Apollo Magazine

Otto Piene: 1928–2014

The influential artist died on 17 July, shortly after the opening of an exhibition of his work in Berlin

Portrait of Otto Piene in 2014. Photo: Mathias Schormann

On Saturday 19 July, three white air sculptures by the German artist Otto Piene were floated over the rooftop of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. They were supposed to mark the opening of a major exhibition of the artist’s work – a collaboration between the gallery and the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. But following Piene’s unexpected death last Thursday, the Sky Art Event became a tribute as much as a celebration, which went ahead according to the family’s wishes in memory of the man himself.

Sky Art Event, 19 July, 2014. Installation view Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin. Photo: Mathias Schormann

Since he co-founded the ZERO group with Heinz Mack in 1957 (they were joined in 1961 by Günther Uecker), Piene’s significance to the development of contemporary art has been unquestionable. The group’s ambition after the Second World War, to find a ‘new beginning’ for art by redefining its purpose and experimenting with its forms, inspired an international network of artists, whose work will be celebrated at the Guggenheim New York later this year.

Piene himself experimented extensively with unusual media. He is particularly famous for his smoke drawings (burnt with a torch or candle onto canvas) and fire paintings (made with the ash of burnt pigmented paper). Later in his career he turned to different elements; his large but lightweight public ‘sky sculptures’ were inflated by helium and animated by the outside air, while his ephemeral indoor installations used projected light to evocatively transform a given space.

‘Otto Piene. More Sky’ continues at the Neue Nationalgalerie and Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin, until 31 August.

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