Susan Byrnes reviewed the exhibition, ALAN RATH: New Sculpture, in the December issue of Aeqai.
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We are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend Ben Patterson, American musician, artist, and founding member of the Fluxus international art movement. In 1960, Patterson moved to Cologne, Germany, where he became active in the radical contemporary music scene, performing in festivals in Cologne, Paris, Venice, and elsewhere. During this pre-Fluxus period Patterson created and performed some of his early seminal works: Paper Piece (1960), Lemons (1961), and Variations for Double Bass (1961). Late in 1961, Patterson moved to Paris, where he collaborated with Robert Filliou (Puzzle-Poems), and published his Method and Processes, an artist’s book comprising loose-leaf pages bound in a folder. Patterson joined George Maciunas in Wiesbaden to organize the historic 1962 Fluxus International Festival, and continued to be a major presence at Fluxus events until the early 1970s, when he retired to pursue ordinary life in New York City.
Although he remained outside the art world for more than 17 years, Patterson resurfaced for such events as the 20th Anniversary Fluxus Festival in Wiesbaden in 1982. In 1988, Patterson came out of retirement with his exhibition titled Ordinary Life, at the Emily Harvey Gallery, New York. In 1992, he returned to Germany to establish a headquarters for his work and travel. Patterson’s work has been featured in many recent Fluxus exhibitions and performances throughout Europe, Russia, Asia, and the Americas. In 1996, he inaugurated the Public Entrance to his Museum of the Subconscious at Mt. 13th Month in Namibia, Africa. The traveling retrospective exhibition Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us was organized in 2012 by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. In the summer of 2015, Ben Patterson was included in the group exhibition
By this River, Weston Art Gallery, Cincinnati. The photos below are installation shots of Ben’s pieces from this show. Included is an image of Ben performing Pond with the Weston Art Gallery Docentitos.
"It is possible that my interest in rivers could be traced back to my birthplace—Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the ‘Three Rivers City,’ and that I have always lived near a major river: the Hudson in New York, the Seine in Paris, and the Rhine in Cologne, and now Wiesbaden.”
— Ben Patterson in Notes to the Los Angeles River Concrete Poems, exhibition at the Solway Jones Gallery, Los Angeles, California, 2006
Ben Patterson, performing Pond with the Weston Art Gallery Docentitos,
By this River, Weston Art Gallery, Cincinnati, summer 2015
Ben Patterson handing out wind-up frogs to Weston Art Gallery Docentitos for performance, summer, 2015
Ben Patterson, Flying Bass, 2015 and Los Angeles River Concrete Poems, 2006/2015, installation shot, By this River, Weston Art Gallery, Cincinnati, summer 2015
Ben Patterson, Flying Bass, 2015, vintage double bass, LEDs, wood, oil paint, inkjet print on vinyl and nylon, an aluminum, 36 x 134 x 88 inches, By this River, Weston Art Gallery, Cincinnati, summer 2015
Ben Patterson, Los Angeles River Concrete Poem, 2006/2015, laminated digital photographs, text, cast concrete, wooden support, pump, reservoir, water, amplifier, 2 microphones, 3 plastic palm trees, overall dimensions variable, By this River, Weston Art Gallery, summer 2015
Carl Solway Gallery mourns the loss of Ben Patterson. The gallery published two editions with the artist and included him in numerous exhibitions over the years. In 2015, Michael Solway included Patterson in By This River, an exhibition he curated for the Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati. Below is an obituary from ARTnews.
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BEN PATTERSON, CORNERSTONE OF FLUXUS AND EXPERIMENTAL ART, DIES AT 82
Ben Patterson, the artist, composer, and double bassist who played with classical orchestras, helped found the Fluxus movement, took a nearly 20-year break from performance to live what he termed “ordinary life,” and returned to art-making as an assemblage artist, died on Saturday at his home in Wiesbaden, Germany, according to friends and collaborators. He was 82.
In the early 1960s, Patterson was among a small group of outré artists, including La Monte Young, John Cage, and Yoko Ono, who pushed music and performance to profound, radical extremes. His 1960 Paper Piece called for audience members to fold, rip, and wave paper through the air. The score for his Lick Piece (1964) read simply, “Cover shapely female with whipped cream / lick / … topping of chopped nuts and cherries is optional.” “He was writing scores that were Fluxus-like, before Fluxus,” the artist Geoffrey Hendricks told me today.
One his most infamous and most photogenic pieces, Variations for Double-Bass (1962), called for a solo performer to “agitate strings” of the instrument with a comb and corrugated cardboard, and balance it upside-down on its scroll while rubbing a rubber object against its strings. A typed version of the score for that work is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection.
Asked about the impetus for those early radical works years later, Patterson told an interviewer, “There was a great protest, let’s say, against the materialism of the art market and buying and selling and so forth was not what we, as young idealists who wanted to change the world, thought was the purpose of art—it was to change the way people think, or to open their thinking.”
Benjamin Patterson was born in Pittsburgh in 1934, and graduated from the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, in 1956 with a degree in music. Like many his brethren in the Fluxus and experimental music movements of the 1960s, his interest in ostensibly simple, vanguard composition betrayed his talent in traditional techniques. He was a virtuosic double bassist but could not find a job in the United States because he was black, and so he played with various orchestral groups in Canada, including the Halifax Symphony Orchestra and the Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra (as principal bassist).
It was in Halifax that he fell in with people involved with the government-funded electronic music center, which eventually led to a letter of introduction to Karlheinz Stockhausen, whom he met one evening after a performance in Germany in 1960. Patterson was rather put off by the maestro’s notorious haughtiness, but the next evening had the chance to catch a show with John Cage and David Tudor performing. “I was quite, let’s say, astonished,” he recalled later, adding, “I thought to myself, this is what I had had in the back of my mind as to how music could be made but never thought that anyone would take it seriously or that I could even produce it. So here it was.” After the concert, he introduced himself to Cage, who asked him, “Would you like to perform with us tomorrow night?” He did.
Patterson quickly fell in with the new-music crowd and went on to perform throughout Europe in the coming years, helping George Maciunas stage the first Fluxus International Festival, in 1962, in Wiesbaden, Germany. But around 1970 Patterson stopped regularly performing and releasing new work, instead working as a reference librarian (he had obtained a master’s in library science from Columbia University in 1967), a concert manager (forming his own company, Ben Patterson Ltd.), and in other arts-related positions.
This Duchampian departure from the art scene was, in fact, motivated by practical concerns, Patterson told Interview magazine in 2013. “Family was coming along, and papa needed to earn money,” he said. “If any Fluxus works were being sold at that point, it was for a penny or dollar per piece, so there was not much money to be made. I maintained my interest and followed what was going on, and from time to time would create small pieces, but it wasn’t a full-time occupation. Eventually [my] children grew up, finished university, and then it was possible to devote 100 percent of my time to artwork again.” He is survived by three children, Ennis, Barbro, and Tobias, and two grandchildren.
Around 1987, he did indeed return to art, creating witty assemblages out of found objects, performing, and staging participatory artworks. (In the 1960s he had also made visual art, like what he called “puzzle poems,” collages that could be pieced together by participants.) In 2010 the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston staged a retrospective of his work, “Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of Flux/Us,” which traveled to the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Nassauischer Kunstverein in Wiesbaden. That show was “long overdue,” Hendricks said, adding, “My gut feeling is that Ben’s contribution to the whole movement is greater than is recognized, and I suspect there’s a touch of racism in all of that.”
Once he returned to making art full time, Patterson worked intensely, frequently staging performances and shows around the world. “I say artists are like old cowboys; they die with their boots on,” Patterson said in that Interview piece. “I hope to continue until the last day. I certainly have no intentions to sit on the sofa and watch television for 10 hours a day.” Explaining his work, he said later in the article, “What I try to do is open people’s minds, ears, and eyes, not necessarily with shock technique, but with surprises and unexpected things so they become more aware and sensitive to the world around them.”
Discussing his Fluxus days, Patterson emphasized in another interview that he and his compatriots made work that resisted commodification. “It was something you experienced, and that was it,” he said. “You couldn’t take it away.”
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