New York

Benjamin Patterson, Ants (detail), 1960–62, ink on paper, two black-and-white photographs, 11 x 29.

Benjamin Patterson, Ants (detail), 1960–62, ink on paper, two black-and-white photographs, 11 x 29.

Benjamin Patterson

Benjamin Patterson, Ants (detail), 1960–62, ink on paper, two black-and-white photographs, 11 x 29.

Near the end of the 1960s, the artist, composer, and musician Benjamin Patterson began a twenty-year hiatus from making art, during which time he would live an “ordinary life”—but this in fact entailed several unusual careers: He was a the deputy director of the New York Department of Cultural Affairs, a reference librarian at the New York Public Library, an organizer of experimental music events, an activist, and the founder of a music management company. Patterson’s ordinary life was not a rejection of the art world, and it had nothing to do with failure. It was also not motivated by any spiritual, deeply personal, or political reasons––though he once noted that it was dispiriting to be the only member of Fluxus attending civil rights rallies. Patterson’s various vocations, while not “works,” have an affinity with his predominantly collaborative, task-based practice, and this mini-survey of his works at the Studio Museum in Harlem, extracted from a retrospective held last fall at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, displays photographs, letters, business cards, and other ephemera as if they were indistinguishable from the artworks themselves.

The show is a scholarly, well-groomed affair (life is never so tidy): Six vitrines house musical scores dating from 1960 to 2010 in addition to ephemera; framed photographs document past performances, and a monitor plays several newer pieces staged in Israel and various European cities––the only source of sound in the show. The relative lack of sound seems fitting, as the sonic dimension of Patterson’s early, chance-driven scores appears to have been a secondary concern: String Music, 1960, for instance, is an elegant drawing, in which symbols Patterson devised loosely suggest how one could perform a given note, granting ample freedom for a musician to improvise. Even more unstructured (and curious) is Ants, 1960–62, which consists of one typewritten page and two black-and-white photographs of the titular insects. Patterson only recently worked out the actual sounds for that work—perhaps an indication that he truly views his art practice as an evolving, long-term project and not a day job.

During the 1960s, Patterson also composed many overtly participatory scores, such as Paper Piece, 1960, perhaps his best-known work, in which audiences are instructed by the artist to “play” whatever paper is at hand: cardboard boxes and tubes, even toilet paper. A similar score, Please Wash Your Face, 1964, was performed at Third Streaming, coinciding with the opening of the Studio Museum show (with which it was not affiliated). The evening gathered more than a hundred people, and, oddly, only half of them volunteered to freshen up in public. (What did the others expect?)

In the audience was Clifford Owens, an artist who re-performed four of Patterson’s scores at the Studio Museum in 2006. (Owens also had his first solo museum show at camh in tandem with Patterson’s exhibition). He has stated that it wasn’t nostalgia that motivated him to remake, for instance, Patterson’s Whipped Cream Piece, 1964, wherein a “voluptuous white woman” is covered in the fluff and licked by the audience (rather, we can surmise it was an homage). Patterson isn’t interested in nostalgia either: That night at Third Streaming, he also used a blow-up doll to perform the work. This embrace of change and open-endedness was noticeable in nearly all of the works in Patterson’s Studio Museum show; and, indeed, his ordinary life suggests that he views the role of “the artist” itself as an indeterminate score (or open piece) that can be interpreted in unexpected ways. The art world has never been good with hiatuses, however; when viewed retrospectively, Patterson’s might fall in line with his practice, but for many years it was just a falling-out.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler