Throughout his oeuvre Otto Piene fashioned a generally optimistic, forward-looking art. For him the world was light. And the essence of the world, that which defines the world, was light. This completely new language of art, which he formulated during the 1950s and 1960s under the auspices of the ZERO artist movement, of which he and Heinz Mack were co-founders, earned him a visiting professorship at the University of Pennsylvania as early as 1964. From 1968 to 1971 Otto Piene was Fellow at the Center of Advanced Studies (CAS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in Boston. And in 1972 he also was awarded a professorship for the Visual Design of Environmental Art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where from 1974–1976 he also served as director.
Whilst living in the USA Otto Piene developed his so-called "Sky Art"concept, which can be read as a counterpart to "Land Art". Accordingly, original artistic ideas should no longer be bound to the confined spaces of museums, galleries and studios, but rather artists should venture out into the natural and urban landscapes in order to position their works directly within the social environment. "Land Art" transforms geographical spaces into art works and often even into architectural constructs, and thus is possessed of a certain romanticism. In contrast, "Sky Art" was predicated on, and always benefited from, the scientific and technical advancements being achieved at the distinguished M.I.T. in Boston. Consequently, Peine's artistic position is intrinsically linked to the general socially-critical discourse which, still under the shadow of WWII, shaped the entire Western world during the 1960s. In this context, for example, Otto Piene launched into the sky a rainbow made of helium tubes, during the closing ceremony of the 1972 Olympic Games, following the deadly attack on Israeli sportsmen and woman.
His works using the medium of fire were also highly innovative. For although fire, first and foremost, can wreak destruction, it is only the elimination of the old which allows the new to emerge and flourish. In the piece "Fire" from 2009, Otto Piene bifurcated his canvas with a jet of flame, leaving a trail of ash particles to mark the boundary between the two halves of the picture, and evoke a horizon. Thus the image represents landscape, and the world in general. The intensive red highlights the elemental energy of fire, and can also be read as symbolising beginning and end, destruction and renewal. By virtue of its title "Fire", Otto Piene's work from 2009 also contains a direct call for action, and is consequently perhaps more topical then ever, as there is... a fire!
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