Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Zero in NY at Sperone Westwater Gallery

November 6 to December 20
415 West 13th Street,
between 9th avenue and Washington Street
New York City, 212 999 7337

Heinz Mack Folium Argentum 1968. Etched/engraved aluminum sheet, 39-1/2 x 51-1/2 inches. Cover DECEMBER 2008: Arman Clinibare E.D.F. 1962. Aluminum discs, enamel, resin, wood , 53-1/2 x 33-3/4 inches. All images Courtesy Sperone Westwater

Zero, an Italian group started by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene and active between 1957 and 1966, included artists from France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland. These people worked in deliberate contrast to the prevailing post-war expressionism with its claim to individuality and personal discovery by using modest, minimal, and often non-traditional art materials to artists from their artwork. Working outside the gallery system, these artists made single-evening exhibitions, often in their own studios, issuing manifestos with these events. While some artists involved with Zero, like Lucio Fontana, are well recognized in America, this is the first survey of the lesser-known group in the States.

The gallery visitor is greeted with silence. Many of the works recede, rather than thrust forward. One reason for this is a marked lack of color, with a predominance of dreary grays, deep blacks, ashen browns. Now and again, a saturated red or yellow will flash and spark. Some of the rooms here are hung salon-style, creating a smart rhythm echoing that of the works. In place of labels, artist’s names are lightly handwritten in graphite on the walls next to their art, a choice that reflects the group’s lack of preciousness.

Throughout this exhibition there is an emphasis on materials. From Arman’s piling up of ready-made objects in Accumulation Lampes Fiat Lux (1960) to Yves Klein’s burnt paper on wood in Fire Painting (1961), attention seems focused on distinct formal textures. Weathered and soiled surfaces tend to look damaged,burned, scarred, trampled. As the Cubists and Dadaists before them, the Zero artists wanted to incorporate materials from everyday life in an attempt to collapse the boundaries between art and life. Rather than present themselves as alienated from society as many of the American Abstract Expressionists tended to, through stubborn avoidance of technology and escape into interiority, Zero artists embraced technology and nature alike.

Otto Piene Light Ballet on Wheels 1965. Aluminum drum, 4 wheels, glass, flat black paint, 16-½ x 30 inches in diameter

The exhibition mostly consists of two-dimensional wall works that take on the appearance of paintings, but are often not paintings in a conventional sense. Piero Manzoni’s Achrome (1958-59), for instance, is a white horizontal surface of polyester soaked in cobalt chloride, while Hienz Mack’s Folium Argentum (1968) is an etched aluminum panel. Other Zero artists used materials such assand, plastic, mirror, fire, electric light, and smoke. Otto Piene’s Light Ballet on Wheels (1965) is a small, black drum on wheels that projects various shapes of moving light onto the walls and ceiling. It is an investigation of the ephemeral, of the fleeting glimpse. The neutral, plain-looking drum can adapt to any situation, ready to affect a new space with it’s outpour of light, yet also ready to submit to it’s own lack of control. If a space isn’t dark enough, Light Ballet on Wheels surrenders itself to the role of static sculpture.

Another way the Zero artists were counter-expressionist was in their adoption of delicate, minimal forms, often focusing on that staple of modernism, the grid. A 1964 work by Jan Schoonhoven of a grid made with wood, cardboard, and papier maché more closely resembles a metal street grate than a Mondrian painting. However, touch does remain vital to these artists. Throughout the exhibition there is a clear need for a physical engagement with the work. An example being Lucio Fontana’s torn paper on canvas, Concetto Spaziale (1958). Here, the jagged holes cut into the paper aren’t to be seen as violent, but as another mode of mark marking, as the ultimate disturbance of the picture plane. The Zero group was interested in basics, which can be seen in the logical and fundamental way they organized space. As well as the grid, these artists often used circles, triangles, and diamond forms to order compositions. There is an elegant simplicity and economy that ties all the work together.

It is not difficult to locate affinities between the Zero group and the proceeding Italian movement Arte Povera and, also, current artists such as Sergej Jensen and Stefan Muller. Beginning in the late sixties, Arte Povera, which Fontana and Manzoni were also part of, shared Zero’s interest in using inexpensive and often found materials, in hope of establishing a more democratic form of art making. Sergej Jensen and Stefan Muller incorporate into their paintings different types of fabrics that are stained with chemicals or in other ways weather-worn. Particularly, Jensen’s “money paintings” find their precedent in Jan Henderiske’s Centenrelief (1966) and Common Cents (1967). Both “paintings” feature coins attached to stretched fabric that acknowledge their commodity status from the get-go. These are ways to make “freak paintings”, or paintings without paint, that curiously come across as mundane.

This is where the strength of the Zero artists lies, in their ability to expand the parameters of art, particularily painting, in a subtle way. This is not the drawing of a moustache on the Mona Lisa, this is the shift that occurs behind your back, in silence, without you even noticing.