Purchase Story

Harvard Art Museums Are Gifted 70 Otto Piene Sketchbooks

Seventy sketchbooks by renowned artist Otto Piene (1928-2014) have been gifted to the Harvard Art Museums. The gift was made by poet and author Elizabeth Goldring, the artist’s wife. Dating from 1935 to 2014, the largely unpublished sketchbooks reflect interdisciplinary, cross-media experiments from Piene’s long career in the Boston area and abroad. The next Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum (2019-21) will soon be appointed to study and catalog this new gift.

The gift also includes a selection of pens, the primary medium Piene used for his sketches, including the Magic Marker brand. These will be held in the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art (CTSMA) and will play a key role in the long-term preservation of Piene’s sketchbooks. Part of the museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, CTSMA is dedicated to the study of materials and issues associated with making and conserving modern works of art.


Otto Piene, Sketchbook: Groton, 2012. Mixed media. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum. Gift of Elizabeth Goldring Piene, 2019.69. Photo credit: © 2019 Charles Sternaimolo.

“The sketchbooks have found an ideal home in the Busch-Reisinger Museum,” said Lynette Roth, the Daimler Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and head of the division of modern and contemporary art. The sketchbooks complement the Busch-Reisinger’s existing holdings of works by Piene, which include a small early painting and two major fire gouaches. An early sketchbook was featured in the museum’s 2018 special exhibition Inventur—Art in Germany, 1943-55.

Piene’s sketchbook practice began when he was a child and continued after he was conscripted as a Kindersoldat (child soldier) in the final throes of World War II. According to the artist, “Even during the last weeks of the war, I constantly had a sketchbook and box of watercolors with me. [By war’s end,] I had finally lost all my belongings. I did not even have a toothbrush, but I always had my sketchpad and a box of watercolors.” Some of his sketches from this time feature the auxiliary fighter base where Piene was stationed, including depictions of fellow soldiers and anti-aircraft weaponry as well as the surrounding landscape and views of the sky. Early sketchbooks reveal the artist’s childhood interest in technology—equal parts fear and fascination—which would influence his adult career in multiple ways.

In 1964, following the success of Group ZERO, which he cofounded in Düsseldorf in 1957, Piene was invited to the United States. From 1968 to 1971, he was the first fellow appointed from outside Boston at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which he then directed between 1974 and 1994. At MIT, Piene found the means to integrate art and technology on a large, international scale. The sketchbooks document his wide array of projects, including the 1975 Food Show, the monumental kinetic installation Centerbeam, and his “Sky Art” events, which required extensive collaboration among scientists, engineers, and volunteers.

While he traveled extensively and retained a studio in Düsseldorf (now home to the ZERO Foundation), Piene made most of his sketchbooks in Massachusetts. In the mid-1980s, he and Goldring converted a Groton farm into their home and studio—what they came to refer to as the “art farm.” Their 2014 book The Light Silo remains the most comprehensive publication of Piene’s sketches, focusing on the property’s natural surroundings and on a light installation in a preexisting grain silo.

“Otto’s sketchbook practice informed our lives together,” said Goldring. “He carried sketchbooks everywhere—on vacations, and to and from MIT. Every time he had a few minutes, he would sketch. The sketchbooks are the essence of what we did and what we were thinking. On the one hand, they are very personal; on the other, they aren’t personal—at least not in an anecdotal way—but rather universal.”

Sketchbooks are a historical strength and interest of the Harvard Art Museums, which currently house 156 sketchbooks. Before the gift of Piene’s sketchbooks, the largest collection was received in the mid- to late 1930s, a gift of artist John Singer Sargent’s sketchbooks from his sisters, along with other works by Sargent such as oil sketches for larger works and unbound drawings.

Originally published in the June 2019 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2019 Maine Antique Digest

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