Otto Piene, Artist of International Renown, Worked Quietly in Groton for 31 Years
Otto Piene’s dynamic image of a horse on display at Fitchburg Art Gallery is on loan from a private
Otto Piene’s sketch of his Groton farmhouse and silos which he converted to studio space.
The artist at work.
by Robert Stewart,
Throughout the years Groton has been home to several nationally and internationally knowm artists whose works have been displayed in museums and other venues locally and outside the region.
Artists like Edmund Tarbell whose Impressionist paintings still attract attention when they were on display at the Currier Museum in Manchester, NH several years ago. Contemporary artist Paul Matisse, whose sculptures have been on display at different venues around Boston, maintains his home and studio in Groton.
But, perhaps the artist who achieved the broadest audience while living in Groton is also one who few people in town knew. Otto Piene, of German descent, is probably better known to the global community than he was within the Groton community.
While in Germany, Piene led an international movement in art similar to the Existential movement in literature following World War II. He moved to the United States in 1964 and then later moved to Groton in 1983 where he lived with his wife Elizabeth Goldring until his death in 2014.
During his 30-plus years in Groton, Piene expanded upon his early works in Germany and the United States in the studios he built by converting farm buildings on his property.
Some of his best know works in recent years were created in what was called the “Fire Studio” on his property in Groton. These paintings, also known as fire paintings, were created through an unusual approach of setting oil paint on canvas on fire, extinguishing the blaze and observing what shapes came out of that transformation of energy. It symbolized the melding of nature, energy and art.
All the paintings on display at the Fitchburg Art Museum in a current exhibition were created by Piene in his studios in Groton.
Piene’s art was significantly influenced by his experience in
World War II where he served as an anti-aircraft gunner in the German Army when he was only 15 years old.
According to biographers, Piene was fascinated and awed by the searchlights reaching into the sky and the tracer bullets from gunfire. When he was drafted into the German Army as a boy, Piene’s family was horrified by the war and Germany’s role in that war.
Carl Canner, who lives in West Groton and who knew Piene, said Piene’s father was horrified by what happened in Germany and died of a broken heart towards the end of the war.
In the years following the war, Germany was in ruins and disarray and Piene who had studied Art and Philosophy stepped into the void to begin the reintroduction of Art into German society. He and other artists in Germany founded what is called the Group Zero movement whose paintings were extremely abstract and reflected the destruction which came out of the war.
Canner believes it was Piene who played a pivotal role in bringing the arts market back to Germany after the war. “Things were so messed up after the war, no one wanted to look at people,” Canner said. The paintings of the Group Zero caught on in France and became a major art movement in Europe. In the 1960s after Europe recovered from the war, artists disbanded Group Zero and either moved on to different visions of art or, in the case of Piene, used that experience to further expand his art involving light.
In press materials prepared by the Fitchburg Museum of Art they note, “In Groton, (Piene) explored sensory experiences and perception through light, movement and sound and the elements of fire and light.”
For Piene, the move to the United States, first at the University of Pennsylvania and later to MIT in Cambridge, took his art in two major paths: one called “Sky Art” and the other “Fire Paintings.” At MIT, Piene was a Fellow at the university’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) and later became its director for more than 20 years.
CAVS was a unique, collaborative approach to art where science, technology and art came together. Sky Art were large outdoor creations where inflatable sculptures filled the sky prompting observers to contemplate light and natural elements. While Piene was Director of CAVS, Paul Matisse was a Fellow in that program.
The Fire Paintings had their origins in the paintings of Group Zero which reflected the violence of war. The Fire Paintings were later expanded upon in Piene’s Fire Studio in Groton where he explored light and the transformation of energy.
Piene’s move to Groton in 1983 could have been motivated by a search for space where the pace of life is a little slower and nature is more fully visible and present for the senses. But, whatever the motivation, those who knew Piene locally noted that the move also occurred during a time when several artists made the move from Cambridge to the open spaces west of the city including Groton, Pepperell and Concord in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Pamela Worden, an artist who lives in Pepperell, met Piene in 1970 when she was working at the Smithsonian Institute Art Program. As a junior staff person at the museum, Worden worked with Piene on an exhibit featuring outdoor creations with inflatable objects. She said the experience was life changing for her. “It shifted the focus of my career – having art outside,” she said.
As fate would have it, Worden and Piene would reconnect nearly 10 years later in Groton and Pepperell. Worden moved to Pepperell in 1978 and Piene moved to Groton in 1983. While Worden never lost contact with Piene, their moves reinforced the connection between the two. “Our lives were intertwined in many ways through our work,” Worden said.
Worden said Piene moved to Groton for the quiet he found here. Work was busy and a farm in Groton was a good antidote. She added that Piene was not looking for community in Groton because he already had one. “He (Piene) didn’t come out here to become part of the Groton community. He had a community . . . an international community,” Worden said. And, that could explain his relative anonymity in Groton.
Carl and Carol Canner of West Groton also believe that Piene sought solace in Groton and liked being anonymous in the community while at the same time being surrounded by the studios he transformed on his property in Groton. The Canners met Piene through a friend who taught art at the Groton School. “He wanted privacy…He wanted to get away from notoriety,” Carl said when asked why so few people knew him in Groton.
The Canners and Worden were close friends with Piene and his wife Elizabeth, who still lives in Groton. Carol, Carl and Pamela saw Piene as an influential person who made a significant difference to the artists he met and personally to those who knew him as friends. “He was very much into art,” the Canners said. “He believed in collaboration…He listened to people. He was wonderful to other artists and would buy their works,” the Canners stated further. “He had a wonderful sense of humor…He was very sharp and bright. He was a deep thinker and would offer sharp observations during conversations with others,” Worden said.
Worden agreed with the Canners that Piene strongly embraced collaboration on different projects. “He believed that people should be invited into the experience with the artist,” she said.
According to the Canners, while Piene never became involved in the workings of the Groton community, he did love the land and his farm. He also loved the grain silos (which he transformed into art space) on the property which actually endeared him to Groton and his farm. In the Forward to a book entitled “The Light Studio” by Ante Glibota, published in America and Germany after Piene’s death, Glibota describes the affection Piene had for his Groton farm. “The farm that the couple (Piene-Goldring) had bought in 1983 consisted of several buildings in ill-repair but located on a 32-acre parcel of land with old trees and a stream that, by virtue of the structure of the landscape, was quite charming.
Surrounded by forest, wheat and corn fields, two majestic silos arose among the buildings like the proud guardians of this agricultural estate that its new owners have over the years turned into a magnificently restored and expanded “art farm.”
The Exhibition “Fire and Light, Otto Piene in Groton 1983 - 2014” at the Fitchburg Art Museum is on display now through June 2
Also see photo of one of the artist’s installation pieces at MIT next page.