With the Guggenheim’s “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s” just closed, we look back 50 years, to 1964, when ARTnews published a review of a Group Zero show at Howard Wise Gallery. Though the European avant-garde group had been well-known in Europe since the 1950s, their art did not make it to America until 1964. That year marked Group Zero’s first two U.S. shows—one at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in October, and then a second one at Howard Wise Gallery in November. (ARTnews did not review the ICA show, which then traveled to the Washington Gallery of Modern Art the following year—and ultimately became the last major Group Zero show in America for the next 50 years.) The latter marked New York’s introduction to the work of Heinz Mack, Gunther Uecker, and Otto Piene. In his review, published in the January 1965 issue, Lawrence Campbell called their radical, motion-based work “lively,” but was unsure where the line was drawn between the Parisian avant-garde New Realism and Group Zero. Below is Campbell’s full review.
By Lawrence Campbell
Group Zero [Howard Wise Gallery] was a lively exhibition by an inner circle, Heinz Mack, Gunther Uecker and Otto Piene, all of Düsseldorf, where the group took form in the late ‘fifties. Under the sign of the Zero numerous exhibitions have been held in different parts of Europe. Group Zero has issued publications and joined with other artists including “New Realists” (Arman, Spoerri, Tinguely). As a group, Zero has shown itself “generous” to other tendencies in distinct contrast to the groups subscribing to the NTrc (Nouvelle Tendence recherche continue) which, through a spokesman, Yvaral, has written Zero off. Mack is the metal-and-glass man; Uecker is the nails man; Piene is the paint and smoke man. All appear to crave a fresh start by passing it through an ordeal of purification. Mack offers free-standing and relief objects in reflecting surfaces—mirrors, cut-open and embossed with metals (he makes his own materials)—which he cuts into circles or rectangles and combines together. Sometimes he uses fluted glass, grills and discs with concealed motors to make them rotate. Uecker drives hundreds of nails into various surfaces and paints everything white. The nails cluster or spread, stand upright or slant at different angles (like fur or hair) or project at different levels. When seen under a glancing light, his works have the effect of current Op art, except that he sometimes makes shapes with the nails. Sometimes, though this is not clear from the selection in this show, his works can be seen as fetish objects. Piene composes with projected light on a large scale and is trying to find ways of getting paint to express the brightness of a primordial fire. Since 1959 he has been sending smoke through perforated panels! But in this show merely paintings are exhibited.