A London Show Reveals Lesser-Known Works by Group Zero Pioneers Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Günther Uecker

Artsy Editorial
Jun 12, 2015 2:38PM

As founders of the Group Zero in Germany the late 1950s and ’60s, Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Günther Uecker are known for paintings, sculptures, and performances that undermined traditional notions of medium and art as a means of expression—and laid the groundwork for the minimalist and conceptual art movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Now at The Mayor Gallery in London, works on paper by the three artists show that they were similarly innovative in their use of ink, pastels, and printmaking.

The Zero Group reacted to and looked beyond the prevailing art of their era, particularly Abstract Expressionism, and made work that was non-expressive,  experimental, and often in dialogue with other movements. Recent exhibitions of the group’s work—including a major survey at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York last winter—have been greeted with excitement at the rediscovery of these important artists and their international reach (Mack, Piene, and Uecker’s approach influenced groundbreaking artists from Lucio Fontana to Yayoi Kusama). The Mayor Gallery’s “Mack Piene Uecker: Works on Paper from 1962–2012” examines the lesser-known work of founding Zero members made in the time since the group officially disbanded.

Untitled, 1962
The Mayor Gallery

A preoccupying concern for Otto Piene was light. In his drawings, Piene used gouache and fire to build abstract forms and textured surfaces. Two untitled pieces from 1962, show puckered figure-eight forms made by scalding thin, washy gouache with fire. In Theater (1972) and Chaugete Architecture (1976), he applied fire even more viscerally, charring the surface of the paper. Similar to Yves Klein’s fire paintings, these methods resulted in dynamic works that could be read as attacks on art-making conventions.

Günther Uecker’s drawings are more curiously minimal, often void of any marks. In a series of prints called “Parallele Strukturen” (1965), Uecker employed embossing as a primary means of mark-making, pressing dots and dashes resembling Morse code into the paper . In one work from the series, Uecker paints a few of the raised marks with ink, heightening the compositional complexity of the image. In a 2009 interview, Uecker described his work’s relation to communication, saying, “This work is like a language and it has overcome the border of cultures—it is international.”

Finally, Heinz Mack uses clean linear forms to create complex textures. Mack’s two untitled pastel drawings from 2012 resemble works by Mark Rothko, but with rippled surfaces of rich, bright colors. A series of black-and-white ink drawings from 2010 create optical tricks through  intersecting diagonal, arching, or swirling lines.

All three artists are remembered not only for 2D works, but also for their ephemeral projects: performances, videos, manifestos, and speeches. Their efforts to build intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural bridges are in many ways responsible for the international and pluralistic art world we see today.

—Stephen Dillon

Mack Piene Uecker: Works on Paper from 1962–2012” is on view at The Mayor Gallery, London, June 4 – July 24, 2015.

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Artsy Editorial