Otto Piene studied art at the Hochschule für Bildenden Künste in Munich and the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf and then philosophy at Cologne University, graduating in 1957. In the same year he developed the Grid Picture, a type of stencilled painting made from half-tone screens with regularly arranged points in single colours (yellow, silver, white or gold). The vibrating pattern and slight shadow in these works, which were first shown in September 1957 at an evening exhibition in Piene’s studio in Düsseldorf seemed to take the play of light itself as their theme. Their objectivity lay in their lack of any subjective painterly gestures.Read More
The connection between art, nature and technology remained the goal of Piene’s work, first of all within the Zero group and then, from 1974, as the successor to György Kepes as director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. There Piene's work developed in a variety of forms. The Light Ballets (from 1959) were a development of the Grid Pictures: light from moving torches was projected through grids, thus extending and stimulating the viewer’s perception of space. At the same time the combination of these grids with sources of fire (candles, gas-burners) produced smoke-traces and fire paintings, in which the paint was burnt. From 1962 he produced the Black Sun paintings and the Fauna and Flora paintings, which again make explicit reference to the theme of nature. This led in 1967 to Piene’s involvement with 'Sky Art', a term he coined in 1969, which allowed him to use landscape and cities themselves as the focal point of his work. In 1972 he produced the Olympic Rainbow for the XX Olympiad in Munich, made up of five differently coloured helium-filled polythene tubes, each one 600 m long.
From 1998 onwards he developed immersive light rooms, utilising projections to alternate light intensity, colour and form for various museums such as the Kunsthalle Bremen. In 2008, Otto Piene founded the international ZERO foundation with Günther Uecker, Heinz Mack and Mattijs Visser. The foundation houses the ZERO group archives from the three Düsseldorfer artists as well as documents and photos from other related artists that include: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely.
In 1996, Otto Piene received one of the four annual prizes for artists awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His works are in numerous museum collections around the world, among them the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
In 2014, the artist was represented in a major exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York, ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s, the first large-scale historical survey in the United States dedicated to the German artists' group Zero (1957–66). The exhibition the travelled to the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin and then onto the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2015.