Ben Patterson Contextual Essay

13 12 2009

Ben Patterson is an American-born, international performance artist whose career has spanned from the early 1960’s to the present.  Patterson is well known for his integral involvement with Fluxus, a movement that challenges traditional notions of high culture through the elevation of seemingly mundane actions into the realm of art.  The diversity and quality of Patterson’s work place him among the most important living American artists.  A retrospective of Patterson’s work is planned for 2010 at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, TX.  The exhibition seeks to establish Patterson as an integral player in contemporary American art, a long overdue recognition.

Of the many elements at play in Patterson’s oeuvre, music has most strongly colored his body of work.   Patterson often employs instruments, acts as a conductor, and conceives of his works of art as scores; devices which both reflect and reject his classical training as a double bassist.  Patterson’s reference to classical music is often an explicitly critical exercise which mocks or questions the value of the traditional musical cannon. For example, in 2001 Patterson created Symphony No. 6 in which he performed three great operas “Carmen,” “Madame Butterfly” and “Tristan and Isolde” in the course of a single hour.

In addition to a musical overtone, social commentary plays an integral part in Patterson’s work.  Before they are enacted, his scores often seem ambiguous, apolitical and non-confrontational.  Yet the performance of these works can often be read through a political lens which is dependent on the social climate in which they are performed.  For example “Licking Piece” performed for the first time in New York City in 1964 is a score which reads:

cover shapely female with whipped cream

lick…topping of chopped nuts and cherries is optional

The resulting picture of a black man (Patterson) covering a light skinned woman’s body in whipped cream in the context of the civil rights era is undoubtedly a racially and sexually charged work of art.

The availability of Patterson’s performances is another vital part of his work.  His Fluxus scores are composed with the understanding that they will be performed again and again for an ever shifting international audience by himself as well as other artists.   Patterson has performed his scores in many countries throughout the course of his career.  Major exhibitions have been held in Tokyo, Japan, Queensland, Australia, Montreal, Canada, New Delhi, India, and Tel Aviv, Israel among many other locals. The reception of Patterson’s work in these various contexts has ranged from excitement to befuddlement.

Patterson’s performances are too many to list in full; however, in 1999 he created a chronologically organized working file of scores,  ideas, and performances titled “the Black and White File”.  Another important compilation of works is “Methods and Processes,” first published in 1961 and reissued in a Japanese/English bilingual edition  in 2005. Both “Methods and Processes” and the “Black and White File” are available in this archive for the use of scholars, artists, or anyone interested in Ben Patterson’s work.  These resources offer a unique glimpse at the scope and span of Patterson’s production over the course of fifty years.

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