Zero: Let Us Explore the Stars
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Museumplein 10, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Fire, light, movement, space, demonstrations, and performances: the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam presents an historic survey of the innovative, international avant-garde artists’ group, ZERO. In the ’50s and ’60s, the ZERO artists’ group experimented with the most innovative materials and media. In 1962, the Stedelijk Museum staged the first museum presentation of ZERO. A few years later, a more comprehensive survey, Nul 1965, followed, a presentation widely considered as one of the movement’s highlights. Now, precisely fifty years later, the Stedelijk is proud to present an historical survey that sheds light on how the network’s artists – Armando, Heinz Mack, Henk Peeters, Otto Piene, Jan Schoonhoven, Günther Uecker, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Jean Tinguely, and Yayoi Kusama – redefined the meaning and form of art forever.
Beatrix Ruf, director of the Stedelijk Museum, says, “I’m extremely proud that this experimental network is so closely connected with the history of the Stedelijk Museum and that, through this unique research project, we are able to see and appreciate our remarkable collection of ZERO artworks from a deeper, richer perspective.”
After the Second World War and the grim years of post-war reconstruction, a group of young artists came together to create a new future for art. Driven by the desire to seek radical new ways to make art, they shared an optimistic, experimental, and pioneering approach.
Exhibition curator Margriet Schavemaker says, “ZERO came about when a group of young artists resolved to shake off the pessimism and dreariness of the post-war years. Driven by a boundless sense of optimism, they were the largest artists’ network in history to change notions of art forever.”
In 1957, Heinz Mack and Otto Piene devised the name ZERO for a new art movement and magazine. The brevity of the term ZERO and the fact that it retained its meaning in many languages helped the group to become an international “brand” in the ‘60s. The term ZERO marked the coming of a new, optimistic kind of art. While the ZERO movement was under formation, Dutch artists Armando, Jan Henderikse, Henk Peeters, Jan Schoonhoven, and herman de vries established the Nul group in the Netherlands. Like-minded artists in France, Italy, and Belgium – such as Jean Tinguely, Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri, Jesús Rafael Soto, Lucio Fontana, Pierre Manzoni, Dadamaino, and Christian Megert – were also formulating similar artistic strategies. They joined up with the trio of artists from Dusseldorf: Mack, Piene, and Günther Uecker. Together, the artists began to organize exhibitions in galleries, museums, and in their own studios. They also co-created artworks, as well as gave performances and happenings, produced multiples, and published magazines and other publications.
In artistic terms, the essence of ZERO can be formulated as the reduction, concentration, and renewal of artistic forms in which the artists broke free from the then-dominant artistic tenets. After World War II, the prevailing art forms were Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel; artists engaged in these strategies as a way of recovering from the ravages of war, celebrating their newfound freedom in gestural and expressive artist-oriented compositions. Many artists involved in the ZERO network initially produced works in this informal, abstract style. As the 1950s progressed, however, many such artists took a radically different direction, stripping their gestural painterly style back to its essence, and rejecting the idea that an artwork should be a visualization of the artist’s spiritual and emotional life.
The most iconic works of the ZERO movement are the monochrome, white artworks produced by many of the ZERO artists who distanced themselves from abstract self-expression. Although the ZERO artists were not breaking new ground in their bid to redefine painting by reducing it to the extreme (Kazimir Malevich or Robert Rauschenberg had done so before them), they explored white in all its shades (pure white, cut canvases, white grids, folded canvases, nail-filled canvases, feathers, and so on) with such enthusiasm and on such an enormous scale, that many scholars consider it as the core of their artistic renewal.
In their quest for radical new ways of making art, ZERO artists also deployed bright monochrome colors like red, yellow, blue, black, and gold. They also experimented with serially structured surfaces and with using everyday objects such as nails, cotton wool, feathers, coins, tires, and beer crates. They achieved spectacular effects by “painting” with fire and smoke and by cutting, shooting, or using motors to enable objects to move, make percussive sounds, and explode.
The ZERO artists used glass and metal to create shiny surfaces that reflected light in myriad ways. Soft materials like cotton wool or velvet were intended to stimulate the viewer’s sense of touch, and were used to break away from the purely visual nature of art. Audience participation was crucial in the performances and events that the artists organized. City streets or vast landscapes acted as backdrops to these events; ZERO artists had enormous respect for nature, and believed that panoramic landscapes were the ultimate carriers of their work.
THE STEDELIJK MUSEUM AND ZERO
The Stedelijk plays a key role in the history of the ZERO movement. In 1962, when the network was barely two years old, the museum offered the fresh, playful, adventurous, and gently subversive artists a platform for their radical artistic strategies. And in 1965, shortly before the network disbanded, the Stedelijk mounted a large survey of its work, this time highlighting figures from the Japanese Gutai movement, alongside the largely European contingent. The Stedelijk Museum owns 75 ZERO artworks and unique archival material originating from both exhibitions.
Image: © Otto Piene, Venus von Willendorf, 1963, oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm, Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam