On ViewSperone Westwater
November 20, 2020 – January 16, 2021
Otto Piene’s life’s work constitutes a grand example of the artist’s capacity for transforming the leaden memories of war and its ruinous aftermath into golden allegories of energy, light, and futuristic aspiration. Born in Germany and just old enough to serve as a teenaged flak-gunner in the twilight of the Third Reich, Piene emerged from that cataclysm determined to remake his future world from scratch. In 1957, barely a decade after WWII, Piene and fellow artist Heinz Mack formed the group Zero, a symbolic indication that they would begin from nothing, or at least with skepticism of the continuity of dependable cultural capital. Later Zero would be joined by a larger circle of international artists, consisting of individuals loosely dedicated to bringing the antinomies of fundamental materialism and utopian dematerialization into some sort of alchemical equilibrium. Piene would eventually immigrate to the United States in 1964 to hold the positions of resident artist and professor at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), founded by György Kepes at MIT. There, his experiments with what might be termed “empirical transcendence”—in phenomenal light shows and mechanically augmented happenings—dovetailed easily with American postwar techno-utopianism.
Specific aspects of Piene’s long and varied career are present in this show, particularly his focus on grid or raster structures and the more fluid (and simultaneously more concrete) translation of those explorations into glazes on ceramic tablets. The earliest works here are a series of “Raster paintings” made from 1957 to 1989 and distributed throughout the installation. Cross Currents (1957/1989) presents an offset overlay of two dotted grids in black and blue oil paint enhanced by a smoky trial by fire. The offset creates a primitive, optically energizing moiré pattern that is somewhat blurred by the sfumato effect derived from its incendiary treatment. A related work, Vanish and Reappear (1957/1989), maintains the blue-and-black, oil-paint color scheme while exaggerating the smoke-plume blurring effect. These feel less like compositions than trace manifestations of chemical experimentation. Another example of such an impression can be seen in Untitled (1957), a black-and-red Raster composition, with more of an oily than smoky trace, and Untitled (1957/67), a white-on-off-white accumulation of raised raster dots that appear to have been squeezed through a screen; this type of raised dot matrix is variously reprised in many of the ceramic pieces on view in the show. Piene’s search for alternative processes that might exemplify the artist as an enlightened alchemist is made clear by his focus on repetitive pattern, light, heat, and energy in these formative works. Recalling his wartime experience, he famously stated, “seeing is aiming”: the scansion of the grid as strategic mapping of the nighttime sky via searchlights, or as the fiery tracks of tracer bullet rounds, are translated into these works in a very direct way. Rather than presenting as evidentiary traumatic, these early raster paintings strive to incorporate and transcend the wartime technological towards an abstract phenomenology that might conceptually cauterize such painful manifestations of militarized empirical order, explosive heat, and light. Rather than redescribe the arc of historical tragedy in postwar German reflection more illustratively, as younger countrymen such as Jörg Immendorff or Anselm Kiefer would, Piene relied strongly upon the elemental substance of energy itself to propel his vision of a newer global dynamic.
Moving between these works, one is drawn intimately in by how the artist’s elegant improvisation on the grid creates microcosmic separations and coalescence in mercurial movements of precious metals. In Platinsoldaten (2014), for instance, a roughly 24 by 24 inch tablet of glazed ceramic is criss-crossed in a loose grid of platinum dots that alternatively hold their globular form or combine with their neighboring dots in amoebically combined third forms. I was reminded of my own surreptitious childhood play with mercury from a broken thermometer and the wonder at how the liquid would maintain a metallic consistency and tend to recombine magically with itself, despite a variety of manipulations. Yet Piene’s gestures also exude a certain frozen austerity, as their plasticity has become essentially fossilized in a glaze of ceramic memory. Multi - die goldene Stadt (2012) manifests much the same, but this time in gold, its grid organization emphasized by four horizontal bands of raster dot density. If not for the rigor and compositional discretion of the artist’s incremental gestures in these works, one might too easily be seduced by their luscious, almost glamorous, surfaces in platinum and gold. Such materials, though, serve perfectly to extend Piene’s metaphor of alchemical translation and transformation; notions of their material worth tend to fragment like the myriad tiny reflections of one’s own image in their glinting surfaces.
The second-floor balcony features an array of more recent ceramic tablets fabricated in a humble brick-red clay body. These present more as serial works due to their consistent fabrication in red glazes over what appear to be long-fired (and therefore physically strong) grounds. As opposed to the reflective delicacies of the earlier ceramic works, these feel obdurately absorptive, and the raster-forms read almost as the coded information on archaic computer punch cards. With evocative tiles such as Binnenhafen (Inland Sea) (2013) and Gelbes Meer (Yellow Sea) (2013), they suggest the older artist extending his phenomenological analogies to specific places. This poetic situation of empirical form sets the stage for a reconsideration of the memory as more felt than known, the organizing grid as more fundamentally cellular than instrumentally rationalized. These later works might represent the artist’s return from the strategically aimed sky to the resignedly (yet not disastrously capitulate) handled earth.