Otto Piene, a German painter and sculptor known for his experiments in kinetic art and for working at the junction of art, nature and technology, died on Thursday in Berlin, where he was attending the opening of a retrospective of his work. He was 86 and had homes in Düsseldorf and Groton, Mass.
His death was confirmed by Joachim Jäger, head of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The retrospective, “Otto Piene, More Sky,” opened there and at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle on Wednesday as a joint project devoted to honoring Mr. Piene’s influential role in postwar German art.
In 1957, along with Heinz Mack, Mr. Piene (pronounced PEEN-uh) founded the Zero Group, a collection of artists dedicated to redefining art in the aftermath of World War II. Through the mid-1960s the group attracted adherents from Japan and the Americas as well as Europe. Their work — to be celebrated in an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this fall — anticipated developments in land art, Minimalism, Conceptual art and performance art.
Among other things, the Zero artists explored new modes of painting, including monochromes and unusual materials: Mr. Piene himself experimented with smoke, soot and burned paint. They employed light, open space and movement as rudiments of artworks and used technology to create artistic effects.
Mr. Piene’s work included mechanized light sculptures. In one work, Light Ballet, exhibited at a New York gallery in 1965, a roomful of aluminum spheres, bulb-studded globes and brass columns, illuminated in sequence, glowed and dimmed in an endless program, enveloping viewers in a pattern of oscilloscopic blips and racing shadows.
In an interview at the time, Mr. Piene said he had been fascinated with light from boyhood, when he began contemplating how far a candle could throw its light and cast its shadow. During World War II, he recalled, he found the tracers and searchlights that striped and dotted Germany’s night skies “hectically beautiful.”
“Light is my medium,” Mr. Piene said. “I hate objects that just stand there demanding interpretation. Previously, paintings and sculptures seemed to glow. Today they do glow; they are active. They don’t merely express something; they are something.”
In the late 1960s, Mr. Piene began creating projects in the air over public spaces, events he called sky art. These were collaborations with scientists, engineers and often large groups of volunteers in which he created inflatable tubes or other balloonlike shapes made of polythene or other plastic substances, filled them with helium and allowed them to float above buildings or landscapes, which became backdrops for artistic events unfolding in the sky.
Perhaps Mr. Piene’s best-known sky art was Olympic Rainbow, consisting of five different-colored polythene tubes, each more than 1,500 feet long, which were inflated and released to close the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.
Mr. Pience was born in April 1928 in Bad Laasphe, east of Cologne and Düsseldorf in west central Germany. He studied painting and art education at the Academy of Art in Munich and the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and philosophy at the University of Cologne.
He went to the United States in 1964 and taught at the University of Pennsylvania before becoming a fellow at the Center of Advanced Visual Studies, a provocative academic venture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that encouraged collaborations between artists and scientists. Mr. Piene became director of the center in 1974 and led it for nearly two decades, expanding its commitment to producing art for civic consumption. (The center has since merged with M.I.T.’s visual arts program.)
Under his leadership, the center created Centerbeam, a massive multimedia construction. Commissioned in 1977 by the Documenta 6 exhibition in Kassel, Germany, and later mounted on the National Mall in Washington, it involved 22 artists and a phalanx of scientists and engineers and featured laser-projected images on moving steam screens, solar-tracked holograms, a 144-foot water prism and helium-lifted sky sculptures.
In 1996, Mr. 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.
“He was a developer and a discoverer,” Mr. Jäger said. “So many of his ideas are relevant today, from project-oriented work, to discussion-led thinking, to the ephemeral; all of that is now commonplace. That is a central contribution of his work.”
Mr. Piene’s survivors include his wife, the former Elizabeth Goldring, a poet and artist who also worked on Centerbeam, as well as four children, a stepdaughter and four grandchildren.
After his death, Mr. Piene was praised by Germany’s minister of culture, Monika Gruetters.
“Many of his highly aesthetic works in public space were also a signal against the inhospitality of our cities,” Ms. Gruetters said in a statement. “By making light and movement a topic of many of his objects and installations, he pointed out new ways for the fine arts.”
Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.
Otto Piene, German Artist of New Modes, Dies at 85 By BRUCE WEBER JULY 18, 2014
(New York Times obituary)
Biography from the Archives of AskART