For the 2018 edition of The Art Show, Sperone Westwater presents a focused display of ceramic work by Otto Piene in cooperation with the artist’s estate. The co-founder of the influential ZERO Group (1957-1966), Piene moved to the United States in 1964 and took up a position at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968, later serving as its director. A dual citizen, Piene would divide his time between studios in Groton, Massachusetts, and Düsseldorf until his death in 2014.
Begun in 2006, Piene’s ceramic works, including freestanding sculpture and wall-mounted tablets alike, present a technically experimental yet formally and conceptually cohesive late body of work. The wall-mounted works are the final iteration of the artist’s important series of Rasterbilder, or “screen paintings,” in which pigment pressed through screens produces a mechanical pattern evoking the reflection and refraction of light. Piene took up the technique at the outset of the ZERO movement in 1957, when he produced screens with perforated patterns of arrays and expansive arcs (a motif taken from the back of a radio), and he quickly recognized its potential for application across a wide range of media. The Rasterbilder encompass paint, smoke, and light impressions on board, canvas, and paper, and prompted the artist’s earliest room-filling light installations. The first of these Lichtballetten (“light ballets”), as they became known, was staged for an audience at Galerie Schmela in 1959 and used flashlights and Piene’s painting screens to throw roving patterns of light across the darkened space.
Over the years, Piene developed both the raster and “light ballet” formats with increasing technical sophistication, although the underlying process remained largely consistent. In 2006 he began producing ceramic works—single panels as well as triptychs and larger grids—often utilizing screens with similar patterns. He conceived of these wall-mounted works as paintings which extended his ability to introduce light into the surface of the work itself. The relief marks resulting from the screen are formed by special reflective glazes, recalling some of Piene’s earliest raster paintings, which were executed in metallic paint. The medium also enabled a more physical relationship to the work, as evidenced by gauging and scraping in some of the works, while the firing process, which enabled the artist to cultivate chance surface effects such as oxidation, paralleled Piene’s risk-taking early work with fire. Moving as they do beyond traditional notions of ceramics and their place in advanced art practice, works from this productive late period bring Piene’s project full circle.