On December 22, 1960, during a stay in Cologne, Germany, Benjamin Patterson wrote a letter to his parents in Pittsburgh containing the score for his recent composition Paper Piece. A radically new direction for the young, classically trained double bassist, the work instructed five performers to “shake, break, tear, crumple, rumple, bumple, rub, scrub, twist, poof, and pop” various sheets of paper. Unable to return home for Christmas, Patterson hoped his family would find joy and amusement in performing the piece in his absence with wrapping paper from opened gifts. This early iteration of Paper Piece, which would become a standard at Fluxus festivals in the 1960s and ’70s, encapsulates the spirit of generosity, and the pursuit of easily accessible materials and processes, that would guide Patterson’s performance and visual art to follow.
Patterson had been introduced to classical music by his mother, a chemist and trained pianist, and his father, an electrical engineer and one-time professional violinist, who gave him his first music lessons when he was a child. He went on to study double bass at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, graduating in 1956. His ambition to be “the first black to ‘break the color barrier’ in an American symphony orchestra” proved unattainable but he found employment in Canada, first with the Halifax Symphony Orchestra (1956–58) and then with the Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra (1959–60). In June 1960, eager to learn about the newest experiments in music, Patterson traveled to Cologne with a letter of introduction to Karlheinz Stockhausen signed by the German ambassador to Canada, who was Stockhausen’s brother-in-law and a friend of the Ottawa Philharmonic’s conductor. Patterson recounted that Stockhausen “read through the letter . . . and was very impressed first that it was from the ambassador . . . and read all the way to the bottom, and then looked back at the top, and he said, ‘But this letter is dated April 15, and today is June 6. Where have you been all this time?’ Typical Stockhausen arrogance.”
Paper Piece was in part a response to Stockhausen’s Kontakte (1958–60), an integration of electronic and instrumental music that demanded some 200 hours of rehearsal time for players to master. As Patterson told the art historian Suzanne Rennert, “I thought, there has to be another way to make music without this great virtuosity and technical expenses and so forth. And actually I stayed in bed for ten days to think—how how how—and then—paper! This was an instrument anybody could play and it had great flexibility.” This embrace of banal, overlooked sounds was inspired by American composer John Cage, whom Patterson met the night after his disappointing encounter with Stockhausen. After a concert at the Cologne studio of Mary Bauermeister featuring Cage, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff, Patterson recalled, “I went up and introduced myself to John, and he asked what I was doing and what my interest was, and I explained. . . . He says, ‘Oh, well that’s interesting. Would you like to perform with us tomorrow night?’ Exactly 100 percent the opposite of the reception with Stockhausen.”
At Bauermeister’s atelier, Patterson also met Nam June Paik, Cornelius Cardew, and other young Cologne-based composers, who, in contrast to American musical institutions, welcomed him into their orbit and prompted him to stay in the German city for the next two years. It was during this time that Patterson composed his seminal action-music compositions, including Duo for Voice and a String Instrument, Variations for Double-Bass, Septet from Lemons, and, of course, Paper Piece. He performed these works at the gallery of Haro Lauhaus, Bauermeister’s partner at the time, during exhibitions of like-minded visual artists, including Christo, Wolf Vostell, and Daniel Spoerri. Through Paik, Patterson met Fluxus founder George Maciunas and came to play an integral role in organizing the early European Fluxus festivals. The inaugural Fluxus festival, in Wiesbaden in September 1962, featured an impromptu performance of Paper Piece that incited unplanned audience participation as the papers made their way from the stage into the theater—which is how the work was performed from then on. Performance photographs highlight the strong visual appeal of the work, with streams of paper flying through the air. But it was not until after Patterson moved to Paris, in 1962, that he began to produce explicitly visual works, the Puzzle-Poems.
Like Paper Piece, the Puzzle-Poems employ the humblest of mediums. Each is composed of newspaper and magazine clippings pasted onto cardboard and housed in discarded product packaging. These cast-off materials resonate with the assemblages of Spoerri—one of Patterson’s main interlocutors in Paris—and other artists associated with Nouveau Réalisme. But Patterson’s collages have an added participatory element: to realize the poem one must assemble the puzzle. Producing a poem in the form of a puzzle was Patterson’s response to the interactive object-poems of fellow Parisian Fluxus associate Robert Filliou. Filliou’s Poème Roulette (1962), for example, invited viewers to create a poem by spinning a roulette wheel to select words.
The Puzzle-Poems were first exhibited on the streets of Paris on July 3, 1962, under the auspices of Filliou’s Galerie Légitime, a conceptual gallery space located beneath the artist’s beret. Beginning at 4:00 a.m., Patterson and Filliou traveled around the city, following a route described on the exhibition invitation. Filliou carried the Puzzle-Poems under his hat, offering them to passersby for five francs apiece, just like the men he witnessed daily on the rue des Rosiers selling Swiss watches out of their coats. When the duo arrived at the Galerie Ursula Girardon, they performed their own compositions, as well as pieces by Cage, La Monte Young, and others, to an audience of about a hundred people. In this way, Patterson and Filliou integrated their art into the preexisting street-level economy of Paris, reaching an audience beyond the insular avant-garde. According to Patterson, “At least half of them were sold to the ladies in the subway booth, so that was very appropriate.”
After his fertile European sojourn—the period of his career best documented at MoMA, in the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection—Patterson moved to New York in 1963 and decreased his involvement in Fluxus. “I had a very, how shall we say, vested interest in the politics of the ’60s . . . the Civil Rights movement,” he has explained, “and those weren’t things that were being addressed as far as I could see in Fluxus. . . . The time changed. The priorities changed, certainly for me.”
He found another talent in arts administration, creating opportunities for young musicians through his work with New York’s Symphony of the New World, the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States; the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs; the Negro Ensemble Company; and the Pro Musicis Foundation, among other organizations, before returning to his own art practice, and to Germany, by 1989.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Antonia Pocock, independent scholar