Otto Piene



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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 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 an art of transition and constant further development. Accordingly, they understood their art as an 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.


1944/1946 – War service, then prisoner of war.

1948/1950 – Art studies in Munich.

1950/1953 – Continuation of art studies in Düsseldorf.

1951/1964 – Teacher, later deputy director at the fashion school in Düsseldorf.

1952/1957 – Philosophy studies in Cologne.

1957 – Founding of the artist group ZERO together with Heinz Mack.

1958/1961 – Co-editor of ZERO magazines 1-3.

1964 – Participation together with the other members of ZERO in documenta 3; Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

1967 – Design of the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale; first retrospective in the Museum Ostwall, Dortmund.

1968 – Fellow at the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), Massachusetts.

1972 – Sky Art Environment at the Closing Ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Munich.

1974/1994 – Director of the CAVS.

1977 – Participation in documenta 6.

1986 – Participation in the São Paulo Biennial.

1990 – Member of the Board of Trustees of the ZKM, Karlsruhe.

1996 – Retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf.

2008 – Together with Heinz Mack and Günter Uecker he founds the ZERO foundation in his former studio on Hüttenstraße in Düsseldorf; prizewinner for fine arts from the Dortmund Cultural Foundation.





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