A friend called early last Friday morning to tell me that Otto Piene, the great German postwar artist, had died in Germany the day before. It was a thoughtful gesture, and much appreciated.
Otto was a giant in the art world. In recent years, his reputation has become more and more gargantuan. Around MIT, though, Otto was known to his many students, to faculty and staff, as a sometimes irascible but always deeply moral person. His life was focused on the admittedly optimistic view that art is vitally important, even at MIT.
As someone who struggles again and again with the possibility that art might really matter, I veer over and over toward his faith in what art can do.
Here are three of the many things that Otto taught me:
“Paper is patient.” (Which I interpreted to mean: You can plan forever but sometimes you have to do it, you have to try it, then see what happens.)
“Where will people park?” (You can always dream up art events but they need real practical thinking too.)
“And on from there….” (He often ended an explanation with this phrase, which meant to me, “Use your imagination. Teach yourself. Think for yourself.”)
I spent many hours in Otto’s company as a student, and too few hours with him afterwards. Most of my time in his four-hour weekly seminar was taken up with frantic scribbling, writing the names of artists and works of art that he mentioned. It’s drastically understating to say that his knowledge was prodigious.
When I first knew Otto, I was often terrified in his presence, but I got over it. He was a generous teacher, surprisingly adaptable to, and supportive of, his students’ ideas and interests, and most of all of our work. He set the standard for us, and he lived it.