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Otto Piene, "Fire Flower (Bridge Edge)"

Otto Piene was one of the artists who wanted to transform the traumas of the Second World War into optimism, renewal, and prosperity. This was also one of the basic ideas of the ZERO group he co-founded in 1957 together with Heinz Mack and later with Günther Uecker. ZERO was "the incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new", or, as Piene said: "ZERO expresses the human yearning to create a new world in spite of apparent chaos and the seeming fruitlessness of the endeavor, to build with what Nature provides us and with human ingenuity, with universal energy and with technology."

Works by the ZERO group of artists are informed by a marked enthusiasm for technology in general and for technical materials in particular. Otto Piene, who besides art also studied philosophy and was lecturer at the Fashion Institute in Düsseldorf, regarded light and colour as a unity. Since the late 1950s he has been dealing intensively with the connection between light and colour, investigating the light value of colour, and studying the possibilities for releasing the energy inherent in colour.

Piene's experiences as an anti-aircraft gunner during WWII created a fascination for light that filled the night sky. Later, fire became the medium of "working light" for his so-called Rauchbilder (Smoke Images): by burning a layer of solvent on the canvas and penetrating pigment and soot through grids, or by painting his canvas with flammable pigments, which he then ignited, Piene created images that grew within seconds "on a border line between destruction and survival". The result, largely uncontrollable, refers to elementary natural energies.

Another artist who embraced the use of fire as a medium was of course Yves Klein, but his works were more about the presence of the absent, about capturing the air like some kind of alchemist. What Piene and Klein did share was the use of fire to look to the future without forgetting the past, as the memory of nature. "Fire is gentleness and torture," Klein said, and it is indeed this contradiction that is also present in Piene's work. The uncontrollability, fleetingness yet inherent beauty of fire and smoke created an artistic vocabulary.

The same contrasts can be found in Piene's titles, often somewhere on the tension between poetry and imagination, referring to natural elements: Black Sun (1961, Museum Ulm) Purgatory Flower (1963-64, Ulster Museum Belfast), Any Fire Flower (1964, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), Great Sun (1965, KMSKA Antwerp) or Black Apple, (1983/84, Kunstpalast Düsseldorf), all have not only similar visual motifs, but also an underlying philosophy: the sun provides light, and thus "the main condition of all that is visible" and human life; the red suggests heat and fire.

The years in which this work was made were pivotal in Piene's oeuvre. Together with Mack and Uecker, he showed his work at Bozar (1962), Haus Lange (1963), Howard Wise Gallery (1964) and Kestner Gesellschaft (1965), among others, as well as at McRoberts & Tunnard Gallery in 1964, where Fire flower (Bridge Edge) was shown. Group exhibitions were organised under the title 'ZERO' at Galerie Diogenes (1963), Kunstmuseum Den Haag, NVCG London, and ICA Pennsylvania (1964), and Washington Gallery of Modern Art (1965), among others. Piene's work was also shown under the heading 'Nul', with Nul (1962) and Nul negentienhonderd vijf en zestig (1965), both at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, particularly worth mentioning, and he participated in exhibitions on the medium of light in art (including CAMH Houston, 1966).

At the same time, following the influential solo exhibitions at Galerie Schmela, Piene had solo exhibitions at Museum Morsbroich (1962), Howard Wise Gallery (1965), Museum am Ostwall (1967) and Westfälisches Landesmuseum (1968), among others. Also in 1968, Piene became a Fellow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, after which he became Professor of Environmental Art at MIT in 1972, and in 1974 he succeeded György Kepes as director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), in which position he served until 1994. The Sky Art events with which he shaped this programme, are most memorable. "People really got the feeling that there was a reason to hope, that not everything from now on would be disaster, death and destruction," Piene stated.

Object information

Oil and smoke on canvas
68 x 95 cm
Collection Réginald Christopher Coelho (1934-2017)
Title and subtitle reverse of frame; signature and year reverse of canvas, as well as two stamps of Viktoria Malleinen.

Title and subtitle reverse of frame; signature and year reverse of canvas, as well as two stamps of Viktoria Malleinen.

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