In 1983, German-born Otto Piene purchased a huge piece of property in Groton, Massachusetts, located approximately 40 miles northwest of Boston. He converted his new home into an “art farm” and residence where the ground- and sky-breaking internationally recognized avant-garde artist turned former grain silos into art installations and barns into a studio and workshop and the surrounding land into a test field for his inflatable “Sky Art” creations.
“Fire and Light: Otto Piene in Groton, 1983-2014,” on view through June 2 at the Fitchburg Art Museum (FAM), features many of the fire gouache on paperboard, oil and fire on canvas, tempera gouache on paper paintings and detailed sketchbooks Piene created during that time period — as well as “Proliferation of the Sun,” a 35-minute multimedia production originating in 1966 that was about to be reintroduced to the world just as Piene passed away in 2014.
Curator Lisa Crossman said this is the only United States exhibition to bring together “all these threads” from the final three-plus decades of Piene’s career. The show is complemented by materials and videos in FAM’s Learning Lounge that present details that tie in the time period and projects Piene worked on and help answer any “how did he do that?” questions you may have.
“He was well-known as a teacher at MIT and also for the advancements that he continued to make on his work there both as, at first, as a fellow, at the Center or Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), then as the director, for decades,” Crossman said. Even when he retired from MIT, Piene continued to maintain strong relationships with the school, which hosted some of his most memorable “Sky Art” events and provided the workspace for one of his final projects.
The exhibition features 11 dozen of his fire paintings. When you get close to the work, you can see where the solvent bubbled — and how Piene mastered freezing it in time before it could evaporate to maximum effect. “They’re really very gestural,” Crossman said. “He’s harvesting fire that could be destructive in a constructive way.”
It’s one thing to aim for an effect; it’s another to master materials that cause great destruction to create memorable artwork.
“He would literally light the solvent on fire on purpose,” Crossman said, noting Piene used a fixative spray on his canvases. “He’d paint, burn them, spray, burn and paint into them and you can see the different effects that he was able to achieve. They have interesting organic textures with different variations of color and this spherical form that appears again and again and again in these that you also see again replicated.” Especially impressive are those in which he created circular patterns on his canvas by moving the materials as they burned.