Re-starting from “Zero”. Contemporary art revolution.

«Zero is silence. Zero is the beginning. Zero is round. Zero is Zero.» [1]

One of the most common questions among people involved in art are: what is contemporary art and when did it start? Leaving out any judgment about the correctness of these kind of questions and any consideration on our need to categorize of what actually an uninterrupted flow is (history and its inexorable course), we can try to go back to a hypothetical “Year Zero” in which the course of art makes a jerk.  Exactly in that moment, which left some aspects that had characterized art and set the foundations for those that has characterized it until the present day.


The definition “Year Zero” is not a coincidence. Not because there is a precise day and hour in which contemporary art was officially born, but because what we are going to describe is the story of the Zero Group: an artistic movement that revolutionized the role and the meaning of art. This Group was developed between 50s and 60s of the last century in Germany.


The considerations that brought this group alive were rooted in the widespread intolerance towards the suffocating dichotomy between the Soviet realism and the informal and abstract art: a blocked scenario that prevented other forms of art to develop. The will to rebel against this context was not different from other revolutionary bents of that period. Actually, it somehow fit into that same youthful excitement that had passed over the 60s in the political, cultural and social sphere.


In 1957, Heinz Mack, Otto Piene and Gunter Hueker, three young artists with common education at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dusseldorf, gave life to the Zero and to the magazine with the same name by organizing a series of collective and self-managed Abendausstellungen (one night show), which were more like evening meetings between artists.


From the choice of the name, the group’s intentions were made clear: starting from scratch, making a blank slate of all the previous artistic experiences, working within an empty and untouched mental and creative space, and therefore absolutely free from any conventions, any traditions, any limit of expression.


For holding its unique objectives, the group attracted personalities from the European scene that, in those years, had already undertaken theirs original separate ways from the prevailing artistic currents: Lucio Fontana with his new formulation of the concept of space, Jean Tinguely with his sculptures in motion, Yves Klein and his monochrome canvases and Piero Manzoni with his irreverence used of materials.

Besides the group, those that were not officially part of it, there was an uneven number of artists who shared ideals and settings: among them Bruno Munari, Alexander Calder, Daniel Spoerri, Pol Bury, Jean Le Parc, Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth, Enrico Castellani and many others.


The international and cosmopolitan dimension of the group was enhanced by a series of collective exhibitions such as those of Antwerp in 1959, Zagreb in 1961 and Berlin in 1963. Those moments are seen as the climax period of the movement as it had become the reference on the international scene.

The ideal vision of an art without limits that had characterized the members of the Zero, was translated into artistic practices which deviated from the traditional forms of “framework” and “sculptures”. On the one hand, with the use of monochrome painting, on the other hand, with the experimentation of new materials and new means of expression that technology and progress made available, with particular attention to the optical-bright phenomena and especially to the motor and dynamics components.


In Particular, the dynamic dimension of the artworks that was considered essential in order to understand an increasingly fluid and changeable reality, and to express a new perception of the world influenced by the theory of relativity. The artists of the group Zero experienced an approach between art and science, taking interest in motion in all of its forms: mechanical, electromagnetic, luminous.

Some of the artworks on show during the exhibition " ZERO : Countdown to Tomorrow , 1950s - 60s " at Guggenheim New York from 10 October 2014 to January 7, 2015.

Motion is not the only element of the concept of “extended art” that was coined to identify the works of the members of this group. There is another factor that “extends” the artistic space and which for the first time is as well considered to be an integral part of the creative process: the public. From simple passive receptor, it finally becomes an actor and active collaborator of artistic creation, entering in an interactive relationship with it.

The group broke up in 1966 after a last exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, also for the failure of its collaborative ideal, too utopian to be viable.


Due to its visionary and experimental vitality, however, the Zero Group represents the turning point in the history of art that could answer to our initial questions. The culmination of the historical avant-garde, the inspirer of many movements of those years and the pioneer of what we now call contemporary art.

Zero is the breaking moment in which the movement of the past is buried while the seeds of the future are thrown into the newly plowed terrain.


[1] Otto Piene, Der Neue Idealismus, 1963

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