Impressions: ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s @ Guggenheim NYC

Through January 7, 2015
ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s
Guggenheim Museum, NYC


Pulled in by the preview image of a swirling light-based installation, I visited this exhibition of experimental artists who emerged from post-war Europe. I’m surprised I hadn’t learned about these predecessors playing with light and kinetics prior. The show succeeds as a well-organized, beautifully displayed art historical survey with a concise amount of text and context. I especially admired the artists’ futurism and optimism.

The Guggenheim’s website features a smartly designed and scored exhibition site. An exhibition trailer shows additional works. Together, the two form a good substitute if you can’t make it to NYC. I’ve linked to the images there for your reference.

I found it rewarding to approach the works as art historical objects, and consider the works’ technical or mechanical accomplishments, the development of industrial materials, and the period of art history that was still very painting- and sculpture-oriented. For example, at least half of the artworks use two-dimensional, rectangular substrates, even when the artists were not interested in painting per se. These flat-ish works offer experiences that fluctuate between illusion and materiality. There’s a pleasant appropriateness to placing the earlier, more two-dimensional works in the lowest and narrowest part of the rotunda walkway, and the later, larger installation works in the higher and wider end of the ramp.

At first I was surprised that there were so many paintings and painting-like objects, but I enjoyed some real stunners: Walter LeBlanc’s painting-sculpture using twisted poly-vinyl strips (1965) made for high-impact Op-Art, and Lucio Fontana’s large slashed canvas Concetto spaziale, Attese (1959)—soft lighting heightened the matte paint and perfect slashes.

The inclusion of several works by Yves Klein, including a field of blue pigment, was a treat, as these works losing vibrancy and tactility in reproduction. I also wondered why Klein’s prints of women are seen more often; these monochromes possess more potency to me.

The kinetic sculptures of louvered glass by Heinz Mack [see the exhibition trailer at 3:00] dazzle, and I wavered in my critical reactions. Their shapes are content-free, geometric, and ultimately inoffensive, yet they represent an unique expression of the group’s interest in movement and vibration. It was also interesting to see the use of acrylic and think about the contemporaneous experiments by California Light and Space artists like Larry Bell and Robert Irwin.

Perhaps the most stunning display was the theatrical reinterpretation of the original ZERO exhibition held in a warehouse [see the exhibition trailer at 0:18]. Included was an effective Vibration painting/assemblage by Jésus Raphael Soto. As a fan of Fluxus associated artist Daniel Spoerri and his attempts to merge art and life, I was delighted to see that one of the most compelling works in the space—a kinetic, mirrored sculpture with three different scores on scrolls—was Spoerri’s, made with Jean Tinguely [see on the right of the trailer at 0:18]. Yet Auto-Theater was intended to spur action and participation, so while it was compelling to look at, viewing seems like an incomplete engagement, unfortunately. Similarly, Spoerri’s Variations on a Meal, by Noma Copley (1964), was probably remnants of an action that was the locus of the artwork, and not meant to be viewed as an autonomous art object. The wall texts for this work, and Jan Henderikse’s Bottle Wall (1962) alongside it, seemed to call for more context about the merging of art and life.

Many of the artists reclaimed the tools and experiences of warfare for positive acts of artistic creation, using unconventional media and techniques to create optical and sensorial artworks. Mack’s Light Grid in Space (1961-69) [see the exhibition trailer at 2:53], a series of long, twisted strips of chromed brass, is a reflective, proto-Cornelia Parker hanging installation that turns reflections a surreal 90º. Digging deeper, it’s inspired by “chaff”—metal strips dropped by warplanes to interfere with enemy radar. While attempts at transmogrification—of making something beautiful out of something as heinous as war—sometimes feel insubstantial, I believe the ZERO artists’ lived experiences of immense devastation imbue these actions with courage.

Otto Piene’s Light Ballet (1961) motorized-light installation is a transcendent, celestial experience. But it’s also lent gravity by the fact that Piene was inspired by watching nighttime aerial campaigns when he was tasked with anti-aircraft duties as a member of a youth corps.

A section was devoted to artists using fire and smoke for mark-making. Wielding a flamethrower post-war must have been shocking, yet the artists insisted on the positive.

Publications including ZERO magazines and an exuberant poster set in Futura were on view. Graphic design nerds will enjoy them. I could have seen more, but it seems that the Guggenheim exhibition was geared toward sensorial experiences with the works themselves, which is fine too.

The show culminates with a recreation of a late exhibition: a large installation of several light-based kinetic works. There’s something very sweet about a group of artists who’ve developed their interests both discreetly and collaboratively being exhibited in this setting with a unifying score. As Piene said:

teamwork is nonsense if it … rules out individuality or personal sensibility.”

Perhaps this fundamental autonomy is the basis for ZERO artists’ faith in the freedom and transformative power of art-making.