Half a Century Late

In 1956, the Houston Symphony's Board of Directors refused to hire double-bassist Benjamin Patterson because he was black. In 2010, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston presented the first major exhibition of the work of the musician, artist, performer and poet.

A founding member of Fluxus, the avant-garde artists' collective whose loose and international nature encompassed the likes of Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik, Patterson has been left out of numerous histories of the movement and lists of its artists. With "Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us," CAMH Senior Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver's epic undertaking, Patterson's role and his work are being given their due.

The CAMH exhibition contains musical scores, instructions for performances, documentation of performances, assemblage sculptures, installations and ephemera. There is also a collection of early Fluxus videos that Patterson scored.

Born in 1934 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Patterson grew up comfortably middle class and studying classical music. He went on to major in music at the University of Michigan, determined to be "the first black to 'break the color-barrier' in an American symphony orchestra," as he recalls in the show's catalogue.

After he graduated, he auditioned for "20 or so conductors," and Houston's Leopold Stokowski was the only one who fought for him. But he couldn't convince enough board members to approve the hire. Patterson headed to Canada, where he became principal bassist and an assistant conductor for the Halifax Symphony Orchestra.

Patterson had begun exploring experimental music at U of M and continued to do so in Halifax until he was drafted and spent two years serving in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, based in Stuttgart, West Germany. This was his introduction to Europe, where he would meet John Cage one night and perform with him the next.

Patterson went on to live in Germany for a number of years, and the first time he composed an "action" was in a letter he sent home to his family at Christmas. He couldn't travel to Pittsburgh for the holidays, so he gave them a set of instructions for what would be his first version of Paper Piece. Family members were directed to tear, crumple, rub and twist discarded Christmas wrapping paper.

Paper Piece would go on to be performed in 1962 at the first Fluxus Festival, which Patterson helped fellow Fluxus founding member George Maciunas organize. Maciunas's iconic "Fluxus Manifesto" was read and distributed at the event, and these copies were what the audience tore and crumpled during the Paper Piece performance.

Leaving Germany in 1962, Patterson returned to New York; several of his pieces would continue to be performed abroad after his departure. In the U.S., being an African-American man carried with it significant social and political ramifications. While Europe wasn't exactly free of racism, Patterson had felt a sense of solidarity and shared purpose with his colleagues. But back home, he had the undoubtedly difficult realization that none of his supposedly "revolutionary" Fluxus colleagues in the U.S. shared his sense of urgency surrounding the fight for civil rights.

Patterson continued to participate in Fluxus events in New York, but having married in Europe and become a father, supporting his family became a priority. As Cassel's catalogue essay states, Patterson "withdrew from the group in search of an 'ordinary life.'" He got a master's degree from Columbia in library science and went on to a distinguished career in arts administration.

The artist resumed his artistic career in 1988, and his hiatus may be a contributing factor to his absence from many Fluxus narratives. Racism, conscious and unconscious, was, and is, likely a factor as well. The fact that Patterson's work is wide-ranging and does not lend itself to easy summation or categorization is another.

Patterson's early works have a wit and poetry to them. I particularly liked his collection of "puzzle poems," in which the artist collaged found images and text together onto cardboard and then cut them into pieces, placing them in found containers. The works are highlighted in illuminated niches behind glass; in front of each, a yellowed piece of paper reads, "A Volume of Collected Poems" and is signed "Benjamin Patterson." The words are written in elaborate 18th-century copperplate script that is wonderfully incongruous with the poem's cheap, cast-off containers.

There's a collection of 1960s French paper yogurt containers with their original foil lids, each serving as home to a puzzle poem. In others, matchboxes, chocolate boxes or cigar boxes are used. (The matchbox and yogurt containers also have great graphic appeal to the contemporary eye.) The poems include a variety of black-and-white photos, but you can't really make out the text on most of them. One more visible reassembled poem piece has a black-and-white National Geographic image of two tribesmen in full regalia with the text "baby's welcome begins before birth" pasted under it. Patterson paired the exoticized image with insipid copy of the sort featured in period women's magazines.

Miniature puzzle poems were originally "exhibited" in 1962 by Fluxus artist Robert Filliou in his Galerie Légitime, conveniently located on top of the artist's head, under his hat. For the opening, Patterson and Filliou spent 24 hours traveling all over Paris by foot, bus or metro, meeting the public and selling work.

Methods and Processes, Patterson's first book of poetry, contains poem/instructions like the following: "discover an interesting sound / capture it / preserve it / perform it." It also includes Lick Piece: "cover shapely female with whipped cream / lick / ... / topping of chopped nuts and cherries is optional."

Photos documenting a 1964 New York performance of Lick Piece are on view; Patterson and two other guys squirt whipped cream all over a woman seated naked in a chair, apparently in a gallery. The references to ejaculate are obvious, and the "licked" aftermath has "porn scene" written all over it. The work is super-sexist, but it's par for the course for the period. Remember, this was the same time period when Yves Klein was dragging naked women through paint and across canvases, using them as brushes. The civil rights climate in the U.S. at the time, and the fact that anti-miscegenation laws were on the books until 1967, gave an additional subversive element to the performance, which featured a white female.

Patterson's assemblage sculptures, however, aren't consistently successful. Often filled with bright consumer objects, they are visually engaging but often feel overwrought and clunky. Hung high in the gallery, his double bass with wings and a bunch of other stuff stuck on it is a disappointing example. But Sit Down is a simpler and more successful sculpture. It's a chair with an arced wire that dangles a white teddy bear with a red heart in front of the person seated. There is apparently a recorder inside. A label on the bear instructs you to "Sit down, speak to me loudly, leave." God knows what things people have shouted at that innocuous stuffed animal.

There is an overwhelming amount of work to see in the show, but you shouldn't miss the installation Blame It on Pittsburgh; or, Why I Became an Artist (1997). It's a kind of biography/autobiography of Patterson. Text is written or reproduced on clear sheets of Plexiglas along with images. But subverting the traditional museum display of informational text that requires the viewer to shuffle along, reading in chronological order, the sheets are hung from the ceiling, creating a kind of a maze. 

To top it off, Patterson turned off the lights. Viewers have to grab a flashlight and enter the total darkness, bumping into things and reading spotlighted snippets. With everything from newspaper clippings to personal recollections, it's like you are rummaging through the artist's brain. And as the show demonstrates, Patterson's brain is a pretty amazing place to be. Cassel and the CAMH have done the artist — and Houston — a real service with this show.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer