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Ben Patterson, Cornerstone of Fluxus and Experimental Art, Dies at 82

Patterson performing A Penny for Your Thoughts at Performa in New York in 2013.LIZ LIGON/PERFORMA

Patterson performing A Penny for Your Thoughts at Performa in New York in 2013.

LIZ LIGON/PERFORMA

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.

Patterson, Variations for Double-Bass and Duo for Voice and a String Instrument, performed during Kleinen Sommerfest/Après John Cage, Galerie Parnass, Wuppertal, June 9, 1962, 1962.©BENJAMIN PATTERSON

Patterson, Variations for Double-Bass and Duo for Voice and a String Instrument, performed during Kleinen Sommerfest/Après John Cage, Galerie Parnass, Wuppertal, June 9, 1962, 1962.

©BENJAMIN PATTERSON

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.

George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Wolf Vostell, Benjamin Patterson, and Emmett Williams performing Philip Corner’s Piano Activities at Fluxus Internationale Festspiele Neuester Musik in Weisbaden in 1962.

George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, Wolf Vostell, Benjamin Patterson, and Emmett Williams
performing Philip Corner’s Piano Activities
at Fluxus Internationale Festspiele Neuester Musik in Weisbaden in 1962.

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.

Patterson, The Great Switch, 1990.COURTESY CONTEMPORARY ARTS MUSEUM HOUSTON

Patterson, The Great Switch, 1990.

COURTESY CONTEMPORARY ARTS MUSEUM HOUSTON

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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