Fluxus, an international Dada-inspired art movement launched during the 1960s, has proven enormously influential, helping spawn developments in conceptualism, text art, video and performance art.
Accordingly, its founders’ careers and legacies make rich hunting grounds for today’s art historians, curators and artists. (Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik are among the best-known associates of the loose collective.)
But because Fluxus draws upon and blends many branches of the visual, literary and performing arts — as well as non-art disciplines — even as it upends their conventions, exhibiting its artists’ work in an institutionalized setting presents thorny challenges.
So salute the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston for tackling those challenges to give Benjamin Patterson, the only black American on the scene when Fluxus was born, his first retrospective. CAMH senior curator Valerie Cassel Oliver has assembled, and CAMH has beautifully installed, a treasure trove of annotated scores, text pieces, footage, sculptures, installation art and ephemera spanning five decades.
Figuring out how to showcase Patterson’s work, much of which hasn’t been seen, must have felt like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree. But I’ll be damned if the Jell-O doesn’t stick, keep its shape, taste good and make you want to come back for more.
Helping matters are Patterson’s acuteness as an object maker and the way his fascinating biography is woven into the show’s fabric.
The classically trained Patterson wound up in Europe after stints with two Canadian orchestras that followed a short-lived quest to break the color barrier in a U.S. symphony orchestra. (There’s poetic justice in Patterson’s first survey being held here. In 1956, he auditioned for 20 U.S. conductors, including the Houston Symphony’s Leopold Stokowski, but the maestro was unable to persuade the board to hire him.)
In Canada, Patterson began experimenting with new music formats; in Germany, an unplanned encounter with John Cage, a pioneer of using chance in music, led him to explore what Cassel Oliver describes as “the incorporation of action into the creation of musical composition.” The exhibit includes annotated scores that often consist of instructions for performers — and, as increasingly came to be the case, audience members — to execute.
For example, the score for Paper Piece, which began as part of a 1960 holiday-season letter to Patterson’s family in Pittsburgh, featured “instructions for the performance of the work: number of participants, materials to be used, and actions to be taken, such as the tearing, crumbling, twisting, and rubbing together of discarded wrapping paper,” Cassel Oliver writes.
Paper Piece was performed in 1962 as part of the International Festival of New Music at the Städtisches Museum in Wiesbaden, Germany.
“The work, once initiated by the five performers onstage, spread outward into the audience, who were no longer passive spectators but active participants — crumbling, tearing, folding, and waving paper,” Cassel Oliver writes. “Patterson recalls: ‘It was by accident but was incorporated into the composition and subsequent events — a happy happenstance.’ ”
Patterson’s concept of “action as composition” spread to his work in visual media, including collage puzzle-poems the viewer had to assemble in order to read.
Though the works contained disturbing mass-media images of the Algerian War, African famines and other instances of 1960s upheaval, their method of distribution was playful. Fluxus artist Robert Filliou gave Patterson a mobile exhibition of the puzzle-poems in his Galerie Légitime, which was located on top of his head under his bowler hat. They sold works out of Filliou’s hat during a 24-hour tour of Paris.
After a 20-year “retirement from Fluxus” during which Patterson supported his family working as a reference library and arts administrator, he resumed his artistic production with an impressive body of assemblages that balance Fluxus whimsy and political awareness.
In 1997, he created the most interactive work on view, an installation that grew out of 26 sessions with a psychotherapist that Patterson recorded, later silkscreening fragments of the narratives onto Plexiglas along with photos and ephemera from his youth.
Hanging from the ceiling in a pitch-dark room, the Plexiglas sheets form a maze viewers navigate with flashlights. Among other things, they encounter memories of Patterson’s awkward high school love life — or lack thereof — during a time when interracial dating was taboo and the only black girl in his class thought he was weird. The installation’s title: Blame it on Pittsburgh; or, Why I Became an Artist.
It’s like being inside Patterson’s subconscious, which is fitting since just after the show opened Patterson erected a sculpture that he designated Annex No. 3 of The Museum of the Subconscious. (The original site is in Namibia; there are two other annexes in Israel and Argentina.) CAMH has forms you can fill out to donate your subconscious after you die.
Appropriately enough, Annex No. 3 is on the border straddling CAMH and — what else? — the Jung Center of Houston.
BENJAMIN PATTERSON: BORN IN THE STATE OF FLUX/US
When: Through Jan. 23