PRINT November 2016


Benjamin Patterson

Benjamin Patterson, Paper Piece, 1960. Performance view, Hypokriterion Theater, Amsterdam, June 23, 1963.

THE COMPOSER, performer, and visual artist Benjamin Patterson was one of the founding figures of Fluxus, the massively interdisciplinary international art movement that emerged in the early 1960s, encompassing music, text-sound, sculpture, video, Conceptual art, and what later came to be known as performance art. Another cofounder, the artist and entrepreneur George Maciunas, drew the name from a standard dictionary definition for flux: “any substance or mixture . . . used to promote fusion,” or “an excessive discharge, from the bowels or other part.”1

Patterson was a classically trained contrabassist, but his quest to become the first black American to perform with a major American symphony orchestra was (not unexpectedly) thwarted, and he moved to Canada, where he performed in various symphonic formations. The year 1960 found him studying electronic music in Cologne, working briefly with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, and performing with the Seventh US Army Symphony.2

The prehistory of Fluxus in Europe is generally traced to the 1960–61 performances at visual artist Mary Bauermeister’s Cologne studio. Maciunas heard about these events from Patterson, who premiered John Cage’s Cartridge Music there on October 6, 1960, with the composer, Nam June Paik, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff.3 Maciunas and Patterson began organizing festivals and performances in Germany, including the Fluxus Internationale Festspiele Neuester Musik, the event that announced the movement to the world, held in Wiesbaden in September 1962.4

A 1964 letter from Maciunas to Wolf Vostell presented a “List of Fluxus people (inner core): George Brecht, Ay-O (Takao Iijima), Willem de Ridder, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Joe Jones, Shigeko Kubota, Takehisa Kosugi, George Maciunas, Ben Patterson, Mieko Shiomi, Ben Vautier, Robert Watts, Emmett Williams, La Monte Young.”5 Given the centrality of Patterson’s work to the movement, it is striking that so few critical or historical essays focusing specifically on his contributions have been published. French art historian Charles Dreyfus noticed the erasure: “It’s a bit confusing,” he remarks in an interview with Patterson. “In Mary Bauermeister’s book you are not mentioned, but Nam June saw you playing Poem for Chair, Tables . . . with [Mauricio] Kagel in Mary’s studio.”6

However, Patterson’s presence at the origin of Fluxus is powerfully confirmed by his and Williams’s ironic newspaper preview of the Festspiele Neuester Musik. Published in the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes in 1962, the article is both a promotion of the festival and a satire on the pretense of journalistic objectivity that itself becomes a Fluxus piece:

Are there scores for this sort of music, Mr. Patterson?

Certainly. I myself use texts which explain the action in detail, how to produce such and such an effect, and so forth. Others use ticker tape, string, telephone books, the imperfections in cheap paper, photographs of ants, things that look more or less like traditional scores, the footprints of wild beasts . . .

Did you say wild beasts?

Yes. Elephants, for example.

You mean you can make music from the bare footprint of an elephant?

Can you tell me what the footprint of an elephant sounds like?

I’d like to ask you the same question, Mr. Patterson.

Well, it’s something a performer has to discover for himself . . . and has to discover it afresh each time.7

Cultural historian Andreas Huyssen called Fluxus “an avant-garde born out of the spirit of music,” and further noted that “for the first time in the twentieth century, music played the leading part in an avant-garde movement that encompassed a variety of artistic media and strategies.”8 Fluxus artists used music’s most vital and traditional attribute—its immateriality—to explore the interstices between art forms. A classic example is Patterson’s Paper Piece, 1960, created in response to what he felt was the “underwhelming” affect of Stockhausen’s Kontakte for electronics, piano, and percussion (1959–60). “There must be some other way to create a work that could have a certain amount of acoustic complexity, but could be performed without thirty years of study of piano, violin, or whatever,” Patterson mused decades later. “Suddenly, the idea to use paper came up. It was a material that was readily available anywhere . . . and had a great variety of acoustic possibilities.”9 The score dutifully specifies the sizes, color, type, quality, and quantity of paper to be used, and the procedures for producing the sounds. However, most performances of the piece quickly developed into sheer joy and laughter.

Patterson’s 1961 Variations for Double-Bass, influenced by Cage’s prepared-piano works, placed clothespins, paper clips, and other objects on the strings, going well beyond most previous notions of extended technique then in force in contemporary classical music.10 “For the first time,” Patterson recalled, “I went from a single medium (acoustic) to a form of multimedia in which the visual elements of theater assumed the same importance as the acoustic elements.”11

Daniel Spoerri encouraged Patterson to self-publish his 1962 collection Methods & Processes,12 a set of text pieces that were “intended to be sort of little things that you could do in your head by yourself”:13

enter bakery
enter second bakery
enter third bakery
continue until appetite is obtained14

Although Patterson’s example has been invoked to corroborate art historian Kathy O’Dell’s claim that “there were probably more women and artists of color associated with Fluxus than with any other previous grouping of artists in Western art history,”15 Patterson was in fact the only Fluxus artist of African descent. Gender, race, and American history intersect in one of Patterson’s most notorious works, the Lick Piece, 1962, from Methods & Processes:

cover shapely female with whipped cream
. . .
topping of chopped nuts and cherries is optional16

Peter Moore, performance view of Benjamin Patterson’s Lick Piece, 1962, Canal Street Fluxhall, New York, May 9, 1964. Letty Lou Eisenhauer, Benjamin Patterson, and Robert Watts. © Barbara Moore/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, NY.

Patterson felt the piece was “more funny than erotic,”17 but a number of critics detected sexist overtones, their view supported not only by the score’s “shapely female” reference but also by the famous 1964 photograph of Patterson, fellow Fluxus artist Robert Watts, and others spraying whipped cream on a white woman’s nude body.18 However, these critiques fail to take into account that neither the gender nor the race of the performer doing the licking is specified by the score. Moreover, in many parts of the United States, including downtown New York at the time, Patterson’s performance could have culminated in an Emmett Till–style denouement. It is difficult to imagine that this thought did not cross Patterson’s mind, and it seems even odder that this possibility has hardly been considered by Fluxus critics and historians.

Many commentators seemed unclear as to how Patterson’s race was to be contextualized, but his Fluxstory about his 1988 piece Educating White Folk provides a clue: “The appropriation for the Negro school was used for the white school. The superintendent explained this to the Negro principal, who of course couldn’t make a direct protest. So he said, ‘The one thing we need most of all is educated white folks.’”19 The story adds new dimensions to the understanding of Fluxus humor.

Eventually, earnings from artmaking proved insufficient to support his growing family, and Patterson embarked on a twenty-year hiatus from the art world. His disappointment with the apolitical stances of his Fluxus colleagues also played a role. “The lack of support for Civil Rights and anti-war efforts was an important factor in my . . . ‘retirement’ from the art scene,” he wrote.20 During his absence, he engaged deeply with creating new cultural infrastructures for artists of color: as president of the Society of Black Composers; helping to develop the Composer in Performance programs for the New York State Council on the Arts; as deputy director of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; as director of development for the Negro Ensemble Company; and as general manager of the Symphony of the New World, an ensemble devoted to fostering ethnic and gender diversity in symphony orchestras.21

Patterson returned to active Fluxduty in 1988 with his very first one-person show of exclusively visual work, at the Emily Harvey Gallery in SoHo.22 In 2010, Valerie Cassel Oliver, now senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, organized and produced “Born in the State of FLUX/us,” a major retrospective that presented works ranging from annotated originals of his scores and instructions for performance to artist’s books, puzzle-poems, paintings, sculpture, installations, and video and audio documentation of performances.23 The show marked a resurgence in Patterson’s career, as it moved from Houston to the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2011, and from there to the Nassauischer Kunstverein in Wiesbaden, the point of Fluxus’s European emergence, where in 2012 the artist was awarded the city’s Kulturpreis.24

Eric Dolphy once remarked, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air. You can never capture it again.” Ben Patterson once remarked, “As long as myself and Emmett Williams and George Brecht and Alison Knowles and Eric Andersen are still alive, we’re going to make our art, and that will be called Fluxus art. That’s the way it goes.”25

Composer, musicologist, and experimental musician George E. Lewis is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University and coeditor, with Benjamin Piekut, of the two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Read a review of Benjamin Patterson’s retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem by Lauren O’Neill-Butler (Summer 2011).


1. Owen F. Smith, Fluxus: The History of an Attitude (San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 1998), 45–46.

2. Ben Patterson, “Ich bin froh, daß Sie mir diese Frage gestellt haben,” Kunstforum International, September–October 1991, 170 (my translation); Charles Dreyfus, “Rencontre avec Ben Patterson,” Inter : art actuel, no. 103 (Autumn 2009): 90 (my translation).

3. Amy C. Beal, New Music, New Allies: American Experimental Music in West Germany from the Zero Hour to Reunification (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 119–22.

4. Smith, Fluxus, 69–71.

5. Emmett Williams and Ann Noël, eds., Mr. Fluxus: A Collective Portrait of George Maciunas, 1931–1978 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998), 42.

6. Dreyfus, “Rencontre avec Ben Patterson,” 90.

7. Emmett Williams, “Way Way Way Out,” Stars and Stripes, August 30, 1962, 11.

8. Andreas Huyssen, “Back to the Future: Fluxus in Context,” in Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (New York: Routledge, 1995), 198.

9. Benjamin Patterson, lecture, Columbia University, March 20, 2011, video recording, collection of the author.

10. Dreyfus, “Rencontre avec Ben Patterson,” 90.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., 92.

13. Patterson, lecture.

14. Benjamin Patterson, Methods & Processes (Paris: self-published, 1962), n.p.

15. Kathy O’Dell, “Fluxus Feminus,” TDR/The Drama Review 41, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 43.

16. Patterson, Methods & Processes.

17. Patterson, “Ich bin froh,” 176.

18. See Kristine Stiles, “Between Water and Stone: Fluxus Performance, a Metaphysics of Acts,” in In the Spirit of Fluxus, exh. cat., ed. Janet Jenkins (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993), 84.

19. Patterson, “Ich bin froh,” 176.

20. Ben Patterson “I’m Glad You Asked Me That Question,” self-interview in From Black to Schwarz: Cultural Crossovers Between African America and Germany, ed. Maria I. Diedrich and Jürgen Heinrichs (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011), 346.

21. Dominique-René de Lerma, “Black Music Now!,” Music Educators Journal 57, no. 3 (November 1970): 29; Achille Bonito Oliva, ed., Ubi Fluxus ibi motus, 1990–1962, exh. cat. (Milan: Mazzotta, 1990), 245.

22. Emily McDermott, “Benjamin Patterson, Ears Open,” Interview Magazine, November 12, 2013,

23. Valerie Cassel Oliver, ed., Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 2012). Also see

24. “Kulturpreis 2012 an Ben Patterson,”

25. Ben Patterson Tells Fluxus Stories (from 1962 to 2002), ? Records, 2002, compact disc.