‘The light of colour flows between the work and the spectator and fills the space between them’
‘Vibration [is a] living growing nuance, that which prohibits contrast, shames all tragedy and disbands all drama. It is the vehicle of frequency, the blood of colour, the pulse of light, pure emotion, the purity of a picture, pure energy’
With its hypnotic vortex of swirling dots, shimmering in burnished splendour, the present work stands among the earliest examples of Otto Piene’s ground-breaking Rasterbilder. Orbiting a central axis in mesmerizing concentric circles, Piene’s raised dots appear to vibrate before the viewer, creating a pulsing electric current that animates the surface of the work. Begun in 1957, and pursued throughout his career, the Rasterbilder were some of the first works associated with the influential ‘Zero Group’, which Piene co-founded that year with Heinz Mack. Together with artists such as Günther Uecker, Piero Manzoni and Lucio Fontana, Piene sought a blank slate from which to construct a new visual language, stripping away old models of representation to make way for an art form appropriate to the contemporary age of scientific discovery. The invisible forces of light, motion and energy – elements that had been fully recalibrated by man’s burgeoning exploration of the universe – were the central ingredients of this new aesthetic. Employing immense perforated screens to produce a dazzling, tactile surface of embossed dots, Piene’s Rasterbilder – derived from the German raster for ‘grid’ – were among the group’s earliest statements. In the present work, figure and ground fluctuate with rhythmic intensity: shadows undulate across its three-dimensional contours, and light appears to radiate from the glowing depths of its surface. Enveloping the viewer like a web, Piene’s circular lattice simultaneously evokes the meditative calm of a cresting wave, the sublime mystery of constellations and galaxies, and the dizzying restlessness of a mechanical turbine. It is a powerful optical illusion that encapsulates the dawn of a revolutionary new era.
The Zero Group conceptualised their work in terms of the eternal silence that hovers in the split-second before a rocket’s take-off: a limitless dimension in which the past is transfigured into the figure. In part, this expedition into uncharted realms was motivated by a desire to overcome the lingering trauma of the Second World War. Piene was drafted into the German army in 1943, at the age of fifteen, and posted to watch the night skies, searching for the tiny pinpricks of light which would signal the approaching enemy. This experience had a lasting impact on the artist, who described his art as a means of dispelling darkness: ‘I go to darkness itself, I pierce it with light, I make it transparent, I take its terror from it, I turn it into a volume of power with the breath of life like my own body’ (O. Piene, quoted in ZERO, exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2015, p. 434). Fracturing the pictorial surface into a complex minefield of light and shade, Piene’s raised dots emit a subtle vibratory energy that dissipates the blackness of the surrounding void. ‘Vibration’, the artist suggests, is a ‘living growing nuance, that which prohibits contrast, shames all tragedy and disbands all drama. It is the vehicle of frequency, the blood of colour, the pulse of light, pure emotion, the purity of a picture, pure energy’ (O. Piene, quoted in Zero Künstler einer europäischen Bewegung, Sammlung Lenz Schönberg 1956-2000, exh. cat., Salzburg 2006, p. 122). The vibrating patterns of the Rasterbild would go on to inform all of Piene’s subsequent oeuvre, most notably his Light Ballet of 1959, in which he projected torch light through the raster stencils to create disorientating moving projections. The artist would also use similar stencil sieves in his bid to capture the ephemeral traces of soot in his celebrated smoke paintings.