An Abbreviated Biography of Benjamin Patterson

15 12 2009

In 1998, SEM Ensemble performed Ben Patterson’s Pond 2 at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City.  In 2007, artist Clifford Owens, in conjunction with artist Xaviera Simmons performed Four Fluxus Scores by Benjamin Patterson. This included Patterson’s seminal work, Lick Piece in which a female subject is covered with whipped cream.  And in 2008, a group of volunteers in conjunction with Patterson at The National Museum of Modern Art in New Delhi, India re-staged Ben Patterson’s Paper Piece, a performance event that opened the first Fluxus Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1962.  These reincarnations of Patterson’s work, just a few among many others, suggest that he has been influential and important for a number of contemporary artists and that there is something about his work that remains relevant in the contemporary moment.  The current biography explores Patterson’s career as well as the challenges that a study of Patterson’s work and the movement of which he was part, introduce.

Ben Patterson was born in 1934 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is best known, for his participation in the international artists group, Fluxus.  It is both integral and slightly risky to discuss Patterson in this context as Fluxus itself proves difficult to define and is debated in contemporary scholarship.  Specifically, critics of the movement understand it in ways that are significantly different from those of its participants.

With respect to its structure, this international artists group is best described by Kristine Stiles as a “voluntary association of people”[1].  Another scholar in Ken Friedman’s Fluxus Reader concurs when she states that what united many Fluxus artists was a mutual interest in each other’s work and collaborations on projects and performances.[2] Underscored in these statements is the formal, aesthetic diversity amongst Fluxus artists that make its encompassing work very different.  Fluxus was originally conceived of as a publication with no cultural or political agenda when the name was coined in 1961.  It

was only as Fluxus developed that it began to be associated with a group of specific artists and events.[3] Many texts name Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, George Maciunas and George Brecht the core of the group of artists.  While records seem to suggest that Patterson was an integral member from its birth, the artist does not figure prominently in Fluxus scholarship and research on Patterson yields few significant resources.

In his Discovery of Alternative Theater, Richard Kostelanetz argues that the fullest realization of Fluxus was at its first official event in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1962, ‘Fluxus Internationale Festspiele Neuster Musik’.[4] It included 14 concerts whose composers were grouped according to style, nationality and medium.  Fluxus was originally conceived by George Maciunas, however, as a publication.  One of its original goals was “to create a distribution system for interesting materials that would not otherwise be published.”[5] In 1964, the members of the group released their first publication Fluxus I. It contained enveloped with scores Higgins, Patterson and Brecht, amongst others.  Objects, photographs and other performance remnants also made up the contents of the compilation.

While the structure of Fluxus and its participants are fairly accessible, chronologically, the period is much more elusive.  Some literature argues that Fluxus is a non-durational movement that transcends a typical temporal framework for an art or political movement[6].  These artists and scholars view the term Fluxus as inextricably bound to the idea of flowing and change that is resists the notion of a fixed end.  Other scholars and critics of the movement understand a clear incipience and convergence of activity from the late 1950’s to the mid-1960’s a decline after 1963.  During the years from 1967 to 1969 little work was produced.  Similarly, other scholars believe that Fluxus is now over.

The ideological foundation and goals of Fluxus are also contested.  There is a strong belief on the part of many Fluxus participants like Dick Higgins, that Fluxus was an aesthetic and political movement that challenged accepted methods of art production with respect to materials and strategies of representation.  Many of its most prominent leaders, such as George Maciunas, also believed that Fluxus was an anti-institutional group, wildly different from contemporaneous and immediate past art historical art historical periods such as Dadaism.  They were especially weary of the abstraction of the fine art world.  Extraordinarily self-aware, members of the group also attribute the impetus for their practices to the varying political actions of the United States government such as the war in Vietnam and other actions viewed as establishing the US’ world power (or domination).[7] Furthermore, many were interested in the social and political implications of their work.  Together, these artists articulated a vision that characterizes Fluxus as idealistic, iconoclastic and anarchic.  Contemporary scholars, however, challenge this notion and prove that the work of Fluxus was in many ways “traditionally iconoclastic” with its use of easily destroyed, quotidian, ephemeral materials and happenings.”  One scholar, Hannah Higgins argues that politically, Fluxus was in reality narrowly focused as she expose the self-aggrandizing mythology of Fluxus perpetuated by its principal artist, George Maciunas.  She also argues that they were a group with many ideas about political power that were not always interested in certain types of widespread activism.

Finally, while Dick Higgins asserts that Fluxus never forced its participants to adhere to any clearly defined program, much scholarship on the movement compellingly exposes internal conflicts that describe Maciunas as an aesthetic tyrant who did not include the work of those whose work he believed strayed from a collective vision that he had of Fluxus.

Ben Patterson, a 1956 graduate of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s Music program, both conforms to and differs from some of the accepted Fluxus ideologies and practices.  Like many other Fluxus artists, Patterson engaged in different types of work which were at their core experimental and performance-based.  His work is wide and can be understood as existing in and between systems of classification such as ‘art’, ‘music’ and ‘text’.  For example, in 1960, after working a musician with

various orchestras in the United States and Canada, Patterson moved to Cologne, Germany.  There, he became active in the radical music scene and he worked with the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen who was a leader in avant-garde music and performance.  In classes with Stockhausen, he created compositions that he would perform later on at Fluxus Festivals.[8] Thus, like the practices of other Fluxus artists, some his work constituted discrete events.  Patterson also, however, produced publications and collections of objects such as Instruction No. 2 and Black and White File. Patterson moved to Paris to in 1961 and in 1962 published a collection of his scores entitled Methods and Processes.

With respect to ideology, some of Patterson’s work also conforms to the institutional and aesthetic idealism and activist-like goals championed by the larger Fluxus group.  For example, one of his most famous works, Paper Piece stands in striking contrast to high-world of abstract expressionism through its medium and overt political position.  Paper Piece begins with two performers who exit the wings of the stage and entering the space of the audience.  Holding this long sheet of paper over the very front row, audience members heard the sound of paper being shredded and crumpled.  Soon after, holes appeared in a large paper screen onstage.  Following this, shredded paper and balls of paper were thrown into the audience and printed sheets of letter-sized paper were dumped on to the audience as well.  On these sheets of paper was George Maciunas’ Fluxus manifesto that stated:

“Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, intellectual, professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation and artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, PURGE THE WORLD OF EUROPEANISM…PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART, Promote living art, anti-art, PROMOTE NON-ART REALITY to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals…FUSE the cadres of cultural, social & political revolutionaries into united front & action.”[9]

These charged words, articulating vehemence with the particular characteristics of art institutions in the militant language of 1960’s political movements for enfranchisement and equal rights graced the pages of one of Ben Patterson’s first Fluxus performances.  And they place him within the idealism of its group.

Patterson also produced more ambiguous work that takes the form of physical objects.  One example of this is Instruction No. 2. This work constituted a small, white plastic box with “Fluxus”, Patterson’s name and the title of the piece on the label.  In striking contrast to the bold, political message of Paper Piece, inside each box was a piece of soap and a stamped paper towel that said “Please wash your face”.  This object included ephemeral, common items that are squarely in line with the concerns of Fluxus members and is formally similar to Ken Friedman’s Open and Shut Case.

Finally, with respect to the duration of his career, Ben Patterson was very active in the 1960’s producing works that define his oeuvre like Lemons and Solo for Double bass.  Additionally, the artist still works today.  After a seventeen year break from art production that began in 1970, Patterson had an exhibition at the Emily Harvey Gallery in New York entitled Ordinary Life. In 2002, he created a space called Ben’s Bar in New York.  The space was reinstalled in Wiesbaden in 2007.  In 2006, he opened his Museum for The Subconscious, a virtual space that he states is situated both in Namibia, Africa and everywhere at the same time.  In 2009, he executed performances and object based installations at the SolwayJones Gallery in Los Angeles, California.

Similarly, Patterson’s work continues to be explored by artists, curators and scholars even though literature about the artist and reproductions of his scores are difficult to obtain.  He was included in the Sao Paolo Bienal in Brazil in 1983 as well as a broader 1999 Fluxus retrospective in Tel Aviv entitled Fluxus in germany.  Additionally, A Very Lawful Dance was recreated with the aid of New York City’s Art in General gallery. And planned for the future is a forty year retrospective of Patterson’s work organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston.

[1] Hannah Higgins, “Fluxus Fortuna” in The Fluxus Reader, Ken Friedman (Chicester: Academy Editions, 1998), 32.

[2] Jon Hendricks, Fluxus Codex (New York: Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection in association with H.N. Abrams, 1988), 24.

[3] Jon Hendricks, Fluxus Codex (New York: Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection in association with H.N. Abrams, 1988), 16.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Eric Drott, “Ligeti in Fluxus,” The Journal of Musicology 21, (2004): 213.

[6] Owen Smith, “Developing a Fluxable Forum” in The Fluxus Reader (Chicester, England, Academy Editions, 1988) , 19.

[7] Jon Hendricks, Fluxus Codex (New York: Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection in association with H.N. Abrams, 1988), 21.  Foreword states that “Fluxus begins before it begins and ends, one hopes after it ends.”

[8] Kristine Stiles, “Between Water and Stone, Fluxus Performance: A Metaphysics of Acts,” in Elizabeth Armstrong and Joan Rothfuss, eds, In the Spirit of Fluxus, (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993).

[9] Owen Smith, “Developing a Fluxable Forum” in The Fluxus Reader (Chicester, England, Academy Editions, 1988), 11.


Fluxus, 25 Years. Williamstown: Williams College Museum of Art, 1987.

Armstrong, Elizabeth, Joan Rothfuss, and Simon Anderson. In the Spirit of Fluxus: Published on the Occasion of the Exhibition. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993.

Drott, Eric. “Ligeti in Fluxus,” The Journal of Musicology 21, (2004): 201-240

Friedman, Ken. The Fluxus Reader. Chicester: Academy Editions, 1998.

Hendricks, Jon. Fluxus Codex. New York: Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection in association with H.N. Abrams, 1988.

Higgins, Hannah. Fluxus Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Kostelantez, Richard, “The Discovery of Alternative Theater: Notes on Art Performances in New York City in the 1960’s and 1970’s.” Perspective of New Music 27 (1989): 128-172.




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