Otto Piene

*1928 in Laasphe – 2014 in Berlin

The renewal of art with fire and light

Together with Heinz Mack, Otto Piene founded the avant-garde group ZERO in Düsseldorf in 1957. The name symbolizes a “zero point in art” – nothing less than a completely new beginning in painting and the inclusion of light, shadow and – in Piene’s case – fire in his artistic work.

In 1959, Piene began to create light ballets and smoke paintings with reference to elementary natural energies. The traces of fire and smoke have been a defining element of his works ever since. He also experimented with multimedia combinations and light-kinetic works and created air and light sculptures in an intensive exploration of light and movement. His giant plastic rainbow, which the multiple Documenta participant launched into the sky at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, became famous.

Piene – one of the most important German modern artists

In the mid-1970s, Piene emigrated to the USA, where he headed a media laboratory for artistic-optical experiments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in Boston for 20 years and was appointed Professor of Visual Design for Environmental Art. In 2008, Otto Piene founded the ZERO Foundation together with Heinz Mack, Günther Uecker and the Museum Kunstpalast Foundation in Düsseldorf. He died in Berlin on July 17, 2014, immediately after the opening of the largest retrospective of his works to date at the Neue Nationalgalerie. The artist did not live to see the subsequent internationally acclaimed ZERO exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Today, Otto Piene is considered one of the great innovators of art and one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

Awards• 1968: Konrad-von-Soest Prize of the Regional Association of Westphalia-Lippe
• 1989: Cross of Merit 1st Class of the Federal Republic of Germany
• 1994: Honorary doctorate as Doctor of Fine Arts h.c. der University of Maryland
• 1996: „Sculpture Prize“ of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
• 2003: „Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts“ of the World Cultural Council, Mexico City
• 2008: Winner of the Dortmund Cultural Foundation’s visual arts prize
• 2008: Grand Culture Prize of the Sparkassen-Kulturstiftung Rheinland
• 2013: Max Beckmann Prize of the City of Frankfurt am Main
• 2014: First German Light Art Prize, Celle Art Museum

Exhibitions (selected)• 1959: documenta II, Kassel
• 1964: documenta 3, Kassel
• 1964: Wise Gallery, New York
• 1965: Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover
• 1968: Konrad-von-Soest-Preis 1968, Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Münster
• 1977: documenta 6, Kassel
• 1985: Biennale von São Paulo
• 1996: Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf
• 2001: Kunstmuseum Celle mit Sammlung Robert Simon
• 2008: Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund
• 2008/09 Kunstmuseum Celle mit Sammlung Robert Simon
• 2009/10: Kunstverein Langenfeld
• 2010: Leopold-Hoesch-Museum, Düren
• 2014: Neue Nationalgalerie, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin
• 2014: Langen Foundation, Neuss
• 2014: Guggenheim Museum New York
• 2015: Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin
• 2015: LWL Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster
• 2019: Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Remagen
• 2019/2020: Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf
• 2020: Museum Haus Konstruktiv Zürich, Schweiz


Otto Piene (born in Laasphe in 1928 and died in Berlin in 2014) is considered one of the great avant-gardists of German post-war art, who helped German post-war art achieve international renown with the founding of the Zero Group. More than almost any other artist, his work was characterized by experimentation and cross-border experiments in art. Piene’s smoke paintings, fire paintings, light installations and inflatable sky sculptures were particularly characteristic of his work.

“I must confess that I was always happiest in my work when it took a surprising turn.” – Otto Piene