Visible Arts Evaluation: Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks at the Harvard Artwork Museums

Yoshiko Yap

By Mark Favermann

MIT’s loss is Harvard’s get.

Processing the Site: Laptop or computer Vision and Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks on view from July 5 to 31.

Portrait of Otto Piene in 2012. Photo: Michael Gottschalk/Photothek.

Currently on check out is an interactive set up at Harvard Art Museums’ Lightbox Gallery that features artist Otto Piene’s vivid and insightful sketchbooks. Established in excess of 7 a long time, they illustrate how a globe-class artist perceived and visualized his artistic process.

This recent gift to the Busch-Reisinger Museum involves additional than 70 sketch textbooks saved by artist Otto Piene (1928–2014). They were being donated by his widow, artist Elizabeth Goldring. Courting from 1935 to 2014, the mostly unpublished sketchbooks are illustrations of the interdisciplinary, cross-media experiments Piene envisioned about the training course of his prolonged innovative vocation. The sketchbooks incorporate the two understood and unrealized assignments and attract on Piene’s passionate fascination in optical perception, artistic lights, and kinetic forces. They replicate of intersections of art, technologies, and the natural atmosphere in his operate.

The diverse themes and strategies in Piene’s sketchbooks mirror his interest in the intersection of artwork, technological know-how, and the all-natural natural environment. Just about every of the volumes is alone an art item — a portable studio, a history of visual thinking, an imaginative system space for materials experimentation. Piene could, when asked, elegantly articulate (in German and English) his creative targets, but he felt strongly that art came out of the observe of artwork. His sketchbooks gave company to his artistic process.

Stuffed with bold expressionistic drawings, the sketchbooks are the two pictorially appealing and instructive. Piene’s early pictures (from childhood) present a fascination as properly as dread of know-how. He continued drawing throughout his lifestyle and, according to Goldring, he introduced sketchbooks everywhere they went — which includes on holidays, on trips, and even to and from MIT, where he taught. Anytime he experienced a several minutes he would sketch, and his visions are layered in attention-grabbing ways — individual, but impersonal, not anecdotal but common.

Piene spoke about the price of collaboration, but his environmental work depended on acquiring other artists to help in producing them a truth. Complex work on his initiatives was inevitably carried out by lengthy-associated, remarkably proficient experts. He was normally the Maestro, the Distinguished Conductor. His function was always at the center of his efforts. In no way does this egotism diminish his artwork or his work’s cultural significance.

Examining about 9,000 sketchbook internet pages, Jeff Steward, the museum’s director of digital infrastructure and emerging technology, and Lauren Hanson, the Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, have uncovered different hidden narratives, which insert to our comprehension of Piene’s innovative consciousness. Adroit experimentation with human and AI-produced facts gives gallery website visitors an opportunity to look through Piene’s digitized sketchbooks by making use of possibly an iPad stationed in the gallery or their own smartphone. A electronic useful resource that will present open accessibility to the museums’ full assortment of Otto Piene’s sketchbooks will be launched in late August.

Two webpage spread from Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks. Photograph by Astrid Hiemer, 2019.

Apart from his artistic pursuits, considerably of Piene’s time was taken up as a professor at MIT and the Director of its Heart for State-of-the-art Visible Studies (1974-1994). The Heart for State-of-the-art Visual Scientific studies (CAVS) was launched in 1967 and its mission was to bring artwork into contact with present-day scientific as effectively as technical research and practice. The founding director of the Center was the courtly Hungarian/American artist György Kepes (1906-2001). CAVS had been encouraged by the example established by earlier Bauhaus and Black Mountain College or university creative academic experiments. But there have been significant discrepancies. CAVS observed by itself as an educational analysis middle for artwork, science, and technology. Kepes envisioned CAVS as an institutional inventive discussion board that would underscore how artwork and science complemented each other via trans-disciplinary collaborations.

In 1968, Piene was the first international Fellow at CAVS and in 1974 he went on to succeed Kepes as director until eventually his retirement in 1994. Earlier, Piene was one of the founders of the international artist team ZERO. In the 60s and 70s, Piene became a revolutionary determine in multimedia and know-how-based mostly art, celebrated for his smoke and hearth paintings and environmental “sky art” set up items.

Describing the interaction of art and technology in a resourceful collaborative project, Piene noticed the scientist as introducing a “brain,” the engineer incorporating an “arm,” and the artist incorporating an “eye.” Most but not all CAVS artists’ assignments had been conceived and mounted in city open spaces. Their short-term and/or internet site-specific artwork operates have been usually set up in creating lobby interiors, plazas, parks, stadiums, and riverbanks. Piene inhabited CAVS with artists that worked with a huge range of media and methods, like video clip, lasers, holograms, songs & tone, steam, sundials, light, kinetics, projections, robotics, and inflatables.

NYC sketch by Otto Piene, Graphic courtesy of the Harvard Artwork Museums.

Sad to say, for the duration of Piene’s tenure a restrictive rule at MIT’s Record Visual Artwork Center prohibited the exhibition of CAVS artists’ works — no question nonetheless yet another outrageous instance of academic institutional pettiness. That completely wrong was last but not least righted in 2011, when Piene‘s art was lastly exhibited there. And even even though in excess of the a long time Boston grew to become an worldwide center for art and technological know-how perform — many thanks in a key way to CAVS — the venerable Boston Museum of Fantastic Arts (MFA) and the (often) opportunistic Institute of Up to date Art (ICA) showed minimal or no interest in Piene work’s or in emerging perform that interlaced art and know-how. This neglect became all the much more embarrassing for the reason that his jobs have been bundled in approximately two hundred museums and public collections all over the entire world. Below is a sampling: the Museum of Modern Artwork the Nationalgalerie Berlin the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis the Countrywide Museum of Fashionable Artwork, Tokyo the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Piene lived and experienced studios in Groton, Massachusetts, and Düsseldorf, Germany.

In 2009, CAVS and the Visual Arts System ended up integrated into the MIT Software in Art, Tradition, and Technological innovation (ACT). The upshot of this institutional go is that, sadly, CAVS disappeared. In 2018, an indifferently curated and disappointing exhibit at the MIT Museum — Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the MIT Middle for State-of-the-art Visual Scientific studies at the MIT Museum — lacked thoughtful historical context as the picked performs competed towards every single other for interest. To some extent, the heritage of CAVS can now be surveyed by using the C.A.V.S. Unique Collection at MIT. Regretably, this is a constrained, narrowly chosen group of performs and papers that leaves out important resourceful contributions by a quantity of other CAVS artists. Oddly, Piene’s superb sketchbooks are not section of the CAVS Particular Selection. MIT’s loss is Harvard’s achieve.


Mark Favermann is an urban designer specializing in strategic placemaking, civic branding, streetscapes, and general public art. An award-winning general public artist, he generates practical general public art as civic design. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is style and design expert to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Method and, due to the fact 2002 has been a layout advisor to the Boston Red Sox. Creating about urbanism, architecture, design and great arts, Mark is contributing editor of The Arts Fuse.

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