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. Their works, some of which are offered online until 27 May, shaped the trajectory of modern art

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, a specialist in Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art department in Amsterdam. ‘The question was what to replace it with.’

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

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), La Force Pure (Gelbes Rasterbild), 1959. Oil on canvas. 96.5 x 68.5 cm. Estimate €200,000-300,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Amsterdam, until 27 May 2021 at Christie’s Online
Otto Piene (1928-2014), La Force Pure (Gelbes Rasterbild), 1959. Oil on canvas. 96.5 x 68.5 cm. Estimate: €200,000-300,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Amsterdam, until 27 May 2021 at Christie’s Online

Piene studied the effects of light and shadow on monochromatic canvases. As a boy, 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), Splitter, 1999. Kaolin and nails on canvas on plywood. 46 x 42 x 18 cm. Estimate €25,000-35,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Amsterdam, until 27 May 2021 at Christie’s Online
Günther Uecker (b. 1930), Splitter, 1999. Kaolin and nails on canvas on plywood. 46 x 42 x 18 cm. Estimate: €25,000-35,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Amsterdam, until 27 May 2021 at Christie’s Online

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), Flügelrelief (Wing Relief), 1976. Aluminium honeycomb on painted mirror, in artists frame. 99.5 x 128 cm. Estimate €30,000-40,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Amsterdam, until 27 May 2021 at Christie’s Online
Heinz Mack (b. 1931), Flügelrelief (Wing Relief), 1976. Aluminium honeycomb on painted mirror, in artist's frame. 99.5 x 128 cm. Estimate: €30,000-40,000. Offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Amsterdam, until 27 May 2021 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.’