Currently and for the next few months on view in the Stedelijk Museum here in Amsterdam is an exhibition devoted to the artists from a number of countries who, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, gathered into a group known as Zero – an association which, while itself relatively short-lived, has been graced by an influential after-life, particularly over the last decade or so, with the establishment of a foundation dedicated to it in Düsseldorf, its home-city, nearly ten years ago, and a noticeable renewal of interest lately in the movement generally as well as in several of the artists participating in it individually.
What one sees everywhere in this exhibition are the materials of which the work of art is comprised, being made into its subject-matter as well; and even though this tendency may look at first sight to be a reduction, by the use of such procedures the significance of the object can in fact be multiplied – whenever the artworks are still objects strictly speaking, for here instead it is often an environment or even simply an experience. With regard to the former, the grids or other spatial arrangements they depict seem to be meant to be read, as though they were maps; thus the especially close consideration they evidently want to elicit, both for some particular parts and for the placements of these within the wholes, which should call forth from the viewers a certain bestowal of attention: the eye and the mind focusing in now on this spot, now on that, now pulling back in order to obtain a more synoptic view, all these motions together manifesting a conspicuous rhythm. Here, accordingly, the acts of looking collate into kinetic procedures, disposed, it may even be, so as to outline some incipient rudiment of music.
And with regard to the few forays beyond the object which further enliven this exhibition, most notably the “Lichtraum, Hommage à Fontana” created in 1964 by Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Günther Uecker, the nearly or quasi-musical manner in which they display themselves, is obvious.
Well, now is not the time even to begin to rehearse this chapter of art history, yet for anyone in the vicinity who is curious to know more, the current exhibition, both ample and well-organized, may be recommended, especially as Amsterdam is the third and last stop on its itinerary, after New York and Berlin. And all the more so, as concerns music, given that it features, amongst other works, Jean Tinguely’s delightful sound-emitting 1958 assemblage “Mes étoiles – Concert pour sept peintures” (loaned by the Museum Tinguely in Basel), while also providing a glimpse, albeit on video, of a “Licht-Ton-Maschine” devised by Hermann Goepfert in 1960-61, the “Optophonium.”
Works solely of visual art worthy of especial consideration in the exhibition include Oskar Holweck’s “9.VIII.58” (1958, on loan from the ZERO Foundation), Otto Piene’s “Kreisweiß” (1957, from the Hubertus Schoeller Stiftung, Leopold-Hoesch-Museum, Düren) and “Gelbgelbweißheißschnell (Stencil Painting)” (1958, from the Sammlung Lenz Schönberg, Söll), Pol Bury’s “Erection molle” (1961, from the Sammlung Lenz Schönberg), François Morellet’s “Sphère-trames” (1962, from the Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen), and Arman’s “Nucléide” (1964, from the Stedelijk’s own collection).
In this exhibition, as is only proper, a prominent role is assigned to Yves Klein, even though he declined to participate in the first exhibition in the Stedelijk of the Zero artists, in 1962, given that the group in its heyday, in his view – as he wrote that year to the museum’s director, Willem Sandberg, in the letter of January 29th which is on display in the current show – “ne représente aucune tendance nettement affirmée. Ce n’est que l’assemblage hétéroclite de diverses recherches expérimentales.” Allowance made for a certain rhetorical exaggeration, Klein’s point remains salutary – indeed, any exhibition of the works of Zero is bound to present a quite disparate collection of pieces. Nor ought one to forget how his œuvres, at that stage of the development of the “nouveau réalisme” he propounded, sought to distinguish themselves as far as they could from materiality in general.
One key to all of Klein’s work, it’s said, is his singular sound composition of 1949, the “Symphonie monoton-silence,” first performed at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris, on March 9, 1960, conducted by Klein himself. As a complement to the current Stedelijk exhibition, it seems fitting (albeit inadequate – this is music meant to be listened to live) to share a recording of it, made some years ago by an ensemble under the aegis of the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna, on the occasion of an exhibition devoted to him.
Chordal sound followed by a silent void, as per the title of the piece, represents in this case anything but a youthful prank. To those who concentrate on the whole performance, a distinctive intensity may be conveyed; the second half in its intention has nothing to do with relaxation: rather, it sets the stage for something quite different to occur, if the artist himself is to be believed. For, concerning this blank culmination, in his 1960 essay “Le Vrai devient réalité” Klein wrote that “[c]’est ce silence si merveilleux qui donne la « chance » et qui donne même parfois la possibilité d’être vraiment heureux, ne serait-ce qu’un seul instant, pendant un instant incommensurable en durée.” (The essay has recently been reprinted in the anthology of Klein’s writings, Le Dépassement de la problématique de l’art et autres écrits, eds. Marie-Anne Sichère and Didier Semin (Paris: Beaux-arts de Paris, 2011), pp. 280-90.)