Mary Bauermeister: Live in Peace or Leave the Galaxy
New YorkMichael Rosenfeld Gallery
April 5 – June 8
Best known for her intricate and enigmatic multimedia assemblages, Mary Bauermeister (b.1934), long defied categorization. She matured amidst Pop and Minimalism but instead echoed explorations of the very personal and a multi-layered maximalism.
Beginning in the early 1960s, her unique text strategies of visual poetry and other conceptual practices cemented her seminal role within the Fluxus community, which championed experimental poetry, music, intermedia, and Happenings. Before moving to New York, her studio in Cologne, Germany became the meeting point for a number of artists defining the era including Karlheinz Stockhausen, David Tudor, John Cage, Christo, Wolf Vostell, George Brecht, and Nam June Paik. She became an influential figure in vital discussions between European and US artists at the time. Bauermeister later married Stockhausen, an influential composer of electronic and serial music, in 1967, with whom she had two children before they divorced in 1972.
This exhibit spans six decades, highlighting Bauermeister’s consistent use of writing throughout her career, with new and vintage selections from several specialty areas, each of which employ text: drawings, constructions, rare early light boxes, and stone reliefs. But most prominently, this exhibition features her breathtakingly dreamy lens box constructions. Twenty of those and three of her reliefs, all made from tiny stones collected on seven beaches around the world, are her two trademark pursuits. Both have been exhibited at Michael Rosenfeld before, but this exhibition—Live in Peace or Leave the Gallery—is her first solo presentation with the gallery.
Bauermeister was in attendance for the opening, which she conceived as a Happening, a nod to the Fluxus era. She filled the gallery with helium balloons bearing the message “Live in Peace or Leave the Galaxy,” bobbing against the tall ceilings with her unique hand-made pencils (which she began producing in the late 1960s) suspended magically from them on ribbons. Not tools to make art, the pencils are works of art themselves—hand-colored and crafted in varying lengths and widths that she referred to as symbolic “memor[ies] of a predigital epoch.” Also placed on pedestals strategically throughout the gallery, the pencils create fantastic magical landscapes, with all proceeds from their sale benefitting The Children’s Museum of Manhattan, dedicated to addressing early childhood development, art and creativity.
In addition to the twelve pencil tableaus and the floating balloons, the gallery is filled with dozens of serene, mystical works to be explored: three stone works that form carefully constructed mandalas (enhanced with commentary), two examples of her early backlit light sheet (verbal) experiments, three pieces in which embellished frames (covered with lettering) provide the art, one historic well-labeled “primary structure” work, thirteen ink and/or marker compositions on paper with painted wood adhered and twenty of the lens boxes.
Bauermeister incorporates the glass, lenses, stones, and other unconventional materials, both natural and manmade, into the boxes and language into every work in the show. Through scribbled stories, double meanings, humor, games and visual puns, Bauermeister began to utilize text in her work as early as 1961 and continues vibrantly today in her eighties, allowing personal feelings, doubts and anxieties as well as a spiritual perception of nature to find their way into her art. Her command of materials conveys confidence while the words raise questions and uncertainties, inviting the viewer to restore balance.
Three pen-and-ink works on paper, Title Drawing No. 1, 2 and 3, (all 2019) greet visitors. They resemble ocean waves, wood grain or other organic patterns, ethereally constructed out of delicate lettering in large, medium and small sizes, using upper- and lowercase alphabets. Hypnotic phrases and sentence fragments meander horizontally. Elsewhere, we see earlier examples of the wavy text pieces from 1979 and then 2015. She seems to have perfected it in these elegant 2019 works. Their undulating sine waves draw us in to read or look. Eventually, the words and little squiggles begin to register, revealing a stream of consciousness autobiography, unfolding as interference pattern about Bauermeister’s early years in New York: close encounters with Hans Hoffman, Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning and Marcel Duchamp; recollections of Miles, Monk, and Martin Luther King. One verbal constellation says: “10 blocks north of Jasper Johns who's American flag painting I had seen in the Amsterdam Stedlijk Museum… 1962 June… when I saw this exhibition of American art… Leslie and Stankiewicz and Jasper and Bob's ‘Monogram’… I knew: where this is called Art, I want to be…”
As looking turns into reading, these 2019 works telling stories about the early 1960s, we learn her works once displayed on Great Jones Street were reviewed in the New York Times by writers who then became personal friends. Later, we see a lens box is dedicated to that same writer. These pieces and this exhibit create a personal, gossipy, political, and whimsical self-portrait of her moment and her network: 2D and 3D visual poetry by a master.
The airy works are grounded by the copious lens box constructions: painted wooden mini-worlds sporting inscribed surfaces, dense with a vocabulary of objects—clear glass balls, whole or sectioned opaque spheres, and layered glass dividers—that create a myriad of optical effects to disorient us. Frequent bursts of text continually unite everything in the gallery as part of a whole. Bauermeister invites us into her process, offering variations on several themes that form a continuum of this gifted, unorthodox communicator.