This exhibition is the first to concentrate on the work of German artist Mary Bauermeister (b. 1934) during the decade she lived and worked in the United States from 1962 to 1972. Inspired by five works in SCMA’s collection, and featuring loans from private and public east coast collections, the show highlights Bauermeister’s signature optical lens boxes, assemblages, stone reliefs, drawings, and other works.
Before Bauermeister moved to New York, her studio in Cologne served as a meeting place and stage for events by avant-garde artists and musicians, including American composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, Korean-born artist Nam June Paik, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, a seminal figure in electronic and serial music of the twentieth century. Her first major museum exhibition in 1962 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was a joint project with Stockhausen, her future husband. Their creative collaboration flourished during Bauermeister’s New York years.
On the road from Amsterdam in 1961, Bauermeister and Stockhausen stopped in a small village, where Bauermeister bought boxes of optical lenses at an antique shop. She experimented with them, using the lenses to magnify and distort objects in a glass-topped box. After Bauermeister's move to Manhattan, her lens boxes were displayed at Galeria Bonino on West 57th Street. Filled with drawings, objects, optical lenses, and the artist’s handwritten intuitive and often humorous words, the boxes became her most important body of work.
Bauermeister’s move to the U.S. was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s famous “combine” Monogram, a sculptural assemblage she saw in an exhibition of American contemporary artists at the Stedelijk Museum. Because her work was also shaped by experimentation and the use of found objects, she believed the American art scene offered greater opportunity for her than Germany. Her decision to relocate was met with almost immediate success. Critics were fascinated by her glittering lens boxes, although they struggled to place the work of this unique artist within a particular movement or aesthetic. Bauermeister’s artistic roots were in Europe in the earlier traditions of modernism represented by Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Kurt Schwitters. Her use of the box links her with other artists of the 1960s who worked in similar formats, but more as a means of artistic production rather than in formal or conceptual terms.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with essays by Bauermeister scholar Kerstin Skrobanek; Liz Kotz, author of Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art; and Stockhausen specialist Paul V. Miller.
Image: Mary Bauermeister. German, born 1934. #175 The Great Society (detail), 1969. Painted wood, glass, optical lenses, and ink. Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Bequest of Richard S. Zeisler
(Class of 1937)