A Radical Presence: Remembering Benjamin Patterson (1934–2016)
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A Radical Presence: Remembering Benjamin Patterson (1934–2016)

va2014po_patterson Portrait of Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014. Photo by Erin Smith.
Portrait of Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014. Photo: Erin Smith

What struck me most about the artist Benjamin Patterson was his lightness of spirit, and his playful way of approaching just about everything. I met Patterson in 2014 when he visited us at the Walker to present several performances as part of the exhibition, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. I was amazed by his generosity, his fierce memory, and his remarkable ability to tell stories, especially at the noble age of 80. Patterson, who passed away June 25, was a founding member of Fluxus, an international, postwar art movement that challenged traditional art-making modes by combining visual art, music, and performance. Like his Fluxus peers, Patterson created instruction-based works—what he called “compositions for actions”—that encouraged situations allowing for direct engagement with participants or the audience, often through humorous actions. Fluxus unlocked the potential of art to be fun, engaging, and accessible to all people, making it perhaps the most influential and significant experiments in the history of art.

Double bass
Benjamin Patterson, Variations for Double-Bass, circa 1962

Patterson was a crucial figure in Fluxus’s founding, although he is rarely recognized in the same light as other American artists of the movement such as Yoko Ono or John Cage. Perhaps his 20-year “retirement” from art in 1963—after creating work and collaborating with artists and musicians in Europe for just three short years—might account for part of his lack of recognition as a Fluxus character. Or perhaps it was his “radical” status as the sole African American artist and musician in the movement that excluded him from the annals of art history, pointing to the problematic way in which history is recorded. Despite his position, Patterson was a determined individual with a voracious appetite for learning and found joy and inspiration in discovery; he embodied and lived in the spirit of Fluxus. He considered the central function of the artist to be “a duality of discoverer and educator.”[1]

Because of his willingness to experiment, he lived a storied existence with a wide spectrum of life experiences—his early classical training in double bass, his interest in natural sciences (which led him to clean cages at the Pittsburgh Zoo), his later role as deputy director of the department of cultural affairs of the City of New York (to name just one of the many arts administration positions he held). As a student of music and composition at University of Michigan, Patterson proclaimed himself on a mission to be “the first black to ‘break the color-barrier’ in an American symphony orchestra.”[2] After several attempts at auditions in which he was immediately turned away because of the color of his skin, he moved to Canada and held the position of principal bassist in the Halifax Symphony Orchestra. Ironically, his time in Canada was cut short when he was enlisted in the US Army, serving for two years in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, based in Stuttgart. It was here, separated from the segregation and charged climate of 1950s America, that Patterson found his place in the experimental music scene of Germany.

paper piece
Benjamin Patterson, Paper Piece, 1960

Patterson moved to Cologne in 1960 and met John Cage, who profoundly shaped his thinking around indeterminacy and chance operations, which led him to marry his experimentations in classical music improvisation with actions tied to musical composition. His earliest “composition for action” work, Paper Piece (1960) consists of a set of instructions that includes the number of participants, materials to be used, and actions to be taken, such as crumpling, twisting, and rubbing together paper. With Paper Piece, not only did Patterson challenge the traditional music score by replacing music with actions, but, like Cage, he also created a system with variables determined by chance.

In an interview with Patterson by former Walker associate curator Eric Crosby and curatorial fellow Liz Glass, the artist explained how important audience participation was for Paper Piece, noting that the work was created for the de-skilled participant: “You didn’t have to study an instrument for 20 years before you could realize this score. Anybody could, with a fair amount of sensitivity, get some interesting sounds and activity out of paper.”[3] The democratic nature of the work appealed to Patterson, which stood in stark opposition to his experience in musical training, wherein the musician’s expertise divided him from the audience. Paper Piece challenged the great chasm between performer and audience. Pushing against the rigidity of classical music composition, where a score is expected to be performed the same way each time, Patterson experimented with openness and indeterminacy in the end result: “I was just fascinated with the idea of the impossibility of actually doing it, you know, of coming to an answer and everybody will have a different answer or different approach or reaction to it.”[4] Paper Piece was hugely important in Patterson reconsidering his thoughts about musical composition and heralding his new approach to art making.

Benjamin Patterson, Pond, 1962. Photo: Erin Smith

Pond is a performance that Patterson first executed in 1962, and, like Paper Piece, it invokes game-playing, chance operations, and musical components. The piece consists of an 8-foot grid taped directly on the floor, a score created by the artist, wind-up toy frogs, and eight participants that stand around the grid and make corresponding sounds as the frogs hop from one quadrant to the next. The performance escalates into a cacophony of sound as more and more frogs are released, evoking the “ribbeting” of an active frog pond. While Patterson was in Minneapolis in 2014, we executed Pond with eight students from the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC), the youngest group to have ever performed the piece. Pond marks a moment early in Patterson’s practice when his performances began to incorporate objects (in this case, toy frogs), which functioned as both props and as catalysts to engage the audience in a playful action.

Patterson 1989.304.1-.3
Benjamin Patterson, Instruction No. 2, circa 1964, Walker Art Center Permanent Collection

Perhaps his simplest composition for action, Patterson’s Instruction No. 2 (1964) consists of a small plastic box containing a bar of soap in the shape and color of a lemon slice and a paper washcloth on which is stenciled, “Please wash your face.” With this work, Patterson transforms a habitual action that typically happens in the privacy of one’s home into a public performance. The work has been realized in various public settings, and yet Patterson noted the public’s resistance toward performing this activity: “In New York people were a bit hesitant one way or another, wondering whether or not they wanted to do this activity in public because it’s something that you normally do in the bathroom, in private.”[5] Instruction No. 2 asks participants to “concentrate one’s attention and focus on an everyday activity which is very important and taken for granted.”[6] The work marks out an everyday activity as an artistic and collective action, blending art and life, which is at the core of Fluxus. Life is art. And Patterson knew exactly how to help us experience differently, appreciate, and find humor in life.


[1] Crosby, Eric and Liz Glass. Interview with Benjamin Patterson. October 10, 2014.

[2] Patterson, Benjamin, “I’m Glad You Asked Me That Question” in Benjamin Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us, ed. Valerie Cassel Oliver (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2012).

[3] Crosby, Eric and Liz Glass, interview with Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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