Mary Bauermeister, an artist whose indefinable works involving glass orbs and shells made her an important member of the Fluxus movement, has died at 88. New York’s Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, which represents her, confirmed her passing in a press release on Thursday.
halley k harrisburg, a director at the gallery, said in a statement, “After a long and heroic battle with cancer, we have lost a legend and perhaps the funniest artist to grace the art world; Mary had the uncommon ability to make us laugh and ponder our existence at the same time. She never missed the opportunity to expound on the mystical, the spiritual, or the existential.”
Though she remains lesser known outside Germany, where she was born and based for much of her career, Bauermeister was at the core of a group of avant-garde artists working in the postwar era. Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and many others are known to have come into contact with her and her work at various points.
Many of those artists were members alongside her of a movement known as Fluxus, which was begun in the 1960s as a riposte to bourgeois aesthetics. Their works took the form of assemblages of everyday objects that were combined in ways that looked nothing like traditional painting and sculpture.
Bauermeister’s most famous works are her “lens boxes,” which are composed of glass elements and stones displayed in eye-popping arrangements.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1934, Bauermeister led a childhood primarily devoid of art. She once told the New York Times, “Because of the Nazis we had no chance to see modern art. My father brought art books from Holland but they had to be hidden.” After World War II ended, in 1946, she attended school in Cologne.
After high school, she went to the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm to study art in an environment she found stifling. “The only artworks which receive serious attention here are constructed, mathematically provable, rectangular,” she wrote to one of her teachers. She dropped out after one semester and went instead to the Staatliche Schule für Kunst und Handwerk in Saarbrücken to study with the photographer Otto Steinert.
Her breakthrough came in the early ’60s, when her apartment became a site for avant-garde activity, with Christo, Paik, Merce Cunningham, and more staging events there. The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whom Bauermeister married in 1967, was also among the participants in that space. Alongside Stockhausen, she would go on to have her first museum show at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam in 1962. With Stockhausen, she had two children, Julika and Simon; Stockhausen and Bauermeister divorced in 1973.
Lured by the promise of the New York scene, Bauermeister lived in Manhattan for much of the ’60s. She had a series of acclaimed shows at Galerie Bonino, with the New York Times writing of one, in 1970, “Not only is the gallery crammed full of standing, sitting, sprawling constructions—like the virginal easels ranging in size from a few inches to 12 feet tall as well as variants that seem to have resulted from the unlikely mating of an easel with a chest of drawers—but each of her constructions is packed full of visual and sculptural incident.”
Bauermeister had been back in Europe ever since 1971, when she moved to a house she built in the village of Rösrath.
Signs of Bauermeister’s rise in recent years were evident in 2021, when the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia gave her a $28,000 prize. Hendrik Wüst, the Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, said in a statement at the time, “Highly committed to promoting young artists, Mary Bauermeister is now what is called an ‘artist’s artist’: an artist who shapes and inspires subsequent generations of artists.”