In Light and Smoke (Accumulation), Otto Piene refracts the elemental interplay of darkness and light through the calculated logic of the grid, creating a fiercely powerful rhythm of black and white. Each ebony vortex billows out over the canvas in delicate tendrils, dissolving the chiaroscuro contrast into a veil of subtle half-tones. Ethereally otherworldly yet eerily familiar, this effect is the result of a stream of smoke rising to stain the surface of the canvas, transforming pristine white into charred, sooty black. In harnessing the obliterating power of fire to create art, Piene succeeded in his search for a way to encompass the intangible force of the universe within his work. ‘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,’ he 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., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2015, p. 434). An iconic motif in Piene’s practice, other smoke paintings are held in international museum collections, such as Ohne Titel, 1962, in the collection of the State Museums of Berlin and Venus von Willendorf, 1963, in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
Piene was a founding member of the Zero group, seeking, together with Heinz Mack, Günther Uecker, and the artists of the wider international avant-garde, the purity of a new beginning in art. Zero was conceived as the eternal silence in the split-second before rocket take-off, a limitless dimension where the old is transformed into the new. In part, this expedition into uncharted realms was motivated by a desire to overcome the trauma of the 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, and I take smoke so that it can fly’ (O. Piene, quoted in ZERO, exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2015, p. 434). On the surface of Light and Smoke (Accumulation) Piene evokes this haunting, impenetrable darkness, now lit up with artificial signs and induced conflagrations, a magnificent display of astronautic theatre which captures the freedom of the new space age.