Mack made his reputation in the late 1950s when (along with Otto Piene) he founded the ZERO group, whose experimental and multidisciplinary work broke with the dominant postwar mode of abstraction known as tachisme or art informel. Long understood better in Europe than in the United States, the group was the subject of an extensive 2014-2015 survey at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. During the early years, Mack sourced unorthodox materials including aluminum, sand, and resin for artworks moving beyond painterly conventions and stimulating a more direct experience of light, color, and space. Juxtaposing vintage and recent works in a wide range of media, the exhibition showcases Mack’s early innovations and his singular pursuit of these ideas after the ZERO group disbanded in 1966.
Early on, Mack exploited the expressive potential of a working method utilizing an economy of means, from monochrome paintings to relief works made with strips of metal. The paintings express sculptural form and evoke the interplay of light and shadow by means of a limited palette and a controlled vocabulary of strokes, unlike the loose, brushy gestures associated with much postwar European painting. The consistency of this process over the decades underlines a remarkable continuity across this diverse body of work. A group of monochromatic paintings, wall reliefs, and stelae included in the exhibition establish Mack’s interest in translating the effects of light between painterly and sculptural formats.
Ink drawings on the gallery’s second floor, featured in the artist’s recent exhibition at the Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul, similarly distill observations of light, shadow, and pattern. Their complex dimensionality belies the limited materials and the immediacy of the technique. As Sir Norman Rosenthal observes in the exhibition catalogue, “Heinz Mack’s most obvious affinities are demonstrated in a magnificent series of recent seemingly endlessly varied ink drawings on paper [which] imply that infinite sense of ornamental variety common to Islamic art – dynamic range, density, and geometric invention of fabulous and beautiful complexity.”
Mack’s Sahara Project, a series of interventions in the Tunisian desert conceptualized in 1958, anticipated the subsequent development of Land Art and heralded the artist’s growing interest in architectural scale and ambient effects. In the gallery’s moving room, the film Tele-Mack (1968), last screened in New York in the Guggenheim exhibition, captures the ephemeral qualities inherent to the project’s remote physical manifestation. This turn to architectural scale is reflected in column-like stelae and tactile reliefs fashioned to capture and disperse the light. Two unusual relief works included in the exhibition investigate the reflective and sculptural qualities of sand, while colored elements embedded in one relief suggest the flickering appearance of light and color in the desert.
In paintings made since 1991, Mack has integrated a more exuberant coloration into his characteristic gridded compositions, which often suggest a façade or architectural motif. This carries into the ongoing series of monochromes, whether colored paintings with graduated values implying the space of relief or black and white paintings undergirded by other colors, like the blue in a black 2016 work and the soft red in a white 2014 work. The recent paintings’ increasing confidence in scale recalls the immersive light installations typical of ZERO and might suggest affinities with Color Field painting. The Garden of Eden (2011), one of Mack’s most monumental paintings, dominates the gallery’s large wall. Here, a central chromatic progression bracketed by grayscale variants defines zones of color through which glints of light emerge. The varied paint application, encompassing broad strokes, feathery passages, dots, and zig-zags, reflects Mack’s command of this medium and creates a space both optical and haptic. As is typical of Mack’s best works, it animates concrete space by evoking the fleeting qualities of light.