WHO IS MARY BAUERMEISTER?
By Juan Xu
The Birth of Fluxus
To understand Mary Bauermeister and her importance, one needs to understand the importance of Fluxus, and her role in making the art movement happen. In September 1962, George Maciunas, an American architect and artist, organized a three-week summer festival called Fluxfest at Wiesbaden Museum, marking the birth of Fluxus art that was a reaction against conventional and high art. Nam June Paik, George Maciunas, and three other young Fluxus artists gave an unprecedented “scandalous” anti-art performance, resulting in the total destruction of a Steinway piano.
This performance art was a complete rebellion against conventional music. This unrepeatable and one-off act also lent a unique musical effect to the otherwise annoying noise. As an unconventional type of art, Fluxus is still considered strange by many people, including fans of Fluxus. “Most importantly,” Robert Watts, a Fluxus artist, once said, “no one knows what Fluxus is, but what we see and hear is nothing but Fluxus.”
Its form and expression remain a mystery, but it is definitely clear that Fluxus was born of performance art within experimental music and aimed at integrating everyday life into music. “4′33,” a well-known composition by John Cage, is a case in point. For a complete four minutes and 33 seconds, the musician did nothing more than sit at a tripod piano without touching the keys. The content of the composition is not of the silence, but of the noise from the audience, such as: coughing, clearing throats, blowing noses, laughing, protesting, applauding, etc. George Maciunas took this kind of “composition” from New York to Wiesbaden and gave this “simple, interesting, undemanding, and common” (George Maciunas, An Amercan artist, founder of Fluxus) form the name “Fluxus,” which comes from flowing and never ending. While breaking the boundaries between music, performance art, visual art, literature ,and theatre, Fluxus led to an entirely new comprehensive art of multiple media forms, and turned out to be a great success in Japan, U.S.A, and Europe.
It is true that Fluxus “requires neither special techniques nor long training,” and according to George Maciunas, “everybody can be a Fluxus artist.” However, it did have a great enlightening impact on contemporary art in the West. Fluxus has not only brought intermedia as a concept from the marginal to the mainstream, but also brought John Cage, Nam June Paik, and George Maciunas into the history of contemporary art. On its fiftieth anniversary, what comes to our mind is a figure who has made a great contribution to Fluxus as a movement, but has been neglected in art history: Mary Bauermeister.
The Birth of Mary Bauermeister
One cannot but help become fascinated by Mary Bauermeister’s personality soon after the first encounter. Bauermeister grew up in Germany in the 1950s, a period sometimes called “Adenauer’s age.” In this period, the country started to rebuild itself and was extremely conservative. Fully devoted to restoring the German economy after the war, people were so busy with buying houses or land that they showed little concern for spiritual reconstruction. In such a predominantly conservative, rigid, and orderly society that Germany found itself in, Mary was eager to bring changes to the status quo and to establish a new cultural mode.
The early 1960s found Germany producing “an economic miracle” after the hard, post-war years of the 1950s. Material abundance led to consumer society, and the Western World became more and more diversified and tolerant. Along with the social and economic changes in the 1960s, art also began to break away from the principle of catering to the elite minority and to connect itself with reality by shifting from the big-ticket and high art shows to newer, popular art. Art in the consumer era gave up the abstract and turned to life itself. There was no longer a clear distinction between artist and audience, between material for art and everyday articles. When “art is brought closer to life,” and “life is rendered more artistic,” artists are no longer considered a rare talent, but a mere mediator that reminds the audience to redirect their attention to natural structures and formations that they used to neglect, and by doing so, instruct the audience in self-creation.
Although Mary did not live through the war, its shadow did haunt her and her generation for a long time. After seeing U.S. occupied forces giving out candy to kids, she was moved and surprised as well. The friendly American soldiers brought her to the realization that the so-called enemy, as they used to be repeatedly told, were not as horrible as their elders said; rather, they were very kind. She has since become skeptical about her elders, and has reflected upon existing values. On many occasions during speeches and interviews, Mary talked about her view on the essence of art and has stated that in a strictly conventional and orderly society, the purpose of art is to sow confusion within the order to make our society more dynamic. Conversely, in a disorderly society, art is meant to bring order, and make it more regular.
Fluxus and Radical Exploration in Art
Between the late ’50s and the early ’60s, Bauermeister, who was then young and eager to learn, was anxious to know everything about the art, culture, and literature that was banned during the Nazi regime. With her friends, she also strongly felt the need to create a completely new culture… and art. Every day she followed “New Music,” a radio program in West Germany that kept track of new musical talents and she attended all kinds of concerts. In 1960, Bauermeister embarked on a journey to explore different ways of artistic expression that would go with the new era, while also taking part in a summer course for music Stockhausen organized in Darmstadt. There, she made friends with some of Stockhausen’s followers from all over the world, including Nam June Paik and John Cage, the latter considered the founders of contemporary art and Fluxus.
Seeing how John Cage and Nam June Paik were rejected by the orthodox music world, Bauermeister decided that artists could no longer rely on the readily available resources in the art world, but rather, they would have to build up an independent platform for their own expression. To the young generation like Mary Bauermeister, whose eyes saw the ruins of houses and museums ravaged by war, as well as the books, philosophy, and cultural values that were also destroyed by combat, no traditional form of cultural expression would suit them. They were eager to create their own, new culture. Tradition left them nothing but “the primitive structure” of mortar, bricks, and tiles, and they had to start fresh with dust and stove ash. Therefore, she started an unprecedented art practice in her studio at Lintgasse 28 in Cologne, and began blending the absurd with the elaborate, thinking with exploration, and aimed to discover a new civilization that would give form to a new artistic expression in the post-war era that was in tune with the reality of life and emotion of the times.
These experimental intermedia expressions bravely broke down the barriers of the previous artworld, and the young Mary Bauermeister’s studio became a rendezvous for a new generation of anti-traditional artists that she admired and wished to work with to rebuild the spirit of honesty and independence that the third Reich criticized as “degraded art”. Mary Bauermeister offered them a platform for free expression in the Western art world and ushered in avant-garde art in the ’60s. Later in 1962, George Maciunas first publicly coined the term, Fluxus.
The avant-garde artists that gathered at Mary’s studio were exceptionally imaginative and talented, but they had no visible means of support. “Hunger is the only stimulant for our consciousness and imagination,” as Bauermeister mentioned about those early days in their careers, “and by encouraging and giving insights to one another, we were determined to rebuild this world with our own effort.” These frequent visitors, also her collaborators, included pioneering poets, composers, and visual artists such as George Maciunas, Joseph Beuys, Wolf Vostell, Hans G Helms, David Tudor, John Cage, Christo, George Brecht, and Nam June Paik. Many times, this dynamic and strong-minded young female artist organized “inconceivable” concerts for these underdogs comprised of the “newest music,” and they often included readings, exhibitions, and performance art shows.
Not prejudiced toward different forms of art, Bauermeister readily accepted various ways of expression. She was seemingly able to listen to “paintings” and to paint “poems,” thus she believed that the form of art is not fixed, but rather fluid. In this way, she wished to break the boundaries between all kinds of expressive forms such as music, sculpture, paintings, and literature in order to create new, intermedia art. The first intermedia cultural event was held in her studio in Cologne on March 26, 1960 under the title of Music, Words, Painting, and Architecture. This included 12 drawings by a psychotic, essay reading sessions, and poetry recitations by a war tortured soldier. Joyce, Hertz, and even Edgar Allen Poe were all mentioned. Additionally, Feldman and John Cage created piano compositions for this occasion.
Influenced by Nam June Paik’s interest in Buddhism, Zen, Japanese Buddhist temples, and the popularity of Buddhism among intellectuals in the 1970s and 1980s, Mary dedicated herself to Zen Gardens and Land Art since she returned to Germany from New York. For over ten years her studio was open one Sunday every month for artists across the world to communicate with each other. Visitors there can listen to music, touch all kinds of musical instruments, attend readings, discussions, and concerts. And for every visitor there is also a free lunch prepared by Mary herself － her way of showing maternal gratitude for being able to make a living as artist.
Diversified Practice in Art
Even in the early 1960s, Mary quickly found that two-dimensional easel painting was insufficient for the expression of artistic thinking in the new era. Therefore, along with her peers, she began to search for art materials and forms that could go with the times. But first, Mary needed to find a starting point as well as a balance between painting and installation, between art material and material for daily life, in order to express in multiple ways her perceptions about the world as an individual artist.
Mary’s Box Series, which used actual magnifying glass lenses and “found obejcts”, was a bold experiment that blended life with art and was an early milestone in her career. One of the first and most important in this series, titled Lens Box, was displayed at the Amsterdam Museum in 1961 and played a decisive role in establishing her in galleries and museums in New York and even in the wider art circles of the United States.
After the success of this series, Mary had accomplished her goal of transforming her art from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional. In fact, she completely gave up two-dimensional paintings and shifted entirely to three-dimensional works in 1964. Aronud this time, a “natural readymade” element was incorporated into her art, whereby natural objects she collected were put into a box that was covered with another box made out of magnifying glass lenses, thereby allowing the audience to see the objects in the box through the magnifying glass lenses. Interestingly enough, the audience could not clearly see what was on display unless they bent over and put the lenses aside. However, it was the seemingly neglectable but carefully chosen and well-arranged “natural readymade” elements that were in line with Duchamp’s principle, rather than the specially arranged and deformed lenses, that became the focus of her art and embodied the essence of her artistic principles.
Mary transformed the Lens Box into a new work titled Stitchless Blanket Box which was like a game between the space in images and that which appears in reality. The art lay somewhere between vision and existence. She made use of the stitchless blankets she collected from housewives in Sicily as material for her art. These blankets, often derided as “unpresentable” and “women’s handmade stuff,” were not taken seriously, and even looked down upon by her peers, including Stockhausen. However, by putting them in a transparent lens box, these “readymade” “women’s stuff” were capable of creating an unimaginable surreal world that presented “truth” on different levels and captured the spectra between vision and reality. Therefore, she cleverly discovered a new way to preserve the two special mediums for artistic expression. When the “readymade articles” in the glass box were connected with drawing, the two-dimensional painting seemed to strengthen the familiar sense of reality, though on closer examination, we would discover that it was no more than a game in an unreal space.
Apart from the Lens Box and Stitchless Blanket Box, Mary’s Stone Series is another tour de force. Stones and sand, typical material of the earth, found their way into Bauermeister’s system of art language in 1962, and Stone Spirit made its debut in her transparent painting titled Double Circle in the mid-1980s, and “Rocklets’ Anniversary in 2011 continued her unique and well-arranged combination of stones. How the stone works were presented and what was presented about these stones varied from time to time, but for as long as thirty years, stone remained one of her major source material and inspiration.
However, not everyone appreciated Mary Bauermeister’s works. Her experiments in multi-dimensional art was initially dismissed as “women’s small tricks” without much artistic value, and was therefore underrated. It was not until 2012 when Frauenmuseum Bonn (Bonn Women's Museum) held a 60 years’ retrospective for her that she was restored to her rightful place in art for the first time.
Rebellion and Return
Not only did Mary Bauermeister turn her studio in Cologne into a platform for avant-garde artists to practice their new culture, but she practiced what she preached in private life, as well. In 1960, she met Karlheinz Stockhausen, an avant-garde musician, and later married him in 1967 despite the strict social conventions about marriage and ethics. As a husband and a musician, Stockhausen helped her artistic thinking greatly. They traveled to Northern Europe, Italy, America, Japan, South Africa, and many other places, and this experience enabled her to fuse exotic culture and gain artistic inspiration.
As one of the founders of electronic music and a pioneer of contemporary pop music after Schönberger, Stockhausen played an exemplar role in avant-garde music in Europe. He was a natural analyzer of abstract structure, whereas Mary was a born affective thinker with strong ability to act. He brought Mary structure and order, whereas Mary gave him passion, sensibility, and poise. This marriage to a famous artist gave her great inspiration in art, and brought her lots of opportunities to work with other world-renowned artists, but it also gave her great pain. Realizing that her love to Stockhausen had been reduced to mere dependence killed her self-consciousness, and she eventually made a brave decision to leave him and to look for her lost self.
Only after she left Stockhausen did she truly turn herself from an outwardly strong but inwardly sentimental girl into an independent and highly motivated super woman. She cleverly handled the economic problems after divorce and bravely accepted the role of caretaker for her mentally-handicapped children. On Fluxus’s 50th anniversary in 2012, she published her autobiography I'm hanging in the Triolengitter: my life with Karlheinz Stockhausen (Ich Hänge im Triolengitter: Mein Leben mit Karlheinz Stockhausen.) Based on a true description of reality and her inner world, this book intertwined time and space and revealed her inner life, sentimental journey, and her reflections on reality. It also gave an accurate and rich account of contemporary art and social trends in Europe and America during her lifetime. In fact, I'm hanging in the Triolengitter: my life with Karlheinz Stockhausen uses a three-dimensional stage to showcase the interaction between German, American, North European, South African, and Japanese cultures, in which we can find rich German cultural and social traditions, urban life in New York, and exotic experiences in Japan and South Africa. On one hand, her understanding of life spanned different cultures and takes the reader on a tour of such a dynamic city as New York and reveals the diversity of American reality, and on the other hand, speaks eloquently of her constantly restructured world view which gives her space for the grand narrative that occurs when Western culture comes into close contact with other cultures. This autobiography blends unhurried storytelling with insightful reflection, while giving an account of her feeling and experience in different periods as an artist over the past 50 years.
Throughout her career, Mary Bauermeister insisted that women should be reevaluated, and pointed out, “Over forty years, women have been trying to prove they can do whatever men can. They have proven themselves. However, women’s liberation is more than that, because liberation in a real sense means men trying to prove they can do whatever women can.” (Interview) Mary believes that our lives would be more peaceful and society fairer if it were based on women’s values that are centered more on the group and the family than on the self and competition. Maternity, peace, and sympathy are themselves exclusive gifts. Mary advocates that women’s contribution to culture should be re-reviewed, an independent female culture be created, and femininity be redefined to counterbalance the current male-centered culture.
Mary Bauermeister, now 78 years old, is still dynamic and full of life. While continuing to be an active artist, she shows great care to children. In the summer, she organizes painting courses for children who sit too much in front of computer screens, and helps them to find their own potential in outdoor activities. In October 2012, Mary made a decision to hand down her studio to lovers of art in the hope that this art house, actually a garden of 5000 m2, will continue to be a platform for art practice and communication between artists and carry on the tradition that was formed at Lintgasse 28, Cologne.