Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s (The Guggenheim, NYC)

Over winter break I took my Mother to the Guggenheim. We had a wonderful time looking at the exhibits. They complement one another extraordinarily. Unfortunately, the Guggenheim doesn’t allow photographs to be taken, and there were no postcards to purchase for the V. S. Gaitonde show or the exhibit of Kandinsky’s early works. I was, however, able to purchase and scan several postcards from the headlining exhibit entitled “Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s.” For a better look, check out: I learned a lot at this exhibit about the German artists group ‘Zero’ that was popular in the 50s and 60s for using nontraditional materials to define the world in the aftermath of World War II. As the group gained traction, it gained international followers as well.

This first work, entitled “62 ME 42”, was made from copper in 1962. Lucio Fontana lacerated five vertical slashes through the material. These lacerations create a strange contortion of forms.  Bubbles of metal protrude and pucker all along the indentations, creating three dimensions of space. Light shining on “62 ME 42” reflects off these new levels, further altering its finish. Whereas a simple sheet of copper would have shone uniformly, in 64 ME 42 there are light patches and dark patches swimming around one another due to the affected metal. The press release for Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow describes how these seemingly violent acts of slashing and lacerating became creative in the hands of artists such as Fontana. From an observer’s perspective, it is uncanny to see how a violent method of art-making created such a beautiful result. The impact of “62 ME 42” is starkly visual as the viewer finds his or her way around the layers of light and metal. My personal takeaways from this work were an appreciation for a different method of art-making and an understanding of the artistic atmosphere after World War II. One can feel the anger at the destruction of war and desire to rebuild, yet it appears that destruction here is a means for creation. This was a contradiction that kept me thinking for weeks after I saw the exhibit.

62 ME 42

A section of the exhibit was devoted to works created through use of fire. Yves Klein’s “Untitled Fire Painting (F 81)” from 1962 mesmerized me. Laminated fiberboard was slowly charred with a burning flame. The ash created this magnificent effect which is both a study in material and an homage to the elements. It is similar to “62 ME 42” in its use of destruction to create a final product. However, this work struck me as much more angry. Anger both seeps off the surface in ashy wisps and pulls the viewer deeper into its black holes. Klein does not seem to grappling with destruction and rebuilding. His is a much more focused study on the very nature and power of fire itself. A more high quality image, such as the ones on the website I posted a link to in the first paragraph, reveals sparkling spots all over the surface of “Untitled Fire Painting (F 81).” It makes the work glow and gives it a fantastical quality. Lastly, the title itself is unnerving. Klein has not given it a very unique name. Perhaps this is a reference to the anonymous brutality of war, and the mind-numbing amount of casualties that made it difficult to differentiate one day, and one bomb attack, from the next.


Untitled Fire Painting


This large exhibit was filled with works of other mediums that created a variety of effects. Some utilized wood, and others spinning wheels. Mirrors, tiles, and light projections wound their way around the spiral of the Guggenheim. An excerpt from this less violent series is entitled “Convex-Concave II,” created in 1962 by the Brazilian artist Almir Mavignier. It is oil on canvas. Here, droplets of paint form a gradient of color. The top of each droplet is pointed, giving the painting depth. I was mostly fascinated by the seemingly seamless gradient from white to black in each panel. Upon closer inspection, it is highly geometric and systematic. Mavignier’s genius is not in his showing off every skill he has- it is in caution and precision. With these skills he created a minimalist painting that was simultaneously very complicated. As I stared at this, I pondered how minimalism was an effect of world war. What sentiments did it draw on? Perhaps it was a departure from the norm that interested artists such as Mavignier, and the desire to start this new period in world history with a different artistic aesthetic. Or perhaps this simplicity and order was something people craved after a time of chaos. Regardless of your interpretation, “Convex-Concave II” has an oddly calming effect on the viewer. It catches you in its pattern and moves your eyes up and down the surface smoothly.

convex-concave II

Unfortunately, “Zero” closed several weeks ago, but I urge you to read about these artists and this exhibit online. It gave me insight into a period of art history that I knew little about. Even out of context of the 1950s and 1960s, these works timelessly question what it means for something to be art. Is it an act of creation? Can destruction create art? What materials can be used to create art? And, most interestingly to me, how important is the evidence of labor to the value of art? In other words, what effect does seeing an artist’s process have on an audience’s perception of value?

Just some food for thought… till next time!


xoxo, Chloe <3




  1. says:

    Chloe, your comments make me think, they’re challenging. There is a natural progression after a forest fire as life emerges slowly from ashes, a panorama of light and shadow and surprise. Also I have a small collection of poetry written during and after various wartimes that you may find interesting. …PopPop

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