Not Nihilism, or a Dada-like Gag : ZERO

OttoPiene, LightBallet, 1969 Chrome, glass, and lightbulbs, spherediameter38cm,drumheight, 45.7cm, diameter,125.5cm
OttoPiene, LightBallet, 1969 Chrome, glass and lightbulbs, spherediameter, 38cm, drumheight, 45.7cm, diameter, 125.5cm

The name “Zero” was meant “not as an expression of nihilism – or a dada-like gag – but as a word indicating a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning … the incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new.” Otto Peine. Forged while ruminating on the aftermath of the Second World War, there was a great hurdle to clear for a group set on re-inventing the contemporary art world for themselves and for future generations of artists, to start over and work from a clean slate.

The Zero network harnessed the youthful energy of Dada by sharply pursuing a new way for themselves and their peers that involved breaking from everything done before without the hopelessness of post-modernism. They were idealistic and positive, therefore not Nihilist, but still with a love of nothingness.  “Their goal was to sweep aside familiar modes of gestural painting and pictorial sentimentality, most prominently exemplified by Abstract Expressionism and Tachisme.” Roberta Smith (New York Times)

Zero also embraced the newness of technology and tried to make it harmonize with nature in their ideal utopian future they imagined for themselves. Founded in Dusseldorf 1958 by German artists Otto Peine and Heinz Mack and later joined by Gunther Uecker in 1961, they experienced the beginnings of space travel by proxy and some of them personally experienced the Second World War. The core group was well organized and had multiple publications (The Zero Magazines), which they promoted with elaborate street performances that suggested the early stages of performance art, helping their network expand across Europe and to the United States and beyond. The network included more than 30 artists from 10 countries who comprised the larger ZERO network, including Lucio Fontana, Yayoi Kusama, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Jesús Rafael Soto, Jean Tinguely, and Herman De Vries.

Gunther Uecker, Dasgelbe Bild (TheYellow Picture) 1957 87 X 85cm
Gunther Uecker, Dasgelbe Bild (TheYellow Picture) 1957 87 X 85cm

Monochrome and kinetic artworks, canvases with wires hanging off of the front, meant to be optical illusions mimicking vibration, elegantly occupy the ground-floor of the Guggenheim.

Entering the exhibition itself, on the first leg of the spiraled hallway, one piece grabs your attention: The Yellow Picture by Gunther Uecker. Part of why this piece stands out is because of its color, a mostly basic yellow shines in a sea of gray, black, white and chrome or earth toned works. The other reason it looms, even from the other monochromatic red or blue works present, is that it speaks to the subconscious by framing something imperceptible (such as the void, or freedom) defined here by the offset yellow square, with a sobering realism, represented by t his pervasive artistic signature, nails.

Gunther Uecker also creates artwork by shooting arrows through canvas, and most affectively uses the concept of kinetic art in the piece New York Dancer. New York Dancer sits motionless looking like a giant industrial cactus draped with a cloth blanket full of giant nails, until the cycle is triggered, causing the work to spin around rapidly and the nails to clang together creating such a jarring din that it almost knocks you off your feet. A sporadic dancer wearing a coat of giant rusty nails says to the visitor I will dance despite that which imprisons me. The work is a metaphor that speaks universally to the human experience still today, and in the artist’s words: “This work is meant to represent the energy and dynamism of New York City: …the embodiment of contradictory conditions in society in the 1960s. On the one hand… activation of a burgeoning youth movement… on the other hand, the limitations to human freedom.”

Zero artists aimed to break away from Abstract Expressionism and Tachisme by being strictly monochromatic. In the words of Otto Peine, “The main tendency was the purification of color as opposed to informel and neo-expressionism; the peaceful conquest of the soul by means of calm, serene sensibilization.”

The Zero foundation website ( expands on this idea in their History section, championing “pure color or pure light as an epitome of cosmic powers becom(ing) a synonym for the liberation of the individual.” This idea is best represented in Yves Klein’s piece, Pigment our bleu which is a giant bedroom sized work of dried pigment of the celebre blue invented by the artist.

An inspiration to the 3 founders, Yves Klein uses a massive torch to blast his canvases with flame, cuts and maims other canvases in the recurring destructive-creative approach to making art in this show.

OttoPiene, VenusofWillendorf, 1963, oil and soot on canvas,150 x 200 cm
OttoPiene, Venus of Willendorf, 1963, oil and soot on canvas,150 x 200 cm

A few of the Zero artists, such as Klein, began with Informalism and chose to consciously break from that approach. Heinz Mack applied himself to making Informal paintings after meeting Klein in Paris, as Uecker made informal dirt pictures and finger paintings in his early days.* Thus their roots are in Informalism. Concurrently, the idea of the action painting, where the process is the artwork and the lack of pre-meditation is meant to lead to a connection to the viewer on a primal level, is still very much a part of the Zero approach as well as a quality of Informalism.

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Otto Peine best utilizes pure light or rather the pure absence of a light element  for the ethos in Venus of Willendorf, an impossibly dark circle of oil and soot absorbing all possible light and calling the viewer towards the center, as hypnotizing as the abyss itself. Peine’s story as a young artist includes his being drafted into the anti-aircraft youth corps of the German Army at the age of 15, causing him to take on a fascination with the sky which he experienced as a threat during his youth. He later reconsidered it as a source for inspiration resulting in works like Light Ballet which uses light and reflection to make a sort of 60’s dance floor effect.

Heinz Mack’s contribution is more with op art, creating these optical illusions of an artwork moving ever so slightly that the viewer isn’t sure if it is tricking the eye or actually moving, as present in the work Silver Dynamo. They all had their own areas of interest within the Zero ethos which they would write about in their magazines and artist statements.

Otto Peine, Heinz Mack, Gunther Uecker collaborate for Light Room, the finale to the exhibition at the topmost section of the museum. Here, there is much light-play, running bulbs on a 6 minute cycle which ends with total darkness, then remaining dark for another 6 minutes. The artworks seem to play with each other as much as the light and what it reveals in this dark room. The destruction of war and the surrendering of control to the mechanisms at work is felt. There is both the excitement and chaos of a strobe like stimulus, the perfect representation of the whole show.

Nick Rogers

Nick Rogers

Nick Rogers is a writer and independent curator living in New York City. He attended University of Connecticut for English and Art History.

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