Visual Arts Review: Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks at the Harvard Art Museums – artsfuse.org | Candle Made Easy

By Markus Favermann

MIT’s loss is Harvard’s gain.

Processing the Page: Computer Vision and Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks on view from July 5th to 31st.

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

Currently on view at the Harvard Art Museum’s Lightbox Gallery is an interactive installation showcasing artist Otto Piene’s vibrant and insightful sketchbooks. Created over seven decades, they illustrate how a world-class artist perceived and visualized his creative process.

This latest donation to the Busch-Reisinger Museum includes more than 70 sketchbooks by the artist Otto Piene (1928-2014). They were donated by his widow, the artist Elizabeth Goldring. The largely unpublished sketchbooks from 1935 to 2014 are examples of the interdisciplinary, cross-media experiments that Piene envisioned over the course of his long creative career. The sketchbooks include both realized and unrealized projects and draw from Piene’s passionate interest in optical perception, artistic lighting and kinetic forces.

The diverse themes and approaches in Piene’s sketchbooks reflect his interest in the intersection of art, technology and the natural environment. Each of the volumes is an art object itself – a portable studio, a record of visual thought, an imaginative platform space for material experimentation. Piene could elegantly articulate his artistic goals (in German and English) when asked, but he had a strong sense that art grew out of art practice. His sketchbooks determined his creative process.

Filled with bold expressionist drawings, the sketchbooks are both visually appealing and educational. Piene’s early paintings (from childhood) show both a fascination and a fear of technology. He continued to draw throughout his life and, according to Goldring, took sketchbooks with him everywhere – including on vacations, when traveling and even to and from MIT, where he taught. Whenever he had a few minutes, he sketched, and his visions are layered in interesting ways – personal but impersonal, not anecdotal but universal.

Piene spoke about 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 experts who had been committed for many years. He was always the maestro, the respected conductor. His work has always been the focus of his endeavors. This selfishness in no way detracts from his art or the cultural importance of his work.

By examining over 9,000 sketchbook pages, Jeff Stewart, the museum’s director of digital infrastructure and new technologies, and Lauren Hanson, the Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, have uncovered various hidden narratives that contribute to our understanding of Piene’s creative consciousness contribute . Skillful experimentation with human and AI-generated data gives gallery visitors the opportunity to browse Piene’s digitized sketchbooks, using either an iPad stationed in the gallery or their own smartphone. A digital resource offering free access to the museum’s entire collection of Otto Piene’s sketchbooks will be launched in late August.

Double page from Otto Piene’s sketchbooks. Photo by Astrid Hiemer, 2019

In addition to his artistic work, Piene spent much of his time as a professor at MIT and as director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS; 1974-1994). Founded in 1967, the center’s mission was to bring art into contact with contemporary scientific and technical research and practice. The center’s founding director was courtly Hungarian-American artist György Kepes (1906-2001). CAVS was inspired by the example of earlier artistic education experiments at the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College. But there were significant differences. CAVS saw itself as an academic research center for art, science and technology. Kepes envisioned CAVS as an institutional creative forum that would underline how arts and science complement each other through transdisciplinary collaboration.

In 1968 Piene was the first international fellow at the CAVS and succeeded Kepes as director in 1974 until his retirement in 1994. Previously, Piene was one of the founders of the international artist group ZERO. During the ’60s and ’70s, Piene became a seminal figure in multimedia and technology-based art, celebrated for his smoke and fire imagery and environmental “sky art” installation pieces.

Describing the interplay of art and technology in a creative collaborative project, Piene viewed the scientist as a ‘brain’, the engineer as an ‘arm’ and the artist as an ‘eye’. Most, but not all, CAVS artist projects have been conceived and installed in urban open spaces. Her temporary and/or site-specific artworks have generally been installed indoors in building lobbies, squares, parks, stadiums, and riverbanks. Piene inhabited CAVS with artists working with a variety of media and methods including video, laser, holograms, music & sound, steam, sundials, light, kinetics, projections, robotics and inflatables.

NYC sketch by Otto Piene. Image courtesy Harvard Art Museums

Unfortunately, during Piene’s tenure, a restrictive rule at MIT’s List Visual Art Center prohibited the exhibition of work by CAVS artists—arguably another outrageous example of academic institutional pettiness. This wrong was finally corrected in 2011 when Piene’s art was finally exhibited there. And though Boston has become an international center for art and technology work over the decades – thanks in no small part to CAVS – the venerable Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and the (often) opportunistic Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) showed little or nothing Interested in Piene’s work or emerging work that intertwines art and technology. This neglect was all the more embarrassing as his projects have been included in nearly 200 museums and public collections around the world. Here is a selection: Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Gallery Berlin; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Center Georges Pompidou, Paris. Piene lived and had studios in Groton, Massachusetts and Düsseldorf, Germany.

In 2009, CAVS and the Visual Arts Program were integrated into the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT). Unfortunately, the result of this institutional move is that CAVS disappeared. In 2018, an indifferently curated and underwhelming 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 selected works competed for attention. The history of CAVS can now be partially traced through the CAVS Special Collection at MIT. Unfortunately, this is a limited, narrowly selected group of works and papers that omits 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.


Markus Favermann is an urban designer specializing in strategic placemaking, civic branding, streetscapes and public art. As an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. As the designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theater, he is a design advisor to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and has been a design advisor to the Boston Red Sox since 2002. Mark writes on urbanism, architecture, design, and the visual arts, and is the editor of art fuse.

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