Benjamin Patterson

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Julie Thomson

Benjamin Patterson, A Game: Three Capacities and One Inhibition, c. 1963; four index cards with handwritten and stamped ink additions, one with collage; all in envelope with stamped ink and typewritten additions; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

Reading about the Fluxus movement, I have often encountered photographs of Benjamin Patterson performing, even reprinted versions of a few of his scores, but the details of his work and life remain obscure in these materials. Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, with over one hundred works on view, offers a rare opportunity to become acquainted with the full range of Patterson’s output: his scores (with performance photographs and audio), puzzle poems, sculptures and assemblages. Organized by CAMH senior curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, this informative first retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work retrieves Patterson’s oeuvre from obscurity.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1934, Patterson earned a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Michigan. He moved to Canada to perform with orchestras as a bassist and later to Germany where he participated in some of the first Fluxus concerts, thus becoming one of the original members of the international group. The loose affiliation of Fluxus artists shared a range of interests including making the actions of everyday life the basis of their work—and in the process, challenging and expanding art and music.

At every entrance to the exhibition display cases filled with Patterson’s scores reveal his unique ways of using everyday moments and items as the basis for his work. The inventive score Ants (1960) results from a photograph he took of a group of ants; their positions on the page are left for the performer to interpret into notes, rhythms and durations. This and other scores demonstrate what Cassel Oliver cites in the exhibition introduction as Patterson’s significant contribution to music: “action as music.” His landmark Paper Piece (1960), for example, instructs performers to “…crumple, rumple, bumple…,” with the actions of tearing various papers producing a set of sounds.

Such propositions are continued above the display cases, where additional scores hang along with photographs of past performances. Three 1964 drawings of outlines of feet containing rubber stamp numbers and letters indicating directional movement are scores that visitors can perform themselves in the gallery. A group of photographs of a nude woman covered in whipped cream provokes viewers to find the corresponding score, Lick Piece (1964), in the case below. Due to the range of choices they allow the performer and the ways they continue to change with each realization, Patterson’s scores remain remarkably vibrant and engaging.

Benjamin Patterson, Poems in Boxes: Volume 5, Poems 20, 21; 22, 23 and 24, 25, 1962; Unique example of Fluxus Edition announced 1964; photostat on card and three boxes containing cut-and-pasted paper puzzles, all in plastic bag; The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

Installation view of Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; © Rick Gardner Photography

Patterson’s interest in participation extends to other areas of his work, particularly his Puzzle Poems and Poems in Boxes (both 1962). He created these works by pasting magazine clippings of photographs and words to both sides of a piece of cardboard and then cutting these collages into pieces. Participants trying to assemble the puzzles face the challenge of determining what pieces and what sides to put together, as well as which side to display once the puzzle is completed. Patterson’s first exhibition of the puzzle poems took place in the Fluxus artist Robert Filliou’s Galerie Légitime (artworks carried around in a hat). At CAMH eight puzzle poems are displayed behind a series of small windows set within a gallery wall, allowing for a similarly intimate encounter.

Following his puzzle poems and scores, Patterson took a twenty-year pause for what he called “an ordinary life” in New York City. In the 1980s he resumed his practice by making assemblages including the series The Subway Paintings (1990) in which he pairs three-dimensional objects with advertisement posters he procured from subway trains. Patterson uses these advertisements as ready-made scores, adding objects to them in order to realize the given directives of each. In one of his most dynamic pairings, Patterson obligingly hangs a gas mask on top of a Pan Am photo advertisement of palm trees bearing the statement “Help restore free breathing.”

The success of the assemblages depends on Patterson’s choice of materials and his manner of combining them. The effective Hell on Wheels (1988), for instance, provocatively raises issues about war and education through its juxtapositions: a school desk covered in camouflage fabric topped by a plastic toy tank with an arrow loaded into its gun. A bow placed next to the desk creates a scenario for potential confrontation.

Reflective and biographical turns can be found in more recent works like Fluxus Constellation (2003), a series of lights with the names and images of artists affiliated with Fluxus, and also the engaging installation Blame It On Pittsburgh Or, Why I Became an Artist (1997). In this second work Patterson shares the exploration of his subconscious. Viewers use flashlights to examine Plexiglas panels with texts and images installed in a dark room. By probing this representation of the mind of the artist, viewers encounter Patterson’s experiences with racism in the United States, as well as the link he understands between his integrationist philosophy and the appeal of the Fluxus embrace of intermedia (or the spaces between artistic mediums).

Benjamin Patterson, Fluxus Constellation, 2003; silkscreened nylon over glass sconce, electrical system; sconce: 23 ¾ x 8 x 2 ½ inches, each (34 works); dimensions variable, overall installation; collection Museo d’arte contemporanea Villa Croce, Genoa, Italy

Benjamin Patterson, Two Violins after Paik's One for Violin, 1991; violin, wooden board; 3 x 6 x 3 inches; courtesy the artist and Galerie Schüppenhauer

Patterson’s interest in the subconscious and interstitial terrain is also reflected in his establishment of the newest annex of his Museum of the Subconscious in Houston. Located behind the museum on the property line shared with the Jung Center, this annex is composed of a gold plunger and a mobile hanging from a blue crossbeam pole, which may be visited at any time. Interested viewers may obtain a pamphlet from the CAMH front desk to donate their subconscious.

Despite such opportunities for viewer engagement, additional steps could have been taken to activate the experiential elements of other works, particularly the inert Walkmen in Trains of Thought (1997) and the silent music boxes in Two Violins after Paik's One for Violin (1991). This last work, as well as Cello (Red) and Cello (Blue) (both 2003), are relics from performances, but the ways in which they were used remain elusive without additional documentary photographs or video. While the series of Fluxfilms that plays in an alcove positions Patterson within the larger Fluxus context, this area of the exhibition could be used more effectively to play films of Patterson’s performances as it did during the exhibition’s opening weekend.

The questions raised about how the relics were used in performances may be clarified in the anticipated forthcoming catalogue. Promoted to include an anthology of his scores, audio recordings and six essays, the catalogue, by adding additional details about Patterson’s career, works and working methods, will likely continue the much-needed work begun with the exhibition. How the participatory and free-choice elements that underlie much of Patterson’s practice will be reflected in the volume and its texts remains to be seen. Certainly, if Patterson’s scores are reproduced they will likely find performers to realize them for years to come.

Julie Thomson is a Critical Studies Fellow in the Core Program at the Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

This exhibition will be on view through January 23, 2011.

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