Heinz Mack, Otto Piene and Günther Uecker at the Nul exhibition in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, 1962. Inv.-No. mkp.ZERO.1.V.79, Holdings Heinz Mack, ZERO foundation, Duesseldorf.

Heroes of Zero: the art collective that inspired a generation

Out of the rubble of the Second World War emerged Zero, a group of German artists with a utopian desire for a new beginning. Here, we look back at those pioneers who helped shape the trajectory of modern art — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

On a cold November evening in 1966, some 1,000 spectators gathered at a train station in Remagen to watch a burning wagon plunge into the Rhine. As sparks from the flames rose into the night sky, it marked the fiery end of a revolutionary collective known as Zero.

Born eight years earlier with the words ‘Pessimism is dead! Zero is born!’, Zero was the brainchild of artists Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, who were later joined by Günther Uecker.

From the group’s bomb-damaged atelier in Düsseldorf, Piene declared that Zero represented ‘a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning in art as at the countdown when rockets take off. It is when the old state turns into the new.’

As children, these artists had witnessed the catastrophic devastation of Germany during the Second World War, and it had shaped their world view. ‘We were against almost everything around us,’ said Piene, ‘but what were we for?’

‘The belief that European culture was the highest form of art had been destroyed by the war,’ says Elvira Jansen, senior specialist and head of sale at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art department in Amsterdam. ‘The question was what to replace it with.’

Heinz Mack (b. 1931), Dynamische Struktur Schwarz, 1960. Oil on canvas, in artist’s frame. Overall 111 x 121.5 cm. Estimate €120,000-180,000. Offered in 20th21st Century Amsterdam, 8-22 November 2022 at Christie’s Online

Heinz Mack (b. 1931), Dynamische Struktur Schwarz, 1960. Oil on canvas, in artist’s frame. Overall: 111 x 121.5 cm. Estimate: €120,000-180,000. Offered in 20th/21st Century: Amsterdam, 8-22 November 2022 at Christie’s Online

No longer certain that painting best represented the modern age, Piene, Mack and Uecker developed a new visual language based on science and a poetic existentialism.

Many of the works that emerged used light, colour and movement rather than solid materials to convey the visionary potential of science, while also reflecting Cold War anxieties.

As the artists’ friend and champion Yves Klein wrote, ‘We are living in the atomic age, where everything material and physical could disappear from one day to another, to be replaced by nothing but the ultimate abstraction imaginable.’

Otto Piene (1928-2014), Schwarzes Rauchbild, 1961. Soot on canvas. 120 x 170 cm. Estimate €80,000-120,000. Offered in 20th21st Century Amsterdam, 8-22 November 2022 at Christie’s Online

Otto Piene (1928-2014), Schwarzes Rauchbild, 1961. Soot on canvas. 120 x 170 cm. Estimate: €80,000-120,000. Offered in 20th/21st Century: Amsterdam, 8-22 November 2022 at Christie’s Online

Piene studied the effects of light and shadow on monochromatic canvases. He had been a child soldier and spent the war watching for enemy aircraft in the night sky. This experience inspired many of his artworks, particularly those that projected light into space through stencils and perforated panels.

Mack travelled to the deserts of North Africa to study vibration as an expression of pure energy and pure emotion, installing space-age sculptures that played tricks with the light, giving rise to shimmering heat haze and mirages.

Uecker sought to ‘disturb and irritate geometric order’ by hammering hundreds of nails into pieces of furniture, creating a mix of shapes and shadows that looked like explosions or dynamic storm patterns.

Günther Uecker (b. 1930), Verletztingen Verbindungen 3, 2007. Glue, black acrylic, paint, nails, linen canvas on plywood panel. 43 x 43 x 7 cm. Sold for €100,000 on 20 October 2021 at Christie’s in Paris. Artwork © Günther Uecker. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

Günther Uecker (b. 1930), Verletztingen Verbindungen 3, 2007. Glue, black acrylic, paint, nails, linen canvas on plywood panel. 43 x 43 x 7 cm. Sold for €100,000 on 20 October 2021 at Christie’s in Paris. Artwork: © Günther Uecker. All rights reserved. DACS 2022

To disseminate their utopian ideas, the group published Zero magazine. In the third and final issue, Piene wrote: ‘Yes, I dream of a better world. Should I dream of a worse? Yes, I desire a wider world. Should I desire a narrower?’

Such romantic notions found purchase in like-minded collectives across Europe, among them GRAV in Paris, Nul in Amsterdam, New Tendencies in Zagreb, and the artists associated with Signals gallery in London. They began contributing to each other’s exhibitions: ‘We were speaking the same language,’ says Nul member Jan Henderikse.

By 1964, these groups were participating in large-scale international festivals including Documenta in Kassel and the Venice Biennale.

‘It was clear something new and exciting was happening, but they also had their detractors,’ says Jansen. ‘The Zero artists were described as charlatans and advertising men because they used the media to get their ideas across.’

Heinz Mack (b. 1931), Lichtrelief, 1958. Aluminium relief on masonite. 48 x 46 x 4 cm. Estimate €8,000-12,000. Offered in 20th21st Century Amsterdam, 8-22 November 2022 at Christie’s Online

Heinz Mack (b. 1931), Lichtrelief, 1958. Aluminium relief on masonite. 48 x 46 x 4 cm. Estimate: €8,000-12,000. Offered in 20th/21st Century: Amsterdam, 8-22 November 2022 at Christie’s Online

What united many of these artists was their refusal to adopt a philosophy — something that grew out of their rejection of anything that came before 1945.

As Piene said when challenged, ‘I don’t want Zero to be a movement, it is a point of view.’

By the time Zero disbanded in a blaze of glory in 1966, it had become one of the most influential non-movements in modern art, inspiring artists across the world, from Japan to South America.

The founders continued their experiments in light: Piene at MIT in America, Mack in Japan and North Africa, and Uecker in Düsseldorf.

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In 2008, they established the Zero Foundation to preserve the work made during those radical early years and to encourage further experiments in science and art.

In Jansen’s view, it is Zero’s pacifist ideals and humanity that have struck a chord with younger artists in recent years.

‘Zero wanted a better world,’ says the specialist. ‘It was about the acceptance of the past and the potential beauty of our future.’