The immediacy and boldness of L’Or et le Noir is a direct result of Otto Piene’s drive to develop new artistic tendencies and practices at the end of World War II. Here, Piene abandons traditional methods of creation in the hopes of awakening a new era of possibility in the postwar era. In 1957, he co-founded and launched the highly influential international group, ZERO, in order to inspire radical departures from traditional painting techniques. Inspired by Yves Klein’s monochrome pieces as well as by Lucio Fontana’s punctured canvases, Piene’s mind was opened to new special possibilities that would allow him to sculpt space, time, light, and motion instead of sculpting traditional materials onto the traditional painting surface of canvas.
This innovative and experimental approach to art-making allowed him to create this monochromatic black acrylic canvas accented with gold leaf, evocative of the dazzling and pure effects of light and life. The raised surface emits a vibratory power and resembles a type of radar or energetic wave that is invisible to the naked eye, yet is translated into visual language through his abstract aesthetic and experimental practices. His creation of an intense field of pulsating monochrome striations that resemble pointillist dots creates a gleaming yet tactile surface that allows the picture to become the energy generating surface. According to Piene, “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” (O. Piene quoted in Zero Künstler einer Europäischen Bewegung, Sammlung Lenz Schnberg 1956-2000, exh. cat., Salzburg 2006, p. 122). Through L’Or et Le Noir, the artist is able to impart a cadenced pattern of light and shade as well as capture elemental forces brought by acrylic black paint and gold leaf on canvas.
As a major figure in the ZERO group, Piene wanted to visualize the progress of science and introduce technical methods into paintings in order to revolutionize post-war European avant-garde art and set the tone for a new order reverberating through Europe. L’Or et le Noir serves as part of a springboard for the artist’s smoke and fire paintings and for his later celebrated Light Ballet works of the 1960s, where the artist shined light through stencils of grid paintings to make projections in the space. Similarly, this particular example captures the group’s interest in emphasis on pure color through the creation of monochromatic works as Piene argued that color is the articulation of light and light is the sphere of everything. Not only were Klein and Fontana’s works influential to Piene, but also the work of Ad Reinhardt was important because it used the optical as a way to change the terms of painting and perception, allowing Piene to oscillate between art and technology through an innovative practice. Similarly, he serves as precedent to Dan Flavin or James Turrell, contemporary artists who also experiment with light and space, describing that “The light of colour flows between the work and the spectator and fills the space between them” (O. Piene quoted in S. Peterson (eds.), Space-Age Aesthetics, Philadelphia, 2009, p. 205).