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Otto Piene, at 86; created art installations that reached into the sky

In his “Lichtballett,’’ or “Light Ballet,’’ Mr. Piene assembled a continually changing arrangement of patterned light.
In his “Lichtballett,’’ or “Light Ballet,’’ Mr. Piene assembled a continually changing arrangement of patterned light.Gunter Thorn/Courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center/Courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Ce

As a 16-year-old antiaircraft gunner in the final days of World War II, Otto Piene found only mechanized terror in the sky. For much of the rest of his life, the eclectic artist would enlist such elemental forces as wind and light and helium to cast works of whimsy and beauty into the heavens.

Mr. Piene, a cofounder of the influential Group Zero in the late 1950s and the director for two decades of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died Thursday after making final preparations for an open-air performance of his inflatable, illuminated sculptures in Berlin. He was 86 and had homes in Groton and Dusseldorf, Germany.

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His work had few horizons. He set afire paintings for a few seconds to create expressive explosions of images; created room-sized installations that altered the visitor's perceptions of space and light; twinned massive kinetic sculptures with opera; and created "light ballets," initially using torches, and then rotating beams of light through stencils to illuminate a room with entrancing and hypnotic colors.

His work has been exhibited in more than 100 galleries and museums across the globe, including the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln and the List Visual Arts Center at MIT.

Yet Mr. Piene was perhaps best known for works no room could hold. Leavened by helium, tethered through hundreds of feet of fabric tubes, and animated by the wind, his figurative and abstract sculptures would become the kinetic centerpiece of grand-scale festivals.

He dubbed such installations "sky art."

The idea for such art, he told the Globe in 1986, came from his hundreds of flights commuting between Germany and the Boston area.

While "religion and our imaginations have always dealt with the sky, art has been earthbound," he said. "But Earth is a tiny dot in astronomical space."

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As concepts of space and time expand, he said, art, too, must expand its horizons.

One of his most famous installations was the Olympic Rainbow, five 1,600-foot-long helium-filled tubes of color that flew over the closing ceremony of the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. After the Palestinian group Black September murdered 11 Israeli athletes and one German officer during the Games, the artist sought to use his installation as a symbol of hope.

Mr. Piene also occasionally set up such open-air exhibits around the MIT campus in Cambridge.

From the beginning of his career, Mr. Piene found inspiration in the nexus of art and rudimentary forces of nature. As his work advanced, he began to adopt technology into its delivery.

"The artist always has had a very strong role in making the connection between the metaphysical world of the stars . . . and the physical world, the earthly world, the factual roots with which we live when we walk on the asphalt," he told the Globe in 1985. "This is just continuing the tradition that the artist has always lived for: placing markers in that everyday world in which we live."

Otto Piene was born in Bad Laasphe, Germany. An epiphany that occurred while returning home from his brief service in the German army would inform his art the rest of his life.

"I made a detour to see the sea for the first time in my life," he wrote in an essay for a 1965 exhibition. "At noon I walked from the east up toward the dike and then through a gate: there it was, sparkling like quicksilver, pure light on the water surface, a blinding breathing coldhot plane.

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"It was the counter-picture of immediately earlier experiences. The blue sky had been a symbol of terror in the aerial war. . . . As gunner at a four-barrel flak, surrounded by detonations, at night I used to see tracers draw their lines, hectically beautiful. But fear came before beauty; seeing was aiming."

He studied painting at the Academy of Art in Munich and philosophy at the University of Cologne. With Heinz Mack, he formed Group Zero in 1957. The name, the artists said, described that split-second of silence, between the 3-2-1 of a countdown and the blast of a rocket.

"Zero was about the pure possibilities for a new beginning . . . the incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new," Mr. Piene told Art in America magazine in 2010.

In his 1965 essay, he said this split-second beginning held a precious cargo: "a minute fraction of hope despite the catastrophic past, a faint, yes absurd, optimism.''

The loosely affiliated movement influenced artists around the world with its bid to rearrange the boundaries of art by experimenting with the forces of fire, light, and movement.

Mr. Piene's early work with fire illuminates his philosophy. He would ignite a solvent on an image that otherwise would convey cheerful contemplation. He called the result "a fire dance on the retina and a choreography of fire on the canvas.

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"Pictures grew within seconds on a border line between destruction and survival,'' he wrote. "They were a liberation from the rules of optical exploitation of geometry and a turning toward organic forms.''

In 1968, Mr. Piene joined the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies as its first fellow. He succeeded its founder, Gyorgy Kepes, as director in 1974. Mr. Piene retired in 1994 and the center merged with MIT's visual arts center.

"Light is not only technical; it's also about nature,'' Mr. Piene said in 2010. "At MIT, we believed technology wasn't only a war medium, but could be used for healing and to expand communication as a human means.''

Mr. Piene leaves his wife, the poet and artist Elizabeth Goldring, who has been a senior fellow at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies and who helped develop a visual language to preserve visual memory for those who, like her, are significantly sight-impaired. Mr. Piene also leaves four children, a stepdaughter, and four grandchildren.

Plans for a memorial service were not immediately available.

After retiring two decades ago, Mr. Piene remained a creative force at MIT. Writing about an exhibition by Mr. Piene in MIT's List Visual Arts Center in 2011, Globe art critic Sebastian Smee said that "the light seems to be coming from all directions. It plays across one wall and wanders onto the next, morphing in scale and clarity as it moves. The patterns come and go according to rhythms of their own, but they also work together in unison.

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"At the piece's zenith, as it were, the room is filled with light from multiple sources, creating the sense that one has been thrust into the center of a boxed-in Milky Way — or a very trippy disco," Smee wrote. "At its nadir, the room is plunged in darkness. In between, effects of projected light that now resemble tumbleweed, now mysterious deep sea creatures, and now shuttlecocks slowly creep and fan across the room."


Michael J. Bailey
can be reached at michael.bailey@globe.com.