Milan

Mary Bauermeister, Ultramarine Tubes, 1969–70, aluminum, glass, Plexiglas, optical lenses, shaped and painted wood, stones, ink, paint, 19 3/4 × 10 1/4 × 7".

Mary Bauermeister, Ultramarine Tubes, 1969–70, aluminum, glass, Plexiglas, optical lenses, shaped and painted wood, stones, ink, paint, 19 3/4 × 10 1/4 × 7".

Mary Bauermeister

Studio Gariboldi

Mary Bauermeister, Ultramarine Tubes, 1969–70, aluminum, glass, Plexiglas, optical lenses, shaped and painted wood, stones, ink, paint, 19 3/4 × 10 1/4 × 7".

This exhibition presented a selection of work from the 1960s and 1970s by Mary Bauermeister, one of the original proponents of a visual language intended to connect the grand European pictorial tradition with the material experimentation typical of postwar American art. Born in Frankfurt in 1934, the artist began working in Cologne in 1960 and moved to New York in 1962, along with the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, to whom she was married for five years, beginning in 1967. She would not return to Europe until the early ’70s. During her time in America, Bauermeister created her “lens boxes,” a series of mixed-media works (first exhibited at the Bonino Gallery in New York in 1964) that are pivotal to this show. 

The lens boxes were a singular response to American developments such as the emerging neo-Dada aesthetic of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The diorama-like works consist of boxes containing objects, drawings, and writing, their contents reflected and refracted through lenses that multiply the visual and conceptual relationships between the various constituent elements. Lightness and complexity combine in anamorphoses and deformations, generating a kaleidoscopic flow of words, images, and details. The oscillation between physical reality and mirage creates a fantastical world in which even quantitative “truths” seem to come undone. As the title of the show, “1+1=3,” indicates, 1 plus 1 can add up to 3. Indeed, in an interview published in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, the artist comments, “The wonderful thing is that when you move by as a viewer the background changes, or if you go back and forth you get a different focus and you see different things. Whatever I write or paint on the background becomes more ambiguous. I don’t like fixed statements, I don’t like dogmas, that is why my artistic slogan is 1 + 1 = 3. Things are not only the way we think they are, they have a big variety of answers.” 

Among the various boxes in the show, Ultramarine Tubes, 1969–70, stood out for its totally transparent background surface. Its composition is complex: Two layers of Plexiglas are covered with images of little tubes of blue paint; various lenses and spheres are glued onto three additional layers of glass, also painted with intricate geometric shapes; stones are painted with blue and white characters. The effect of this stratified accumulation translates the density of different planes and materials into the poetic fluidity of a diaphanous and elusive image. The word colour appears almost at the center; here, the enlargements, filters, and inversions typical of Bauermeister’s work present themselves as a conceptual reflection on one of the most basic elements of painting. 

Another exceptional work on display here was Momento Mary, 1969–70, which was exhibited in the artist’s first solo show in Italy, at Arturo Schwarz’s gallery in Milan in 1972. Marcel Duchamp had brought Bauermeister’s work to the dealer’s attention. In this piece, the traditional iconography of the story of Saint Sebastian, a martyr pierced by arrows at the command of the Roman emperor Diocletian, is distorted and warped. Bauermeister seems to have internalized and assimilated historical methods of painting, and she projects the medium’s motifs, both recognizable and new, into imaginative dimensions. These effects are connoted by her usual chromatic preference for blue (the celestial) and brown (the terrestrial). It is precisely by working with dichotomies—concavity and convexity, opacity and transparency, solid and aeriform—that Bauermeister explains the dialectical positioning of society and the encounters of everyday life.  

Francesca Pola

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.