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Harvard Art Museums Receives Gift of Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks

Otto Piene
Artist Otto Piene sketches in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2014.

This spring, the Harvard Art Museums received a gift of 70 of the late modern artist Otto Piene’s sketchbooks dating from 1935 to 2014. Piene co-founded the Düsseldorf-based collective Group ZERO in 1957 and directed the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies from 1974 to 1994. He specialized in traditional media as well as kinetic and technology-based works, including several paintings and sculptures already part of Harvard’s collection.

“Throughout Piene’s career, sketching was a generative site for visionary large-scale projects and for material experimentation,” curator Lynette Roth said in the museums’ press release. Roth, the Daimler Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and Head of the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art, encountered Piene’s extensive archive while sourcing an early sketchbook for an exhibition last year, “Inventur—Art in Germany, 1943–55.”

Donated by Piene’s wife, poet and author Elizabeth Goldring, the sketchbooks also contain depictions of landscapes and family portraits. Goldring’s gift includes a variety of Piene’s markers and pens, which will aid in the sketchbooks’ preservation.

“We are really trying for the museums to be an interdisciplinary teaching site for Harvard,” said Martha Tedeschi, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums. “He’s a great locus for mining: an artist who was far ahead of his time in thinking about art and science and the way they feed each other.”

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While the museums will appoint a curatorial fellow to formally study the sketchbooks, students, faculty, and visitors alike can interact with nearly any of the collection’s holdings in its Art Study Center by making an appointment on its website.

“One of the avenues that has been kind of a hallmark of the Harvard Art Museums for decades has been research into artistic techniques and materials,” said Tedeschi.

Working mostly in colored marker, Piene tested concepts as well as methods, sometimes over and over again.

“He allows the ink to really bleed through,” Roth said. “When you flip through them, which is something we encourage in the Art Study Center, you can see how the development of the idea continues through the pages.”

Goldring cited the museums’ educational resources as a major reason for donating to Harvard.

“Sketchbooks are intimate, so being able to look at them in the conditions in the Study Center would be very good,” she said. “I’m very happy that there will be a fellow doing research on aspects of the sketchbooks, and that they will be available online.”

Tedeschi also noted that the acquisition will allow the museum to represent the range of Piene’s work.

“When you acquire a large cache, like this very large group of Otto Piene’s sketchbooks, it allows you to see more than just a tiny glimpse into the artist’s working process,” Tedeschi said. “It’s not a matter of trying to stockpile things. We always want to be teaching from the best examples.”

Born in 1928 in Germany, Piene began sketching as a conscripted child soldier at the end of World War II. Roth highlighted one landscape as an example of Piene’s early artistic maturity: “You can imagine him out there as a young boy with his watercolors looking at the night sky. Beautiful as it is for us, whenever the sky was calm, that was actually a sign that the bombers were on their way,” she said. “That really is the definition of the sublime: the beauty and the fear of a moment like that.”

Drawings of weaponry and military aircraft reveal the start of Piene’s lifelong interest in technology and war. “The rest of his career is trying to harness that and turn it into something good and something positive,” Roth said.

Later illustrations provide insight into many of Piene’s best-known works, especially his larger installations. “He spent a long time sketching Sky Events before they happened and then after they happened,” Goldring said. “He developed ideas for his light sculptures and the installation of the Light Ballet — you’ll see them in several of the sketchbooks.”

The sketchbooks continue the dialogue within the Harvard Art Museums’ collection between Piene and his collaborators like Group ZERO members Heinz Mack and Günther Uecker, according to the press release.

“One of his great collaborators was the artist Nam June Paik, who worked with electronics in a pioneering way. We received a major gift of Nam June Paik's material, which was shown last summer,” Tedeschi said. “It's wonderful to be able to show examples of artists who are thinking about the same kinds of problems, and to show their work side-by-side.”

Though Goldring ultimately chose to donate Piene’s sketchbooks to Harvard, MIT possesses much of Piene’s archival material dating from his 20-year tenure at the institution. “Otto’s work at MIT was all about collaboration, and I see this as a possible collaboration, ultimately, between Harvard and MIT,” Goldring said.

— Staff writer Allison S. Chang can be reached at allison.chang@thecrimson.com.

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