Visual Arts Review: Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks at Harvard Art Museums

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By Mark Faverman

MIT’s loss is Harvard’s gain.

Processing the Page: Computer Vision and Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks on view July 5-31.

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

Currently on view, an interactive installation at the Harvard Art Museums Lightbox Gallery features the vivid and insightful sketchbooks of artist Otto Piene. Created over seven decades, they illustrate how a world-class artist perceived and visualized his creative process.

This recent donation to the Busch-Reisinger Museum includes more than 70 sketchbooks curated by artist Otto Piene (1928-2014). They were donated by his widow, artist Elizabeth Goldring. Dating from 1935 to 2014, the largely unpublished sketchbooks are examples of the interdisciplinary and multimedia experiments that Piene envisioned during his long creative career. The sketchbooks include realized and unrealized projects and draw on Piene’s passionate interest in optical perception, artistic lighting and kinetic forces. They reflect the intersections of art, technology and the natural environment in his work.

The diverse themes and approaches of Piene’s sketchbooks reflect his interest in the intersection of art, technology and the natural environment. Each of the volumes is itself an art object – a portable studio, a record of visual thought, an imaginative platform space for material experimentation. Piene could, when asked, elegantly articulate (in German and English) his artistic goals, but he was convinced that art came from doing art. His sketchbooks gave agency to his creative process.

Filled with bold expressionist designs, the sketchbooks are both engaging and informative. Early images of Piene (from childhood) show a fascination as well as a fear of technology. He continued to sketch throughout his life, and according to Goldring, he brought sketchbooks everywhere they went – ​​including on vacations, on trips, and even to and from MIT, where he taught. Whenever he had a few minutes he would draw, and his visions are layered in interesting ways – personal, yet impersonal, not anecdotal but universal.

Piene spoke of the value of collaboration, but his environmental work depended on finding other artists to help make it a reality. The technical work on his projects was inevitably carried out by highly qualified and long-involved experts. He has always been the Maestro, the Distinguished Conductor. His work has always been at the center of his efforts. This selfishness in no way diminishes the cultural significance of his art or work.

By examining more than 9,000 sketchbook pages, Jeff Steward, director of digital infrastructure and emerging technologies at the museum, and Lauren Hanson, Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, have discovered various hidden narratives, which add to our understanding of Piene’s creative consciousness. . Deft experimentation with human and AI-generated data gives gallery visitors the ability to browse Piene’s digitized sketchbooks using either an iPad parked in the gallery or their own smartphone. A digital resource that will provide free access to the museum’s complete collection of Otto Piene’s sketchbooks will be launched in late August.

Two pages from Otto Piene’s sketchbooks. Photo by Astrid Hiemer, 2019.

Besides his artistic pursuits, much of Piene’s time was occupied as a professor at MIT and director of its Center for Advanced Visual Studies (1974-1994). The Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) was founded in 1967 and its mission was to bring art into contact with contemporary scientific and technical research and practice. The founding director of the Center was the courteous Hungarian/American artist György Kepes (1906-2001). CAVS had taken the example set by the earlier artistic educational experiments of the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College. But there were substantial differences. CAVS saw itself as an academic research center for art, science and technology. Kepes envisioned CAVS as an institutional creative forum that would emphasize the complementarity of art and science through cross-disciplinary collaborations.

In 1968 Piene was the first international fellow at CAVS and in 1974 he succeeded Kepes as director until his retirement in 1994. Previously Piene was one of the founders of the international artist group ZERO. In the 1960s and 1970s, Piene became a pioneering figure in multimedia and technological art, famous for his smoke and fire paintings and environmental “sky art” installations.

Describing the interplay of art and technology in a creative collaborative project, Piene saw the scientist as adding a “brain”, the engineer adding an “arm”, and the artist adding an “eye”. Most, but not all, CAVS artists’ projects have been designed and installed in open urban spaces. Their temporary and/or site-specific works of art were usually installed inside building lobbies, plazas, parks, stadiums, and waterfronts. Piene has inhabited CAVS with artists who have worked with a wide variety of media and methods, including video, lasers, holograms, music and tone, steam, sundials, light, kinetics, projections, robotics and inflatable structures.

Sketch of NYC by Otto Piene, image courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.

Unfortunately, during Piene’s tenure, a restrictive rule at MIT’s List Visual Art Center prohibited the exhibition of works by CAVS artists – no doubt another outrageous example of academic institutional pettiness. This wrong was finally righted in 2011, when Piene’s art was finally exhibited there. And though over the decades Boston has become an international center for art and technology—thanks in large part to the CAVS—the venerable Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and the (often) opportunistic Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA ) have shown little or no interest in Piene’s work or the emerging work that interweaves art and technology. This neglect has become all the more troublesome as his projects have been included in nearly two hundred museums and public collections around the world. Here is a sample: the Museum of Modern Art; the Nationalgalerie in Berlin; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Center Georges Pompidou, Paris. Piene lived and had studios in Groton, Massachusetts and Düsseldorf, Germany.

In 2009, CAVS and the Visual Arts program became part of MIT’s program in Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT). The result of this institutional movement is that, unfortunately, CAVS has disappeared. In 2018, an indifferently curated and disappointing exhibition at the MIT Museum – Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the MIT Museum – lacked thoughtful historical context as the selected works vied for attention. To some extent, the history of CAVS can now be studied through MIT’s CAVS Special Collection. Unfortunately, this is a limited and narrowly selected group of works and articles that omit important creative contributions from a number of other CAVS artists. Curiously, Piene’s wonderful sketchbooks are not part of the CAVS special collection. MIT’s loss is Harvard’s gain.


Marc Faverman is an urban designer specializing in the creation of strategic places, civic branding, streetscapes and public art. An award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is a design consultant for the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, a design consultant for the Boston Red Sox. Writing on urban planning, architecture, design and the fine arts, Mark is editor of The artistic fuse.

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