In 1967, German avant-garde artist Otto Piene (1928–2014) hand painted more than 1,000 glass slides for The Proliferation of the Sun, a light show in which an ever-changing starscape of colorful orbs illuminated the walls of a small theater in New York. Digitized and projected at a larger scale than the original slide format allowed, it formed the centerpiece of “More Sky,” an encompassing two-venue exhibition devoted to Piene’s early work.
Falling somewhere between Nancy Holt’s sun tunnels and Yayoi Kusama’s reflective rooms of the same decade, The Proliferation of the Sun harnesses cosmic forces for expanded cinema. Projected onto several floor-to-ceiling screens as well as a huge sphere, the imagery filled the glass-encased ground floor of the Neue Nationalgalerie. One might almost have been swimming in a petri dish among atomic-green and neon-pink amoebas, or floating in deep space among glowing planets. A disembodied voice instructed absent projectionists to increase the pace of the flickering imagery until shapes and colors gave way to the blinking white light of the projectors.
This work elaborates on Piene’s motor-driven structures from the mid-1960s, which radiate patterned light onto their surroundings. Several of these “light sculptures,” produced as part of the artist’s involvement in the Düsseldorf-based ZERO group (which Piene cofounded in 1957 with Heinz Mack), could be seen in the second part of the exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, alongside paintings and drawings from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s made with fire, smoke, and soot. While employing elemental forces—light, heat, and color—in his art, Piene also embraced technology, creating kinetic works and gigantic inflatable “air sculptures.” Three of the latter—in the shape of comets—were restaged, for one night only, on the roof of the Neue Nationalgalerie. They made a fitting tribute to an artist whose groundbreaking experiments are now enjoying a well-deserved resurgence of attention.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 125.