Kunstsammlung NRW
Zero-Künstler Otto Piene, Günther Uecker und Heinz Mack, Foto: Daniel Roth / ZERO Foundation

An artistic cult site of the 1960s – the ZERO Haus in Düsseldorf

During the 1960s, this inconspicuous building in a rear courtyard on Hüttenstraße was an art hotspot. Today, world-famous artists still come to visit.

For #32, Dorothea Hülsmeier has a look inside the studio building of the Zero artists.

Pop Art precursor Robert Rauschenberg, packaging artist Christo, the Minimalist Robert Morris, the ad man Charles Wilp, and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham – in the 1960s, all of them stayed in the rear courtyard building located at Hüttenstraße 104 in Düsseldorf.

Günther Uecker, photographer unknown / ZERO Foundation

In 1961, Günther Uecker leased the tall rooms of a former furniture factory. Later, his erstwhile ZERO friends Otto Piene and Heinz Mack moved into Hüttenstraße as well. To make ends meet, Uecker rented studio rooms to international – and today world-famous – artists who were in Düsseldorf preparing exhibitions. "It was almost like a commune," says Tijs Visser, head of the ZERO Foundation, about the artistic avant-garde of the time. “People were always coming and going.” With support from sponsors, the ZERO Foundation, founded by Mack, Piene, and Uecker, has now had the studio house – which has remained virtually unchanged since the 1960s – renovated, and will take up occupancy there in 2018.  

Piene was the only ZERO member who remained faithful to the former hotspot. Until his death in summer of 2014, he continued to rent the studio rooms, and to work there when he was in Germany.  

Even today, a visit to Hüttenstraße is like a journey into history. Still visible on the floor of the ground story are splashes of bright paint. In the first upper story, the photo wall used by Charles Wilp – whose most famous ad campaign was for Afri Cola – is still in place. Heinz Mack used the room as a light laboratory. In one corner, covered in dust, is a black grand piano.

Otto Piene, photo: Maren Heyne / ZERO Foundation

But the greatest treasure is found in the second upper story: Piene's darkened fire studio. Here, you have the impression he might return at any moment. Shortly before his death, he played with fire on the long table. Mountains of matches still lie on the rusty metal plates. The ceiling is black with soot.  

Countless opened paint spray bottles stand on the table and floor. Piene would spray flammable fluids onto the canvas and ignited them. A still unfinished yellow fire painting with a black sun may well be one of his final works.

"Piene would come down here at 2 in the morning and work until 4 or 5 AM," says Visser. No one else was permitted to enter the fire studio, not even Piene’s wife Elizabeth. The ZERO Foundation intends to preserve the studio table, untouched since Piene’s death, and separated from the rest of the room by a glass wall.  

Even now, the fire studio harbors surprises. In an ancillary room, the ZERO Foundation found lead plates bearing the fingerprints, dating from 1961, of the Milanese conceptual artist Piero Manzoni, intended for the ZERO magazine.  

When they were visiting Düsseldorf from Boston, Piene and his wife Elizabeth lived in the attic. A small windowless bedroom, entirely in blue, is perhaps a reminiscence of Yves Klein's fondness for ultramarine. A simple kitchenette and a small bathroom suggest that the Pienes had little need for luxury.  

Toward the end, Piene could barely climb the stairs up to the attic level. But he never parted from the house. Even now, on the faded nameplates alongside the doorbells on the heavy iron door, visitors can still read: "Piene Atelier" and "Piene priv." 

With the generous permission of the dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH, Hamburg, www.dpa.de
Text: Dorothea Hülsmeier, dpa

Studio building of the Zero artists, photographer unknown / ZERO Foundation

Further Information:

ZERO Foundation, Düsseldorf