Otto Piene

Otto Piene (* 18 April 1928 in Laasphe; † 17 July 2014 in Berlin) was a German artist best known for establishing light art and sky art.


"The world is round and has a great talent for wholeness." Piene's artistic work can be classified under this motto, which he himself expressed. The artist, who was born in Laasphe in 1928, went completely new ways with his works after World War 2, which were above all under the idea of the unity between man and the environment. Thus, the integration of all elements found in nature into his works of art is one of the specific features of his oeuvre. In 1957, together with Heinz Mack, he founded the artist group ZERO, to which he contributed these ideas. ZERO is not only to be understood as 'zero hour', but also as art of transition and constant further development. Accordingly, they understood their art as exchange and environment. ZERO did not remain a German phenomenon, but exerted an influence on the international, but above all European, post-war avant-garde. Otto Piene developed his famous light ballets and first smoke drawings during the ZERO period. In 2008, together with Heinz Mack and Günter Uecker, he founded the ZERO foundation in his former studio in Düsseldorf to enable research into this avant-garde movement on a larger scale.

Light kinetic works

With the help of grid foils, Piene developed Light Kinetic sculptures in the early 1960s, which, although partly made of metal, radiate a great lightness through their perforations and the use of light, so that they are aptly described as light ballets. This captures the essence of the association offered by these works of art: Although they have a rigid form on the one hand, they begin to dance with the light and the air. With such an installation, Piene could already be seen in 1964 at documenta 3 in a joint exhibition with the other ZERO members Heinz Mack and Günter Uecker.

Smoke drawings and fire gouaches

Piene also developed artworks with the element of fire at a very early stage. Initially, he used the grid foils from his light sculptures and let smoke glide through the perforations onto paper. The deposited soot then formed a drawing on the paper. On the one hand, Piene experimented with the element of fire, on the other hand, he softened the boundaries of his own artistic identity: he was no longer the sole creator of the artworks, but also the smoke that made its way through the perforations. Later, Piene also actively used fire in his paper and oil works by lighting the fixative or paint himself. In these works, the unpredictability of fire was the primary factor that revealed Piene's constant interest in transitions: In a brief moment, it decided whether the paper became a work of art or whether it burned. In 1967, his works were shown in a first retrospective at the Museum Ostwall in Dortmund.

Sky Art

Piene lived in the USA from the 1960s onwards, where he first worked as a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), later as its director. Together with colleagues and students at the institute, Piene continued to realise light-kinetic environments, but also developed artworks with Sky Art that placed a special focus on the element of air. For example, a huge rainbow filled with helium was created for the closing ceremony of the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Piene also took part in documenta 6 in 1977 together with CAVS.


The holistic nature of Piene's conception of art is also demonstrated by the fact that he sometimes worked as an architect. The Geleucht landmark he designed in 2007 on the Rheinpreußen slag heap near Moers is an example of how Piene's interest in transitions and the elements come together in a work of art.
On the occasion of two exhibitions dedicated to him, Otto Piene was in Berlin in 2014. He died there during a taxi ride. One last Sky Art event took place posthumously.

Rauchzeichnung 105, 1959, Smoke and paint on laid paper, 8,9 × 11,7 cm


War service, then prisoner of war
Art studies in Munich
Continuation of art studies in Düsseldorf
Teacher, later deputy director at the fashion school in Düsseldorf
Philosophy studies in Cologne
Founding of the artist group ZERO together with Heinz Mack
Co-editor of ZERO magazines 1-3
Participation together with the other members of ZERO in documenta 3; Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania
Design of the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale; first retrospective in the Museum Ostwall, Dortmund
Fellow at the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), Massachusetts
Sky Art Environment at the Closing Ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Munich
Director of the CAVS
Participation in documenta 6
Participation in the São Paulo Biennial
Member of the Board of Trustees of the ZKM, Karlsruhe
Retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf
Together with Heinz Mack and Günter Uecker, founds the ZERO foundation in his former studio on Hüttenstraße in Düsseldorf; prizewinner for fine arts from the Dortmund Cultural Foundation

Artist groups


The artist group "ZERO" was founded in 1958 by the artists Heinz Mack and Otto Piene. In 1961 Günther Uecker joins the group. The artists desire to break through various traditional genres of art. Usage of light as a medium and artistic element is intended to produce a spatial pictorial language, whereby entirely unconventional visual effects are achieved. They experiment with a wide variety of materials: by using illuminants, mirrors and other reflective materials, nails and fire, they create fascinating kinetic and expansive works that, in their interactive dynamics, are intended to entice viewers not only to look but to actively engage with the works themselves. In this way, the static character of traditional works of art is broken. In Germany and internationally, "ZERO" quickly enjoyed a broad audience and many like-minded artists, including Gotthard Graubner, Johannes Gecelli, Hans Haacke, Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely and Lucio Fontana.