Benjamin Patterson: the Fluxus artist who composed with ants

Denied employment as a classical double-bassist because of his race, the multimedia artist, who died last week, went in a more groundbreaking direction

Benjamin Patterson was there at the very beginning of Fluxus, performing his own composition at the first concert co-organized by George Maciunas in Germany, in 1962. Yet while Fluxus-associated figures such as Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and La Monte Young have all enjoyed a certain purchase with art-world habitus (even among those who may not be intimately familiar with specific works), the contributions of this bassist, sculptor, painter and collagist have not been placed at the center of conceptual arts history after Dada.

At least not yet. In recent years there have been indications that Pattersons reputation is on the rise thanks to a slate of archival audio releases, a comprehensive 2010 exhibition of old and newer pieces at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, as well as similar programming at the Studio Museum in Harlem. And while Pattersons death last week, at age 82, puts an end to the story of his creations and improvisations, it also offers an opportunity to assess more accurately the scope and impact of this African American artists groundbreaking work.

He was classically trained on the double-bass, only to discover that America was not ready to hire black symphony musicians. So he found another way to leave his mark: before Gyorgy Ligeti and Peter Maxwell Davies collaborated with the African American singer William Pearson, the baritone was featured alongside Patterson in a performance of his Duo For Voice And a String Instrument one of the pieces presented at the first Fluxus concert.

According to the composer, sometime jazz trombonist and Columbia professor of American music George Lewis, Bens work was laconic, whimsical, convivial and probing by turns. In an email exchange, Lewis says that Patterson crossed boundaries between visual art, music, and performance with alacrity, and added that the artists early prepared-instrument piece, Variations for a Double Bass, anticipated by a decade the materiality of Helmut Lachenmann, while his even more influential Paper Pieceencouraged audiences to enact and exchange personal and communitarian visions in sound and gesture.

Pattersons notes for Variations for Double Bass reads, in part: In the first performance by the composer a graphic score derived from ink blots was used as a guide; however, there are many other satisfactory solutions. Photograph: The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Pattersons openness to indeterminacy and his welcoming of audience participation fit neatly within the parameters of Fluxuss charm, which was typically driven by chance and ephemerality. Though even as he helped codify the practices of action as composition, Patterson pushed himself to create works that offered a substantive feel running in parallel with a puckish-sounding modern art concept.

The gestation of his 1960s piece Ants gives a sense of the artists playfulness and his deliberate method. It started as a visual idea: Patterson began composing Ants by holding its titular specimens in reserve, then allowing them to escape across a piece of white paper. After photographing this exodus from his custody, Patterson observed the ants positions on the resulting photographs, and transcribed these positions as notes on musical staffs. (You can find reproductions of each stage in this invaluable exhibition book and CD package.)

Pattersons hypothesis was that this could be a new approach to aleatoric (or chance based) music. However, a try-out on my double-bass was quite disappointing, Patterson wrote. Only much later did I realize that what I had discovered was a method and of course a method is not music. In 1964, Patterson reopened his ant files and came up with notated music that he decided should be presented in conjunction with any 1962 composition by Maciunas what with simultaneity being another frequent component of Fluxus work.

A recording of Ants by German pianist Steffen Schleiermacher, released on the highly enjoyable 2015 album Fluxus Piano, reveals that Pattersons final score favors some of the jabbing, pointillistic violence of the eras serial music modernism. The shattering musical shards are interesting on their own though its also fascinating to hear in conjunction with another Maciunas piece. (The composition superimposed over Ants on Schleiermachers album is Maciunass instruction-based work Solo for Sick Man.)

As it happened, Patterson once intended to study with one of the eras priests of atonal complexity, Karlheinz Stockhausen. But their meeting went so poorly that Patterson said he went into isolation for three days to ponder a more socially responsible way of making art. After an unplanned encounter with John Cage and pianist David Tudor resulted in an invitation to play at a concert soon thereafter, Pattersons move toward more chance-friendly music was settled and Paper Piece followed quickly.

Pattersons notes for Paper Piece. Photograph: Museum of Modern Art, New York

By the end of the 60s, Patterson had retired from the art world. His stated reasons involved needing to provide for his family; he soon obtained a degree in library science (and over time, he also established a noteworthy career as an arts administrator). But in his writings, he also expressed some distress over the inability of Fluxus to deal with the politics of its era.

In general I think Fluxus did sit on the fence, Patterson wrote. True, many of the Fluxus artists during that time were very willing to confess to harmless friends that they were really anarchists, communists, socialists and/or something or other in that direction. But I must state that I never got a telephone call from Fluxus Central asking me to join next Saturdays March on Washington for any purpose. Yes, I was disgusted, and yes, the lack of support for civil rights and antiwar efforts was an important factor in my subsequent retirement from the art scene.

This uneasy relationship between Pattersons artistic legacy and his racial identity was not resolved by his early retirement, either. In her introduction to the exhibition book that accompanied Houstons 2010 exhibition, senior curator Valerie Cassel Oliver recounted seeing photographs of early Fluxus activities and thinking Who is the black man in this picture? The answer she discovered, over her years working with Patterson, was that he was a radical presence in the midst of a radical avant garde.

Pattersons Puzzle Poems. Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar/Museum of Modern Art, New York

Historians of experimentalism still seem unsure as to how to engage Ben as an African American artist, Lewis told me. While Ben was hardly disengaged from African American history and culture, his work was rooted in a mobile, fluid cosmopolitanism that declined to be overdetermined by race.

And while Lewis notes that Fluxus publications of the period were scrupulous about documenting Pattersons contributions, he says the same has not proved true in the art-history literature. At least part of that could be due to Bens own modesty and self-effacement, Lewis said. He was hardly a tireless self-promoter. [But] when you look at how his work is portrayed in scholarly histories, though, you become obliged to call into question the reasons for the discrepancies between those histories and what his fellow artists said and experienced.

After his children grew up and left the home, Patterson returned to art-making diving back into readymades and collages, but also moving into new forms of sculpture and painting, many of which Oliver presented in Houston. Over email, the curator remembered Patterson as thoughtful, kind and filled with enormous curiosity and a zeal for life. His many works whether visual art objects, scores for actions or performances were so layered and multifaceted that it took a moment to realize that they were built upon rigorous research, cloaked in a witty haiku.

Oliver also forwarded news of a Patterson-inspired final project, too: specifically, an online lottery meant to crowdfund a portrait book covering 25 years of Fluxus activity. The drawing will be held on 2 September, in Germany, in lieu of a funeral, which an associate there said he did not want.

He died doing what he loved best, making art, Oliver said. I feel so immensely privileged to have shared his brilliance with the world. That sentiment was echoed by Schleiermacher, the German pianist, when I reached him over email to ask how he chose which Maciunas piece would go with his performance of Pattersons music. Outside of assuring me that the superimposition of Fluxus pieces was achieved according to strict Cagean chance operations, he said Pattersons Ants will continue their wanderings and who knows where Patterson and his double bass will wander now. In any case, Fluxus will go on.

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