Environmental and elemental art — large-scale and sky art — kinetic and technological art — random happenings and programmed events — multimedia and light shows: ZERO 1, 2, 3 documents the birth, more than ten years ago, of these new tendencies in international art. It collects in one volume the three publications created by the artists’ collaborative, Group Zero, between 1958 and 1961.
Group Zero originated in Dsseldorf, Germany, but quickly became a pan-European force, with mutual exchanges and interacting influences linking an array of artists in Dsseldorf, Paris, Milan, Amsterdam, and elsewhere. This is best indicated by listing some of the artists whose words are displayed and works are illustrated in the book: besides Piene and Mack, they include Fontana, Yves Klein, Mavignier, Jean Tinguely, Arman, Pol Bury, Spoerri, Manzoni, Dorazio, Sota, Manfred Kage, and many others.
— Opening cover blurb from ZERO 1, 2, 3 (published by MIT Press in 1973)
This book initially caught my attention because of its stark cover (fig. 1). The severity of its simplicity and conciseness reminds me of a typographic course exercise in which hierarchy and proximity are closely considered. The inner contents of the book are less precise structurally, but more on point with the diverse selection of artists involved with ZERO 1, 2, 3 and the “dynamic filmlike sequences” their artwork creates upon the pages of the book.
While I’m no expert on group art catalogues as such, ZERO 1, 2, 3 seems to evade the monotonous structure and sequencing I see so often in other catalogues, annuals, biennials, etc. from this time period.
Some of the most mysterious anomalies of this book lie within a section featuring the work of Yves Klein in which the torn and burnt pages (fig. 4–5) are hard to miss. The strange thing about these pages is that it’s evident that the destruction was not an accident. While, to some extent, the writing on these altered pages (and adjacent pages) offer clues as to why the pages are presented as they are. For example, on the page preceding the burnt page, a sentence reads: “Fire is there too, and I must have its mark!” or “…one must be like untamed fire.” Similarly, on the page following the torn page, the opening sentence reads “…Leave my mark on the world, I have done it!” [*]
Lastly, and perhaps with some relation to the burnt page mentioned above, is a surprising set of instructions outlined on the last page of the book—“directions for use: pyromaniac instructions”—in which the reader is encouraged, through a six-step process, to burn the publication with the supplied book of matches. Unfortunately, the book of matches were only included with the original edition of the ZERO 3 publication.
* Further explanation of Klein’s torn and burnt pages is offered by Lawrence Alloway in an opening essay: “Zero 3 was a major publication, both visually and typographically resourceful. Klein submitted a dummy for it, and although it was not used, one detail concerning his own selection was retained. He wanted the last pages of an article of his to be burned in each copy; that way, he wrote “my text will not have any end…it will stop suddenly.” This distinction between formal completion and an existential act of just stoppping is a topic that the Abstract Expressionists discussed in New York, but Klein is alone, I think, in applying the idea to a verbal text.”
fig. 1: Book cover
fig. 2–3: Opening spreads of the ZERO 2 section
fig. 4–5: Spreads from the Yves Klein section in ZERO 3
fig. 6–7: Spreads from the Dieter Rot section in ZERO 3
fig. 8: Spread showing map of artist works
fig. 9–10: Closing spreads of ZERO 1, 2, 3