“I’ve always collected things from nature. Then I would contemplate them, and that gave me the idea that somehow people should be given a way of seeing these things as art. Someone should say: just look! I mean, not change, anything. And I didn’t change anything.”
A multidisciplinary artist known for her intricate and enigmatic assemblages, Mary Bauermeister continues to defy categorization with multilayered works in a range of media. A precursory figure of the Fluxus movement—her studio was the meeting point for a number of defining artists of the avant-garde—her work plays an integral role in the discussion of art, both European and American, that emerged from the 1960s. Her reliefs and sculptures, which have incorporated drawing, text, found objects, natural materials and fabric, reference a plethora of concepts: from natural phenomena and astronomy to mathematics and language, as well as her own “spiritual-metaphysical experiences.” Maturing amidst the currents of Minimalism and Pop Art, Bauermeister’s art has resisted labels due to the singular expression of her interests and concerns, among them the simultaneous transience and permanence of the natural world with experimentations in transparency and magnification, multiplication and variation, structure and order, chance and ephemerality, introversion and extroversion. Her three-dimensional receptacles of thoughts, ideas and notes contain visual, conceptual and philosophical paradoxes that challenge perceptions and that offer literal and metaphorical windows into which one can glimpse the inner workings of the artist’s mind.
Born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Bauermeister attended secondary school in Cologne from 1946 to 1954, where she began creating her first works on paper under the supervision of her drawing teacher, Günther Ott, an early admirer of her artistic talent. In 1954, she began her studies at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (Ulm School of Design) in Ulm, where she took courses with Swiss artist, architect and designer Max Bill and Helene Nonné-Schmidt, who had studied with Paul Klee. Unable to align herself with the school’s rigid constructive structure, Bauermeister wrote to Ott: “The only artworks which receive serious attention here are constructed, mathematically provable, rectangular…” She left Ulm after one semester, registering at the Staatliche Schule für Kunst und Handwerk (State School of Arts and Crafts) in Saarbrücken and studying with photographer Otto Steinert. In 1956, Bauermeister returned to Cologne where she supported herself by selling her pastel works on paper. Between 1960 and 1961, she rented a studio on the top floor of Lintgasse 28, a space that fostered a cutting-edge environment, hosting numerous exhibitions, concerts and performances. Most notably, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Nam June Paik, Christo, Karlheinz Stockhausen and other avant-garde artists, musicians and dancers convened at the studio, partaking in many of the earliest Pre-Fluxus happenings and earning Bauermeister the title “grandmother of the Fluxus movement.” She continued to nurture a close friendship with Stockhausen, an influential composer of electronic and serial music, with whom she also collaborated in a creative capacity; the couple would marry in 1967 (they later divorced in 1973).
In 1962, Bauermeister exhibited for the first time in a museum setting, in an interdisciplinary display of her work from 1958 to 1962 alongside recordings and scores by Stockhausen and other composers which was held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Organized by Jan Willem Sandberg, the museum’s director, the exhibition traveled to two other Dutch venues: the Stedelijk Museum in Schiedam and, in early 1963, the Groninger Museum in Groningen. Sandberg had also mounted a concurrent exhibition, Four Americans, featuring Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Alfred Leslie and Richard Stankiewicz. Impressed with and inspired by the work of Rauschenberg and Johns in particular, Bauermeister left Germany for New York in October 1962 at the age of twenty-nine. Specifically, Rauschenberg’s famous combine Monogram (1955-59, Moderne Museet, Stockholm, Sweden), which featured a taxidermied goat adorned with an automobile tire and mounted on a wooden platform, had a profound effect and signaled to Bauermeister the artistic freedom the United States, and New York especially, could offer her that Germany at the time could not.
In New York, Bauermeister entered the art world swiftly, moving into a studio at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park in early 1963 and participating in the International Artists’ Summer Seminar at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ later that year. The program resulted in an exhibition at Riverside Art Museum, where budding gallerist Alfredo Bonino encountered her work for the first time. Bauermeister joined Galeria Bonino that winter and her work was initially presented at the gallery in the group exhibition 2 sculptors, 4 painters and, significantly, in her first solo show in 1964, gaining the attention of institutions and critics alike. Indeed, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, all in New York, as well as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, all purchased examples of her work, prompting The New York Times art critic Brian O’Doherty to write: “It will be interesting to see if she has the intelligence and cunning to cope with the major success she is obviously going to have.” The exhibition included early work, as well as the pieces that would define her time in the United States: her compositions with stones, sewn pictures, and the first lens boxes. Three more solo exhibitions at Galeria Bonino, in 1965, 1967 and 1970, would follow.