Mary Bauermesiter, Red China Tinta-Import Forbidden, 1966, ink, glass, glass lens and painted fabric and wood construction, 16.65 x 16.75 x 6.24 inches, © Mary Bauermeister; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
Mary Bauermeister is back in New York after an almost 50-year absence.
The German artist came to the city in 1962 and soon showed at the pioneering Galeria Bonino. In rapid succession, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the Hirshhorn, among others, all acquired her work, both her lens boxes and her stone progression reliefs. The boxes, in fact, sold almost as fast as she could produce them, and in 1966 the rising young artist was featured in the Whitney Annual.
By the early 1970s, after her separation from her husband – the exalted electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen – she decamped back to Germany, so her two children could grow up in her native country. With her exodus, she effectively vanished from the New York art world.
Now the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Chelsea is presenting a large Bauermeister show, open until June 8, and including both her iconic 1960s work, as well as her more recent. For many, it’s a chance to see the art that so distinctly shook up the art world in the 1960s, and today has seen a surge in auction prices, rising some tenfold in the last three years.
Mary Bauermeister, Some Stones Missing, 1962-67, stones, paint, in and sand mounted on linen panel and particle board, 39.75 x 39.75 x 4 inches, © Mary Bauermeister; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
Bauermeister was already a recognized avant-garde artist before arriving in NYC. Her studio in Cologne was a well-known space for presenting art, performances, and music, and was a center for what would become the Fluxus movement – frequented by the likes of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Nam June Paik. By 1962 she and Stockhausen were invited to do a multi-media presentation at the prestigious Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and over in New York her circle included Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. She was included in major international exhibitions of Fluxus, New Realism, as well as Pop, Minimal, and Conceptual Art, a list that reflects just how difficult it was, and still is, to label her.
But labeling her is irrelevant, as what matters is the pure aesthetic beauty of her art. It is literally shimmering, magical, and mesmerizing. To wit, her white, glass-encased wooden boxes filled with magnifying lenses, prisms, balls, and found-objects, all or much of which are covered with wiry, whimsical, undulating wording and drawing. The boxes evoke the cosmos and its constant movement, and the chance jumbling and jostling of all things.
Bauermeister’s stream-of-consciousness, graffiti-like writing is light-hearted and Pop in feeling, often diaristic, since it reflects specific events in her life. Often it questions the meaning and value of art. The enormous Oldenburg-like pencils that appear in some of her installation-scale works arguably function as symbols of how her work is partly about making art itself, paralleling the similar concerns of Jasper Johns’ multi-media work.
Mary Bauermesiter, ONNO (Light Sheet), 1963, found linen sheet, fluorescent tubes and painted wood construction, 106.15 x 89.5 x 7.85 inches, © Mary Bauermeister; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
It is perhaps difficult now to understand just how revolutionary Bauermesiter was when she first arrived in New York. But in the early 1960s, the move away from conventional painting and sculpture was very new, taking the lead from the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Alan Kaprow and Nam June Paik.
One piece in the show particularly summarizes much of her inventiveness. It is ONNO (Light Sheet), made in 1963 and consisting of cut and collage sheets hung backlit in a light box. Look carefully at the different shades of off-white and light-brown cotton, and you’ll make out the letters O and N, spelling On, which when reversed is No. Of course, put together they spell Onno, referring to Yoko Ono, who then was a leading Fluxus figure.
Clever, subtle, innovative, and hauntingly beautiful, ONNO concisely encapsulates Bauermeister’s astonishing and important output of more than 50 years.
Mary Bauermeister, Brian O’Doherty Commentary Box, 2017, ink stone, offset print, glass, glass lens and painted wood construction, 17 x 24.75 x 4.35 inches, © Mary Bauermeister; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
Mary Bauermesiter, No More Bosoms, 1969, ink, stone, watercolor, glass, glass lens, canvas, paperboard, dyed fabric and painted wood construction, 60 x 60 x 23.75 inches, © Mary Bauermeister; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY