Piene began his career as a painter of abstract works that broke forcefully with the painterly gesture. The artist’s Grid Paintings (1957), for example, find him texturing surfaces by painting over self-embossed punch cards made of cardboard and metal. The pictures forgo content to embrace the physicality of light, its oscillations and vibrations. Piene’s first works to deliberately incorporate smoke appeared in 1959. Created by swinging a fire source near perforated, grid-like templates, the resulting pictures hover between chance and intention as chemical reactions in the pigment and fixative become elements of the overall visual composition. In a further step he set fire to the fixative to produce an eruptive efflorescence, or floral veils of various hues. Fascinated by their play of light and color, the artist would continue to produce smoke and fire paintings throughout his life.
Piene’s pictures proved seminal for the aesthetic and intellectual agenda adopted by the ZERO group, a movement he and Heinz Mack founded in 1957 to mark a new beginning for postwar European art. Other touchstones include the artist’s kinetic light objects, for which he transformed such basic geometric shapes as cubes, spheres, and cylinders into complex electronic light sources with multiple light bulbs. These objects followed a precisely timed choreography to project painting-like shadow-and-light effects on the surrounding walls. The artist would eventually apply the same approach to expansive indoor installations that resembled spherical, cosmological universes. Pieces including The Proliferation of the Sun (1966–67) or Electronic Light Ballet (1969) bring these universes to life with performative and auditory elements. Staged as light dances, they immerse the viewer in an active, live art reminiscent of theater or ballet performances.
Piene began developing what he called “Sky Art” in 1968, around the time he relocated to Boston for a position as Professor of Environmental Art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where between 1974 and 1993 he also served as director of the influential Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS). The projects—which were to be understood as a kind of Land Art—incorporated ephemeral, helium-filled sculptures that appeared to free themselves from the Earth’s gravity. They could involve illuminated, tube-like air structures executed as “sky drawings”—Light Line Experiment (1968), for instance—or the release of thousands of silver balloons grouped in bunches, as in Silver Balloon Event (1969). His work for the closing ceremony of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich illuminated the night sky with a gigantic balloon rainbow.
Otto Piene’s “Sky Art” events were usually communal experiences that drew a large audience. They underscore an emphatic ritual dimension—a defining facet in all of the artist’s work. Piene’s art was conceived as an aesthetic event, but always as a social one as well. The viewer and their perception form the crucial focal point of his oeuvre. His insistent inclusion of the viewer in the completion of the artwork evoke what can only be called a moment of utopia.