–1970
Red spinnaker cloth, polyethylene, blower, timer
213 x 127 x 120 cm
Otto Piene Estate, courtesy Sprüth Magers
© 2024 ProLitteris, Zurich: Otto Piene Estate
Photo: courtesy Sprüth Magers © Ingo Kniest

This monographic exhibition on Otto Piene addresses the artist’s desire to shape a more harmonious, peaceful, and sustainable world according to a utopian vision that expands art beyond the bounds of traditional media and projects it into atmospheric realms. Rather than presenting his oeuvre chronologically, this exhibition offers a rereading of Piene’s art according to multi- and intermedia projects that engage recurring motifs and ideas. Thus, it bridges periods of his practice that have often been viewed as distinct, namely Zero in Düsseldorf (1957—1966) and technology-based Sky Art after his move to the United States in the 1960s.

Presenting rarely-exhibited and long-celebrated works by Piene alongside unpublished materials, Paths to Paradise will be the first large-scale museum exhibition to seriously consider sketching and drawing as related to his painting, sculpture, installation, and media art. Works and projects from his most significant series and thematic experimentations—raster and smoke paintings, kinetic sculptures, light installations, inflatable sculptures and Sky Art, experimentations in television and new media, etc.—will thus exist in conversation with each other and his lifelong practice of sketching. For the scope of our exhibition, the terms “drawing” and “sketching” encourage new interpretations of Piene’s work and offer a more complete grasp of the broad range of his artistic practice.

Rooster

Otto Piene, Hexagonal Rooster, 1983
Installation view from International Alarm (Elizabeth Goldring, Edward LePoulin), Sky Art Conference '83, Munich, 1983
© 2024 ProLitteris, Zurich: Otto Piene Estate
Photo: Otto Piene archive © Elizabeth Goldring

Rooster

Otto Piene, Untitled (bleed-through of previous page, left page);
Untitled («Black Rooster» right page)
Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Gift of Elizabeth Goldring Piene
© 2024 ProLitteris, Zurich: Otto Piene Estate
Photo: © President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2019.35.9

Understanding the terms sketching and drawing in both narrow and broad senses, we explore how they translate across media for Piene as he drew with smoke and light and animated the sky using his malleable, inflatable forms. Providing a common thread in his oeuvre, Piene’s sketching practice engages both traditional spaces for drawing, i.e., the sketchbook, and new, innovative technologies as he experimented with television broadcasting, slide projectors, and even lasers. Figuratively speaking, “sketching” can also stand for the potential that Piene outlined for his art—the potential to contribute to the development of society, to overcome the separation between art and technology, to deal with ecological problems, and, most importantly, to live in a more peaceful world unified through art.
 

Lichtraum

Otto Piene, Lightroom with Mönchengladbach Wall, 1963–2013
Cardboard, wood, metal, motor, light
Dimensions variable
Otto Piene Estate, courtesy Sprüth Magers.
© 2024 ProLitteris, Zurich: Otto Piene Estate
Photo: courtesy Sprüth Magers © Timo Ohler

Structured thematically, the exhibition guides viewers through and across Piene’s creative endeavors during the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st century. Displays that combine sculptures, paintings, drawings, and archival material (photographs, videos, and other documentation) present themes central to his artistic practice across media and creative periods. Paths to Paradise features several rooms that will be filled with inflatables and light projections that invite audiences to experience the spatial and corporeal qualities of his art. Coursing through eleven rooms, the chapters of the exhibition unfold in spaces that vary in density and in atmosphere, ranging from tension-filled, dark black boxes to light-filled, airy spaces. Presentations in white cube spaces alternate with immersive optical, sculptural, and kinetic experiences.

…to praise brightness alone seems to me to be insufficient. I go to darkness itself, I pierce it with light, I make it transparent, I take its terror from it, I turn it into a volume of power with the breath of life like my own body, and I take smoke so that it can fly.

Otto Piene, «Paths to Paradise», in: ZERO 3, 1961

Portzrait Piene

Otto Piene mit Red Sundew 2
Installation view, Light Air Pax, Honolulu
Academy of the Arts, 1970
© 2024 ProLitteris, Zurich: Otto Piene Estate
Photo: Otto Piene archive

Within these heterogeneous spaces, the exhibition emphasizes Piene’s commitment to thinking across media and uniting his practice in its claim of providing what he outlined in 1961 as “paths to paradise.” Focusing on works from the late 1960s and the 1970s, when Piene shifted from Zero to Sky Art and began splitting his time between the US and West Germany, the exhibition includes formative immersive installations (The Proliferation of the Sun, 1967; Fleurs du Mal, 1969) as well as early experimentation with television and light projection (Black Gate Cologne, 1968; The Medium Is the Medium, 1969; Lichtspur im Haus der Sonne, 1974). Overlooked works and new archival findings (e.g., documentation of an early version of The Proliferation of the Sun) will also be presented for the first time, paired with rarely seen works. Additionally, the exhibition will breathe life back into works that haven’t been shown since their first presentations (e.g., Anemones: An Air Aquarium, Creative Time, 1976; Windsock Sculptures, MIT, 1969−1970) and have never been presented to European audiences. Paths to Paradise will offer a more complex reading of Piene’s work and its contributions to new tendencies in 20th-century art by providing an intermedial perspective. Our curatorial approach underscores how Piene’s groundbreaking strategies of combining art and technology and exploring art’s public, social, and environmental potential remain relevant and compelling to this day.

Biography Otto Piene

Otto Ludwig Wilhelm Hermann Leonhard Piene was born on April 18, 1928, in Laasphe (Westphalia). In 1944, as a fifteen-year-old high school student, he was drafted into an anti-aircraft unit as a child soldier. Beginning in 1949, he studied fine art in Munich and then in 1950 at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf. In 1953 he also began studying philosophy and aesthetics at the University of Cologne.

Piene first came to prominence in 1958 together with Heinz Mack as cofounder of Zero in Düsseldorf (Günther Uecker joined the core group in 1961). In contrast to the darkness of the war and in opposition to the gestural painting of the time, Zero proclaimed a fresh start in art, oriented towards light, vibration, purity, energy, and the cosmos. ZERO soon became an influential network across Europe. What the ZERO artists, among them Jean Tinguely, had in common was an interest in visual perception, in the kinetic, and in a radical reduction of form. At this time, Piene developed early pioneering works like the Raster Paintings and Smoke Drawings, and he invented his Light Ballets.

Piene made further breakthroughs in his art in the late 1960s, becoming the first international fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) before succeeding György Kepes as its director in 1974. This second major creative period is marked by his invention of Sky Art, with one highlight being the Olympic Rainbow, which took to the sky above the lake in the Olympic Park during the closing ceremony of the Munich Olympics in 1972.

With his interest in combining art and technology, Piene became a pioneer of media art; in 1968, for example, he collaborated with Aldo Tambellini to create Black Gate Cologne, the first ever art production for television. Another milestone in his artistic career was Centerbeam, a monumental intermedia work created collaboratively by CAVS for documenta 6 under Piene’s direction.

Otto Piene died on June 17, 2014, on the way to prepare for a Sky Event that would take place on the roof of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin as part of the retrospective More Sky (Nationalgalerie ‒ Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and Deutsche Bank KunstHalle).

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue with five research articles published by Hirmer (288 pages, 296 colour illustrations).

Curated by Dr. Sandra Beate Reimann and Dr. Lauren Elizabeth Hanson.