From left to right: Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, Günther Uecker, Amsterdam 1962 © Photo: Raoul van den Boom, Archive of the ZERO foundation, Düsseldorf, Germany.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ:  Could we revisit the formation of ZERO art movement by Otto Piene and Heinz Mack – how did they meet?

BARBARA KÖNCHES: Otto Piene and Heinz Mack met in 1950 in Paul Bindel’s class at the Staatliche Kunstakademie (State Academy of Art) in Düsseldorf. Hans Salentin also joined Piene and Mack’s class, and soon the friends created a studio community at Gladbacher Strasse 69 in Düsseldorf. The driving forces of the movement were Heinz Mack, then 19 years old and the youngest student at the Academy, with Otto Piene, who had previously studied Painting for two years in Munich.

Together the artists traveled to Paris, discussed literature and looked around galleries and museums. Both completed a degree in Philosophy in Cologne alongside their art studies in Düsseldorf. Piene and Mack shared the enormous hunger for education and art. The artists were quick to discovered that art institutions, especially in what was then West Germany, were busy catching up with Modernism. Informel was seen as Contemporary Art and the Nouvelle École de Paris was considered the measure of all things, while the new American Art was already rising on the horizon.

The studio at Gladbacher Straße 69, Düsseldorf, where the Evening Exhibitions were held. © Photo: Heinz Mack, Archive of the ZERO foundation, Heinz Mack Estate, Düsseldorf, Germany.

LŠ: The exhibition series titled Abendausstellungen (Evening Exhibition) were formative in the creation of ZERO – how do you see their individual roles? When did Gunther Uecker join the group?

BK: Initially out of necessity, Piene and Mack organized the so-called Evening Exhibitions (die Abendausstellungen) in their studio starting in the spring of 1957. These were a series of exhibitions that could only be seen for one evening as the following day they needed the rooms to continue their work.

From Piene’s point of view, the 4th Evening Exhibition marks the beginning of the ZERO story. In this group exhibition, he had shown his raster pictures for the first time, while Mack had painted over certain pictures with black paint out of “anger and disappointment”.[1]

7. Abendausstellung, 1958. (Invitation to the 7th Evening Exhibition) © Archive of the ZERO foundation, Düsseldorf, Germany.

The 7th Evening Exhibition  titled The Red Painting  represents a turning point as it was accompanied by a magazine published by Mack and Piene: ZERO Vol. 1. With this publication the new art, free from the Informel and its subjective color sludge, focused on the interaction with new materials, with structure, movement, and light. The movement received its own name: ZERO.

The 7th Evening Exhibition saw the participation of 45 artists, including three women: Hanne Brenken, Hal Busse, Herta Junghanns-Grulich. Yves Klein and Günther Uecker also brought a “red painting” to the Gladbacher Straße studio. This presentation marked the beginning of the history of ZERO art and the movement.

Since the Edition/Exposition/Demonstration at the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf’s Hunsrückenstraße, which was an exhibition and happening on the occasion of the release of ZERO vol. 3,  in 1961, Günther Uecker is an integral part of ZERO.

LŠ: Could we discuss the role of curator Willem Sandberg in the affirmation of the ZERO group on an international level? Do you see importance of any other curators or museum directors, for the international recognition of the group?

BK: Willem Sandberg, director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was undoubtedly an important figure for art and artists in the 1950s. Through him, the institution of the museum became an important place for the production of art. Stedeljik Museum, according to Sandberg’s ideas, visitors and art could and should meet to create “an open center of encounter”.[2]

For example, Sandberg commissioned artists Daniel Spoerri and Jean Tinguely to curate an exhibition, known as Bewogen Beweging in March 1961, which included many of the ZERO artists – including Mack, Piene, Uecker.  Yet, Sandberg was not the first to exhibit ZERO art.

Although, he was not the only curator supporting experimentations as only a year earlier, on April 10, 1960, Paul Wember had shown Multiplied Works of Art that Move or Let Move by Edition MAT Paris at the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld. Both exhibitions are very close to each other – thematically and through the authoritative artist-curators.

In the case of the explicit ZERO movement, Sandberg was the first to offer the new art an opportunity for exhibition in a museum. The first institutional exhibition Nul [Nul 62] at the Stedelijk Museum was also based less on Sandberg’s commitment to this art movement than on his tolerance. The exhibition was initiated by Henk Peeters and experienced financial difficulties through the process.

View of the exhibition “Nul 62" with works by Piene, Mack, Uecker © Photo: Heinz Mack. Courtesy of Archive of the ZERO foundation and Heinz Mack Estate, Düsseldorf, Germany.

However, ZERO exhibitions for Sandberg were based less on an artistic or curatorial decision than on the fact that he generally enabled and allowed artistic experimental production in museums.

Paul Wember, on the other hand, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld (since 1947), was enthusiastic about the new ZERO art movement. He supported Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Piero Manzoni, and other artists in the ZERO environment, and in 1963 he made the first institutional solo exhibition of Mack, Piene, and Uecker, Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld in Germany (19.1.- 17.3.1963).

LŠ: Compared to other global art movements, ZERO operated in the words of artist Mack – as a point of view. There was no official manifesto or organisation of the group. How did the community expand internationally and and when did Lucio Fontana and Yves Klein associate themselves with the group?

BK: ZERO and like-minded artist groups such as Nul in the Netherlands or Azimuth/Azimut in Italy created a European network – which in the 1950s moved primarily in the area of the European Economic Community (EEC). The background of the artists, then in their late 20s/early 30s, was of a youth traumatized by the Second World War and their will for a new beginning. Their rejection of ideology and propaganda, a lively intellectual interest in everything from modern art, literature, music, and philosophy, led to a large portion of optimism.

From left to right: Piero Manzoni, Heinz Mack, Enrico Castellanti at the Azimut Gallery, Milan, on the occasion of the exhibition “Rilievi luminosi e pitture" by Heinz Mack, 1960 © Archive of the ZERO foundation, Heinz Mack estate, Düsseldorf, Germany.

Lucio Fontana, born in 1899 and thus a generation older, was already a well-known artist due to the 1st and 2nd Spazialismo Manifestos, and he was very interested in the younger artists. When Yves Klein held his first gallery exhibition Proposte Monocrome, Epoca Blu, at the Galleria Apollinaire (Milan), Fontana bought one of the presented monochrome blue works.

Piero Manzoni, the tirelessly curious traveler, reported in the summer of 1959 that he had contacted Mack and Piene. He had the money for the “European trip” through some sales from Iris Clert’s gallery. The Parisian gallery owner was not only a close confidant of Yves Klein but she also knew Mack, Piene, as well as the gallery owner Alfred Schmela, who also lived in Düsseldorf.

In January 1960, the gallerist Schmela showed Lucio Fontana’s first solo exhibition in his space in Düsseldorf’s old town. Three months later, Udo Kulturmann, director of the Städtisches Museum Schloss Morsbroich in Leverkusen, curated the legendary exhibition Monochrome Malerei, in which many ZERO artists with Lucio Fontana participated.

From left to right: Lucio Fontana, Alfred Schmela at Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf, on the occasion of the exhibition “Lucio Fontana", 1960 © Photo: N.N., Archive of the ZERO foundation, Düsseldorf, Germany.
Poster for the exhibition “Lucio Fontana" at Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf, 1960, © Photo: N.N., Archive of the ZERO foundation, Düsseldorf, Germany

Otto Piene reports in his text The Development of the Group Zero, published in 1964, that he met Fontana for the first time in 1961. Mack, on the other hand, had visited him earlier in Milan through his contact with Manzoni and Nanda Vigo. [3] Yves Klein met Heinz Mack and Otto Piene during their early visits to Paris in the early 1950s.

Overall, one can state: The ZERO movement was essentially based on many friendships that were cultivated. People visited each other, wrote to each other, and invited each other to participate in publications and exhibitions. Alongside Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, and later Nanda Vigo, the Düsseldorf ZERO artists – Mack, Piene, Uecker– in particular were enormously committed and full of ideas. And they all admired Lucio Fontana, who was something of a mentor to the ZERO artists.

Artistically, they were united in wanting to evoke a new sensibility with and through art. Nature and its forces such as fire, wind, light, air, or water became instruments of art production and replaced the brush. For Mack, the Sahara replaced the canvas, Piene let the stars shine out of the darkness in his light rooms, and Uecker dynamized objects and later landscapes with the help of the nail.

LŠ: How do you see the influence of Lucio Fontana and the Spatialist movement on the work of Zero artists? Or of Yves Klein? 

BK: The Bauhaus exemplified the connection between architecture and the fine arts, but Bauhaus artists such as Kandinsky and Klee remained faithful to the closed tableau of their paintings. It was the revolutionary gesture of Lucio Fontana’s redeeming cut through the canvas into space, that made room for something new.

From this point, the ZERO artists formed a new perception of aesthetic with light, movement, and structure. They created paintings, objects, and installations that created a field of possibility between the author and the viewer. The artistic work is given by the author, but it unfolds only through the viewer, who moves or in whose eyes the play of light evokes moving sentences.

Yves Klein impressed the ZERO artists with his openness, his unconventional manner, and his genre-busting concept of art that could be a performance and that was publicized. An endless play and sensual pleasure.

LŠ: Could we retrace the relationship the artists had with associated ZERO galleries such as Iris Clert in Paris, introduced via Yves Klein?

BK: Iris Clert was immensely important for ZERO art. As a Parisian gallery owner as well as a mediator. Yves Klein found in her a congenial and reliable partner for his unconventional art concepts. In Düsseldorf, equal force was the gallery owner Alfred Schmela who pioneered the way for the young avant-garde.

In general, institutions such as museums and art associations were very hesitant to exhibit the progressive art of the time, so the galleries played an enormously important role in mediating the conversations which Thekla Zell explains in her dissertation Exposition Zero. From the Studio to the Avant-Garde Gallery, 2010, that is thoroughly analyzed.

LŠ: Could we revisit role and inception of ZERO magazine?

BK: The 1st volume ZERO Vol. 1 was published for the 7th Evening Exhibition “Das rote Bild”, (The Red Painting) 1958, by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, who were in charge of editing, print and distribution. The title ZERO, found by chance, then became the name of a new art movement.

ZERO Vol. 1 gathered essays by artists such as Hermann Bartels, Max Burchartz, Klaus Jürgen Fischer, Konrad Klapheck, Yves Klein, Georg Muche, and Hans Platschek, and by art theorists such as Franz Roh, Hans Sedlmayr, Fritz Seitz, Michel Seuphor and John Anthony Thwaites. Arnold Gehlen and, of course, Mack and Piene themselves also contributed.

The next volume appears on the occasion of the 8th Evening Exhibition under the title Vibration, 1958, which was covered by only five artists. In addition to artists’ texts, the second edition of the magazine also contains illustrations of all the exhibited works.

Mack and Piene then took three years to publish ZERO Vol. 3, a genuine artists’ book. The graphic design, the international participation, and the quality of the contributions are and were absolutely unique. Again, under the direction of Mack and Piene the magazine was presented through a launch at Galerie Schmela and with accompanying artist actions, where Günther Uecker was co-initiator of the event Edition, Exposition, Demonstration on July 5, 1961. 

With the 3rd volume of the ZERO magazine, the art movement had found its adequate expression. Another publication could not have added anything to it.

LŠ: Why did ZERO as an art  movement terminate in 1966?

BK: Mack, Piene, and Uecker had organized exhibitions together.  They had shown their joint work at the show Lichtraum – Hommage à Fontana at the 3rd Documenta in Kassel in 1964 and they curated the first ZERO exhibition in the USA in 1964.

View of the exhibition “ZERO [Group ZERO]", Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA, 1964, © Photo: N.N, Archive of the ZERO foundation, Düsseldorf, Germany.
View of the exhibition “ZERO [Group ZERO]", Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA, 1964, © Photo: N.N, Archive of the ZERO foundation, Düsseldorf, Germany.

ZERO was successful, but more and more the group affiliation hindered the development possibilities of the individual – although the three artists certainly perceived this to different degrees.

With the exhibition ZERO in Bonn in the Städtische Kunstsammlung, the three said goodbye to their ZERO affiliation. The exhibition closed on December 31, 1966, and the paths were open: for Piene, toward the newly founded Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA; for Mack, toward his Sahara project, and to Japan; and for Uecker, toward South America, Africa, and Asia. 

American Land Art certainly has strong parallels with ZERO art, for it was already the express wish of Mack, Piene, and Uecker to leave the museum behind and make art in the landscape with water, earth, fire, and air. But the artistic position of the 1960s and 1970s known as the Light and Space Movement on the American West Coast also has similarities to ZERO art. This has yet to be investigated in more detail.

Over the past 60 years or so, ZERO art has certainly influenced many individual artists, consciously or unconsciously. In the oeuvre of contemporary artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Amish Kapoor, or Brigitte Kowanz, one can find links to ZERO art.



[1] The quotes are taken from the publication: Helga Meister, Zero in der Düsseldorfer Szene, Düsseldorf 2006, pp. 51, 9, 60.

[2] Caroline Roddenburg-Schaad, “The Museum of Today. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam by Willem Sandberg,” in Barbara Steiner, Charles Esche (eds.), Possible Museums, Cologne 2007, pp. 47-65, here p. 47.f

[3] Otto Piene, “The Development of the Group Zero.” In: The Literary Supplement, Vol. 63, No. 3262, London, September 3, 1964, pp. 812-813.