A radiant example of the artist’s Rauchbilder (‘smoke pictures’), Otto Piene’s Wow (1972) is a supernova of cosmic and elemental aspiration. Harnessing the alchemical force of fire, Piene set pure pigment aflame upon coloured paper. Billowing traces of soot smoke delicately across an aquamarine surface from a lambent core of green. The energies of the universe bring forth a peacock’s eye of beauty, light and optimism, capturing the vital glow of the Zero movement in an elegant economy of form. The central drip of colour creates a stem of plant-like growth, while the work’s vivid departure from Zero monochrome recalls sea, sky, forest, the earth seen from space: this is a vision brimming with the wonders of the world. ‘One glance at the sky, at the sun, at the sea is enough to show that the world outside man is bigger than that inside him,’ Piene wrote, ‘that it is so immense that man needs a medium to transform the power of the sun into an illumination that is suitable to him, into a stream whose waves are like the beating of his heart’ (O. Piene, quoted in ZERO, exh. cat., Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 2015, p. 434).
Piene was drafted into the German army in 1943 at the age of fifteen, and was 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, and I take smoke so that it can fly’ (O. Piene, quoted in ZERO, exh. cat., Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 2015, p. 434). After the War, a traumatised Europe needed healing. Artists like Piene searched for techniques and methods that would rejuvenate the avant-garde and, more universally, offer a rebirth for the human spirit. Piene became a founding member of the Zero group, seeking, together with Heinz Mack, Günther Uecker, and the artists of their wider international collective, the purity of a new beginning in art. In the ritual impulse of Wow, Piene brings creation from destruction like a phoenix, his magnificent display of texture and colour smouldering with the interstellar potentials of a world created anew.