The Light Silo as Insight into Otto Piene’s “Art Farm” Home in Groton

Ellen Sebring

This text draws on The Light Silo, a book that combines Otto Piene’s marker drawings and Elizabeth Goldring’s poetry for a rare look at the domestic world of their “art farm” in Groton, Massachusetts. Completed just a month before Piene passed away on July 17, 2014 amidst several days of his spectacular sky events in Berlin, The Light Silo celebrates heart and home. This final publication delves into his sketchbooks, a daily habit and diary of sorts, for a glimpse behind the professional output of a prolific and innovative artist. As Director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Piene drove the international collaborative projects that helped make CAVS a pioneering institution in the field of art, science, and technology. I knew Otto Piene as my Master’s thesis advisor, as a project director when I became a CAVS Fellow, as a book collaborator, and, in time, as a friend. 

Transit | Transition | Arttransition

Otto Piene, inflatable sculpture marker drawing, 1992?

Otto loved being in transit: at the wheel during the long commute between Groton and Cambridge; in the air for the longer monthly commute to his studio in Düsseldorf, Germany and points beyond. Transit and transition—moving between places, the planes of earth and sky, professional roles and private life—underscored his expressive palette that spanned multiple media. His inflatable sculptures, for example, inhabit rooms like oversized beings, breathing, moving, and evoking an “Alice in Wonderland” perspective on architectural spaces that surpasses human scale. The forms the inflatables took—flowers, stars, sea creatures, animals, and mythical characters—also appear in his flat works, maintaining their dynamic energy despite being fixed in two dimensions on the page. He worked with earthy materials like fire, metal, glass, paint, and ceramics, and reached for the celestial sphere including flight, sky, stars, and outer space within a genre he originated called “sky art.”

Transition also explains Piene’s attachment to the rural despite his active urban engagement. The need for solitude, time to think and paint, balanced his participation in seminal associations like Group ZERO, early in his career and later on, CAVS, with its artist community, group projects, and conferences. Pairing intellectual understanding with aesthetics and the physicality of art-making was central to CAVS as a research laboratory at MIT. In 1975, Piene wrote about transition-as-art in the catalog for “Arttransition,” his first conference after assuming the directorship from CAVS founder, György Kepes.

ARTTRANSITION means acting and creating art works according to the insight that to humankind all matter is spiritual, a form of energy which we are here to articulate. . . . The result—art—is the living link of thought and matter, of the cerebral and the physical, because it is at once spiritual and sensual whether in painting, on television, or in public celebrations. (Otto Piene, Arttransition catalog, CAVS, MIT, 1975, xi)