White-haired, wrinkled and wiry, Heinz Mack is raking a patch of sand in a Bonn museum, the sleeves of his checked shirt rolled up to the elbow.
“This is harder than it looks,” says Mack, who had just turned 80 and was putting together a birthday retrospective that opened at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany on March 18. “The sand isn’t quite dry. You’d never have that problem in the desert.”
Mack should know. He took his first trip to the Sahara in 1955 and has visited frequently since, drawn to the sun and space. His light sculptures dazzle against sweeping orange sandscapes and blue skies in photos hung on the wall. They have an extraterrestrial look, compounded by a younger Mack appearing in one wearing a tin foil, reflective suit.
Together with Otto Piene, Mack founded the “Zero” artists’ group in 1957, with the goal of finding a new starting point for art after World War II. Collaborators included Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni and Jean Tinguely.
Mack’s work features motors and rotors, bright lights, the desert, mirrors, foil and stelae of wood or light. His paintings are abstract bursts of color on canvas -- except for a few that are black. I ask him why someone attracted to light painted, for example, “Black Rotation” in 1956.
“These works arose in a time when I was in a crisis,” Mack says. “The serious question was ‘is there any sense in doing painting in the traditional European sense?’ During the 1950s, I met Klein, Fontana, and others and we had long talks -- what can happen after this art?
“It was a radical and very exciting development, an attempt to see the world in a new way,” he says.
In recent years, his art has gained value, fetching prices higher than $300,000. He lets drop that a work sold at Art Basel Miami Beach for $385,000. Mack is proud of the recognition from the art market, and says it will help conserve his work.
“As I am 80, I couldn’t wait another 50 years for this,” he says. “These works have a value and I don’t want them to be endangered. So the more they cost, the more they are likely to be looked after -- it is a kind of insurance.”
His art is owned by 136 museums, and it is easy to see how it has influenced younger contemporary artists such as Olafur Eliasson, who also works with light and motors.
Recognition has been a long time coming. Mack remembers when just a handful of people were interested in his work.
“It took a very long time,” he says, dropping a few phrases of English into our German discussion. “Everyone said -- this doesn’t work, they are absolutely crazy kids.”
He remembers, with frustration, going to the desert on such a limited budget that the cameraman, who also kept the accounts, would write down how many apples each person ate and ran out of film to shoot his sculptures in the perfect light.
“I am the very first artist in western Europe who started Land Art,” an art movement that arose in the U.S. and involves integrating art into the landscape, Mack says. “At that time, the term didn’t exist. The Americans began with it at the same time and practiced it in the Californian desert.
“I did some interesting experiments,” Mack says. “The desert has no borders, no topographic features to help you orientate. You can see as far as the eye can see, but the space goes beyond that. I went there because I wanted to do monumental sculptures that you can’t show in the confines of a museum.”
Mack’s rotors are the most mesmerizing pieces in the Bonn show: Under a molded plexiglass cover, a motor rotates a wooden, reflective disc relief. The refracted light on the plexiglass and the movement beneath gives the illusion that the discs are shimmering under water diffused by sunshine.
The artist is getting tired and wants his lunch, but I’m eager to know how he planned those discs after I tried and failed to imagine the mathematics and physics it would require to predict the effect.
“You can’t,” he says, already on his way to the museum canteen. “It’s intuition.”
“Heinz Mack, Light - Dream - Color” is at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany through July 10. Information: http://www.bundeskunsthalle.de.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)