The last major exhibition in France dedicated to Heinz Mack was held over forty years ago, in 1973, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. For the current exhibition at the galerie Perrotin, I have gathered with the artist over seventy works of all formats, natures, and periods, documenting as best as possible the main outlines of a complex journey. It has been unfolding since 1950 at the Arts Academy of the city of Düsseldorf, which was still under construction at the time, and where he conducted his initial pictorial research as well as discovered the historic avant-gardes. After studying philosophy at the University of Cologne from 1953 to 1955, he made numerous journeys to the Sahara, where his productions, beginning in 1962, prefigured land art. The years between 1957-1966 were a seminal period: Mack was, along with Otto Piene and later Günther Uecker (who joined them in 1962), the founder and central figure of ZERO, a multifaceted artistic entity that reconsidered the very principle of abstract art with regard to monochrome painting, movement, phenomenology, and cognitivism. Also important were the years between 1970 and 1980, when a number of his monumental sculptures integrated German urban space.
On his business card, Mack presents himself as a “sculptor and painter”. The order in which they are mentioned is important, as it gives precedence to the modulation of matter in space over the creation of images on a painting’s surface. In other words, even the canvases that the artist has stretched over frames since the mid-1950s are covered in a material whose abundant impasto pushes them toward the relief, that intermediary domain of art history somewhere between painting and sculpture. Strictly speaking, these reliefs are mural sculptures, which is to say that their elements are significantly raised from the surface on which they are fixed. Like sculptures in the round, they are most often made of traditional materials (paint, metal, wood, stone, glass, plexiglass, plaster, or sand), and are handled with equally traditional workshop tools. Yet against all expectations—given this material and technical description—their appearance remains elusive, and mental or photographic fixing seems impossible. The spectator is confronted with an incessant perceptual game with light and real space, in which the material literally seems to be consumed by the interplay of reflections, and the work exists only in a double movement of appearance and disappearance. We have a paradox here—one that is inseparable from the history of Kinetic art and Perceptual art of which Mack was a central figure—between the simplicity of the material fact, and the complexity of perceptual effects. A similar tension applies to the evolution of the artist’s life, which could not be approached with accuracy from a fixed point of view, or according to a central perspective.
Considering the retrospective nature of the works created between 1950 and 2016 that I selected for this book and this exhibition, the artist recently stated: “I have always wanted to create something as simple as possible. Because the world is filled with images that confuse the mind. Yet this simplification cannot be likened to an impoverishment—it produces energy.” It therefore represents for the artist a genuine concentration, which frees the force accumulated within the living context of the relation established with both the viewer and the surrounding space. The work thus opposes different forms of logic, figuration and imagery in general, as well as the two opposing trends that were fashionable in the 1950s, when Mack defined the outlines of his practice: Abstract Expressionism on the one hand, and Concrete art on the other. Considering their respective esthetic impact too limited, he opted for an intermediary situation between the regular Apollonian and the chaotic Dionysian. A few decades before these experimentations, John Dewey had already pointed out this balance between the baroque and the classical in his book Art as Experience (1915), by denouncing another traditional dissociation, that which is present between perception and its object, on the grounds that both can be understood only within the continuity of a single and matching operation. More specifically, Mack’s work is grounded on the reciprocity of the art object, and this is so not only with its viewer, but also with the luminous and spatial specificities of its physical environment of presentation. This element, which strictly speaking is experiential—rather than “experimental”— was a central aspect of the spirit that guided ZERO, a multifaceted international entity that since 1957 has included artists from countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, and Japan. ZERO was centered around numerous exhibitions, events and publications that helped redefine the very idea of “abstract” art in the context of the monochrome or Kinetic art. In 1957, Mack and Piene organized a series of Abendausstellungen, which from the beginning marked ZERO as an open structure, with their shared studio on Gladbacher Strasse in Düsseldorf. These public events included not only their own works, but also those of artists who shared their ideas, with Mack and Piene serving in an early role as artist-curators, defending not only their own works and ideas, but also those of his colleagues with similar goals, such as exploration of the twin questions of relief and a “monochrome ideal”. Mack sought to unfold, in real space and time, color itself, which is to say a single color at a time, preferably white, black or gray (Structure Dynamic Blanc, 1958, Weisse Vibration, 1958, Weisser Rhythmus, 1958, and Ohne Titel, 1960, but also more rarely other values such as red (Ohne Titel, 1958), blue (Vibration im Blau, 1959) and halftones (Ohne Titel, 1957-1958). His esthetic project in 1958 was most precise: “I impart vibration to a color, i.e., I give the color structure, or I give the color its form. There is nothing more to say regarding the notion of “form” in the traditional sense.” For Abstract Expressionism, which Mack was closely following in the early 1950s, seemed to him—through its lively polychromy and its supposedly unbridled gestuality—as being almost too indebted to the history of painting.
In Mack’s Metallreliefs or Lichtreliefs, the constant dialectic between order and chaos, grid and cloud, matter and light proves to be firmly abstract. These works, as is also true of the sand reliefs, nevertheless echo the activity of natural elements such as light, wind, and rain on surfaces of water or sand. The link between Heinz Mack and Yves Klein is essential. Their meeting in 1956 led to a deep friendship and numerous collaborations, which were interrupted only by Klein’s death in April 1962. Klein’s contribution to the history of the monochrome, which ended tragically, would be recognized quite early on, while Mack’s contribution, although perfectly contemporary and also clearly distinct, would be underestimated for a long time in the history of the genre. In the black paintings, whose material plays with light, such as in Ohne Titel (1957-1958), Black & White (1958) or Das sehr schwarze Bild (1961-1962), Mack hastens to integrate the relief and variation of a repetitive rhythm. Like a note played out of time, countless accidents and other irregularities take part in this genuine staccato, whereas Klein favored a kind of contemplative continuity. These many micro-ruptures result from the gestual method that Mack deemed necessary in order to avoid decoration. Similar to this radical series—which incidentally prefigures or is exactly contemporary with the Outrenoirs of Pierre Soulages—are his Sandreliefs, such as Sandrelief-Sandwellen (1958) or Großes Sandrelief (1962-1970), whose grainy surface and regular alternation of hollows and rises were formed, like many other paintings from 1958 presented in this text, by passing a simple stylus or a serrated ruler (of which the artist created numerous models based on the format of the work and the rhythm he wanted to imprint); such tools, which are traditionally associated with sculpture, replace the painter’s tools of the brush and palette knife. The overall result of this process evokes the powdery surface of Klein’s IKB monochromes, or those of the textiles pleated and then painted by Piero Manzoni for his “Achromes”. However, the dynamic aspect, along with the play of shadows and light, distinguishes Mack’s work, as does the role given to chance, for instance in the strange horizontal relief entitled Sahara-Sandtisch, consisting simply of dry sand the artists brought back from a trip to the desert and simply enclosed in a box of plexiglass, and whose appearance changes each time it is moved or tipped. It is not just a fragment of the desert that seems to have been brought into the field of art, but also the uninterrupted variability of its appearance.
The variability is different in Mack’s works in aluminum. They are manually embossed with the help of a stylus and a ruler—the sheet is then attached to a wooden board to make it rigid. “I no longer saw the metal relief, but rather a vibrating and pulsating structure made of light. It seemed to me that this structure hovered over the relief of the metal, as though it detached from it, like the reflection of light on the wall begins to vibrate in intense sun, taking on the appearance of a carpet of light made of reflections of dancing light.” This account, along with others, reveals the artist’s exceptional fascination with light, which Dieter Honisch has presented as an element in its own right. By retracing the genealogy of these metallic reliefs to impressionism or neoimpressionism, the art historian formulated his idea thusly: “[Mack] does not produce a portrait of light, but instead forces it to reveal itself, to be involved in the creation of a particular optical quality. In his optical reliefs, light appears as gathered, concentrated, fortified, reinforced, intensified or, in one word, carried by a power of fascination that exists nowhere else.” In other words, by way of a material and tangible basis, Mack seeks to amplify the undulating, rhythmic, and vibratory essence of the phenomenon of natural light. Interferenzen. Integrale Elemente für einen virtuellen Raum (1966) concentrates these aspects, both through the space it occupies and the one it activates with its reflections. The installation consists of nine elements—including a painting and eight suspended grids—as well as a square-shaped reflective floor and numerous light projectors. The materials and colors are simple (stainless steel, plexiglass painted in alternating black and white), yet their interplay of interference, rotation, transparence, opaqueness, and reflections produces a powerful perceptual dizziness: the field of the object opens up onto the space, and any material point of reference, in the traditional sense of sculpture, is abolished. Where László Moholy-Nagy still conceived the spatiotemporal deployment of his Licht-Raum Modulator (1922-1930) in a composed manner, Mack pushed his sculpture to the limits of simplification and flickering, toward a paradoxical form of derealization. Weißer Drahtkasten, from 1959, is an important stage in the evolution that led Mack from painting—of course radical, but still indebted to Informal art and Materialism—toward this type of fully kinetic sculpture. The work, for instance, is made up of grids, sometimes folded in two, and covered with a thick coat of white paint, whose visible material conveys the artist’s still obvious attachment to informal art. Nevertheless, and this is where the transition can be seen, these grids (some motorized) play off one another, and are presented in an immaculate space that contains them, which is illuminated from within. The eye is trapped by the intricacies of the arrangement, caught in its optical nets. Beginning in 1961, Mack used another prefabricated industrial element, one that was used in the field of aeronautics—a metallic structure called a “beehive,” which was simultaneously airy, extendible, and shiny. It enabled him to push further the play of transparence and reflection begun in 1958, as well as to develop an unprecedented form of composition with a pictorial resonance, produced by the tightening or stretching of this mesh. This material, which was enclosed between plates of glass, was for instance used for mural reliefs or steles; it was even used for screens (Paravent für Licht, 1970), which are often open on both sides (Lichthaus für Bienen, 1966), precisely in order to allow both light and gaze to freely move through them, instead of stopping or reflecting them. Among these works stands out Licht-Reflektor (1965), a box enclosing a Fresnel lens, which alternately seems to hollow or swell as we move about, while decomposing light into all of the colors of the spectrum. For it is not just color alone that Mack uses, or more precisely “non-colors,” which is to say black, white and gray, as prescribed by Piet Mondrian, in that they can wholly coexist with all chromatic values.
After 1991, Mack returned to a painting without material relief and with a lively polychromy, which had been excluded for so long from his practice, and undertook the creation of paintings of willingly large format, such as Die Musik (Chromatische Konstellation) (1998) or Große Kontemplation (Chromatische Konstellation) (2002), which enter into a dialogue with Goethe’s discoveries on the light spectrum and the cloud-like nature of pigment. Yet between 1955-1957, Farbstufen, a surprising relief consisting of paint on wood, gypsum and copper, shows a rare contiguity in the artist’s work, especially during the 1950s, between projected form and the systematic decomposition of the color spectrum—a “constellation,” to echo the artist’s willingly cosmogonic vocabulary. Without involving pigment-based color, painting, or relief, a work such as Rondo (1963-1968), which falls within the category of “mobile” (in the Calderian sense), presents a series of embossed aluminum disks, stainless steel rods, and a plexiglass cylinder, all hanging from wires like a sparkling constellation. Certain early paintings, such as Rotationsbild (1953, lost) and Ohne Titel (2015), also give the impression of a bridge between two periods: the artist pursues the pictorial use of the rotor, which will appear on multiple occasions as part of more explicitly kinetic works such as Luftsäge (1955), a simple disk of serrated metal used for cutting wood, with half of its teeth slashed off in order to imprint an additional rhythm. This tautology of the tool serving as a work, a kind of arranged ready-made, incidentally echoes earlier productions, such as the surprising drawing on paper (Ohne Titel, 1950) executed by Mack during his first year at the Arts Academy of Düsseldorf, and which consists simply of a succession of horizontal serrated lines, which is the first known occurrence of this structure that will undergo so many developments with the artist. We will also mention Lamellen-Skulptur mit sieben Sägeblättern (1954), which includes a number of sawblades with their handles removed, presented on wooden stands in a series of successive registers. The work entitled Der Garten im Garten (1979-1980) assumes a particular status: it stretches out like an immense translucent panel, enclosing in its thickness different forms solely created by manipulation of the previously mentioned industrial mesh, laid out flat (whose hexagonal alveoli range, based on the model, from a few millimeters to a centimeter). Aside from its title, which considers the garden as the essence of landscape [The Garden in the Garden], this work, among other monochrome panels by Mack, reminds of the initial influence of Jean Arp and his abstract reliefs, with their strictly abstract and highly evocative forms. In general, Mack most often places these works in front of a white wall or a window, so that they fully play their role of filter or modulator, thereby refusing to confine and fix the gaze. Mack thus conceives of an “open work” (U. Eco), which is not autonomous and closed on itself, but on the contrary is profoundly contingent because it is dependent on its variable context, and subject to the whims of variation in spatio-luminous conditions and the erratic movements of the viewer. This is also the case—but according to an infinitely more simple and radical protocol—for Spiegelwand für Licht und Bewegung (1960-1966), which was initially considered by the artist for the eponymous exhibition organized by Harald Szeemann. Intended to be presented alone in the middle of a room, this model is a sculpture in itself, but whose spatial effects far surpass its material simplicity. It consists of a partition entirely made up of dozens of vertical rectangular mirrors, whose S-shaped curve rises over a base painted solely with parallel lines, which alternate between black and white. Thus the regular image of the lines on the ground, as well as the figure of the viewer, are diffracted, multiplied and distorted, suddenly making uncertain the givens of the surrounding space.
This creation with its changing appearance, which is opposed to the traditional fixity of a painting, is inseparable in Mack’s work from a strong resonance with landscape. It situates the artist in the tradition of Mondrian’s early experimentation during the 1910s, which led him from the landscape painting toward a radical abstraction, most particularly in Composition n°10 – Pier and Ocean (1915). This dialectic between essentialist geometry and atmospheric entropy (we see an aerial form of uncertain contours, which is essentially made up of horizontal and vertical strokes in the sky), also applies to Mack’s metallic reliefs beginning in 1958, such as Lamellenrelief or Das Meer I – Licht-Relief, with its entirely explicit title (das Meer means the sea in German), both produced in 1963. The multiplication and unpredictable variations of the luminous reflections make the work fluctuate between a material object and an actual shining cloud, thereby giving the motifs painted with oil on canvas by the Dutch painter a truly “phenomenal” and spatialized dimension. This dialogue between the permanent structure and the changing dynamic of natural elements is on the order of the landscape. However, this is not a landscape in the classical sense, with trees and people, inherited from seventeenth-century Flemish painting, but a landscape without points of reference, made up of desert-like stretches, whether they be marine or mineral, located in the Arctic or the Sahara, where the artist conducted numerous journeys and projects beginning in 1955. The artist gave these inhospitable regions, whose relief is shaped by natural forces—sand dunes, translucent glaciers and icebergs—a status of ad hoc frame for the presentation of his works, thus opening the way for American land art in general, and for an artist such as Robert Smithson in particular, for example in his Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1969). This also applies to Mack’s fascinating photographic collages that evoke contemporary ones by Archigram or Hans Hollein. By creating a play of scales and leaving clearly visible the traces of the “doctoring,” the artist transposed his own sculptures into a natural setting, as was the case with Entwurf für eine Lichtpyramide (1964), a sculpture formed by eight stainless steel triangles, simply folded at the middle and arranged one behind the other from the smallest to the largest. The means employed are as paltry as the objective is, in the first sense of the term, phenomenal: light and its reflections are captured and returned by the sculpture, leading it toward its near-disappearance. In the same way, these pyramids, which seem to be as sharp as knives, stretch out in space in both a majestic and menacing way. As with his columns, which are covered in yellow gold leaf for The Sky over Nine Columns (2013) or white gold leaf for Silber-Stele (2012-2014), and whose finely embossed surfaces play with the sun’s light, Mack proposes to the mobile gaze a model of dynamic monumentality.
In Mack’s work, at least before the 1990s and in many productions in relief, the grid viewpoint is crushed, and the brushstrokes of Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato make way for acceptance of the Goethian Trübe of “retinal trouble”. For Konrad Fiedler, this logic that gives priority to trouble is in no way detrimental to knowledge. On the contrary, it would even be its necessary prerequisite: “Through intuition one enters a higher sphere of mental existence, thus perceiving the visual existence of things which in their endless profusion and their vacillating confusion man had taken for granted as simple and clear. Artistic activity begins when man finds himself face to face with the visible world as with something immensely enigmatic.” For the philosopher, reduction to the purely visible is not an end in itself, and doubt assumes a kind of propaedeutic function that precedes the acquisition of knowledge. Although Philippe Junod sees in this thought an anticipation of Gestalttheorie, it is also possible to see a prefiguration of Mack’s work, for whom the relation to the work is no longer of the order of passive absorption, but of active participation, which takes place through a loss of the usual points of reference. It is here that the word “DYNAMO,” which appeared regularly in the exhibition and publication titles of ZERO beginning in 1957, takes on a specific meaning: the work must be not only “dynamic,” which is to say moved by an internal force, but also “dynamogenic,” or able to visually prompt a motor reaction in the viewer, a rattling of his perceptual mechanism. In The Hidden Order of Art (1967), Anton Ehrenzweig rejects the notion that modern art is only a place for the illogical, a chaos that is structured by the “good form” applied by the artist or the viewer. Basing himself on numerous occasions on the joint examples of Jackson Pollock and Bridget Riley, the specialist on the Gestalttheorie proposes the opposite assumption, with these indistinct appearances in reality hiding a form of deeper articulation, an underlying order: “Reason may seem to be cast aside for a moment. Modern art seems truly chaotic. But as times passes by the ‘hidden order’ in art’s substructure (the work of unconscious form creation) rises to the surface. The modern artist may attack his own reason and single-track thought; but a new order is already in the making.” For Ehrenzweig, this involves adapting our mode of vision to this new logic. To do this, he proposes renouncing use of traditional procedures for analyzing the work, notably focus on details, in preference of an encompassing and syncretic vision of visual events. He calls “unconscious scanning” the “sweeping” method that makes it possible to immediately perceive complex and ordered structures, for instance with children or certain psychotics. For him, adopting esthetic behavior that is better adapted to the loops of Pollock’s paintings and, we believe, to Mack’s paintings and systematic reliefs, would make it possible to “[not] feel attacked and experience the acute discomfort connected with unconscious anxiety”; more precisely, this behavior entails “to give up our focusing tendency and our conscious need for integrating the colour patches into coherent patterns. We must allow our eye to drift without sense of time or direction, living always in the present moment without trying to connect the colour patch just now moving into our field of vision with others we have already seen or are going to see. If we succeed in evoking in ourselves such a purposeless daydream-like state […] we lose our sense of unease.” For Ehrenzweig, the question of mastery over emotions is central: if the dispossession brought about by the absence of unified and identifiable figures, or visual and spatial destabilization, is accepted by the subject, this can make the anxiety and discomfort disappear, and make us “live in the moment,” but in a way that is a million miles from Michael Fried’s famous “Presentness is grace” in his famous 1967 essay, “Art and Objecthood”: the present moment in question is neither fixed nor mobile, but pulsating. The definition of structure is consequently an essential element in Mack’s work, and deserves a few clarifications. The homogeneity of elements that make it up is thus seen by the artist not as a whole, or as an indistinct unity, but as a rule that is constantly called into question by myriad variations, shifts, accidents, and luminous events.
Around 1870, Hippolyte Taine described a perceptual blackout of form that is produced notably when the eye endures this type of highly unusual stress, and when the concept and the percept are dissociated. As part of a study exploring the visual elements of intellection, and after having presented a “general law” of attention, the philosopher called this effect an “error of consciousness” resulting from an “optical-muscular” difficulty in ordering the field of vision and evaluating spatial distances.According to him, the invisible and the evanescent are produced when the hierarchy of elements within the field of vision is disturbed. Taine pursued his reflection by next considering the example of a musical score, which in the spirit of a musician has become “black hieroglyphics […] [whose] signs are obliterated, the sounds alone survive.” These “sounds” that “survive” as they are produced by the consciousness (and not observed by it) constitute in large part the defocused and undulating character of Mack’s works, whether they take the form of a relief in metal, such as those mentioned earlier, or of paintings or drawings. If sounds were made using them, they would evoke the repetitive and serial music that emerged at the same time.
The sensorial experience in Mack’s work is never a protocol or a pure idea. His will to express the dynamization and fragmentation of modern spatiotemporal experience is nevertheless solidly anchored in the tangible reality of materials, in the innumerable traces of a resolutely manual and artisanal production process, ranging from the brushstroke to cutting stainless steel. This is another, and possibly more primitive, aspect of the dynamogenic quality mentioned earlier, the belief in transmitting to the viewer the physical action from which the work was born. This visual dynamic, which dominates the whole of Mack’s work and merges with that which characterized ZERO for a brief period, emerged from the ruins of World War Two from an imperious need to construct a new world in a radical departure from the one that had preceded it. This relation, which is simultaneously demystified and luminous, explores through its processes a modernity that is dominated by the sometimes-crushing feeling of intensifying social and informational exchange, of an acceleration in the rhythm of life. Mack’s art is therefore essential today, because it remains irremediably questioning, fluctuating—in a perpetual movement?—between immobility and acceleration, materiality and evanescence.