An exhibition I would love to curate, or see someone else organize, would survey the use of lenses in postwar art, excluding all official “lens-based” art. The show would include something from Sigmar Polke’s “Lens Paintings,” and an example of Raymond Hains’s distorted text pieces, one of Daniel Spoerri’s lunettes (eyeglasses subjected to perverse alterations) and, if it could be borrowed, Yoko Ono’s famous Ceiling Painting with a magnifying glass attached to it so that you can read the word “yes” in tiny letters. At the center of this imagined show, and its inspiration, would be a selection of work by Mary Bauermeister.
During the 1960s, Bauermeister gained attention for her boxes which invite viewers to look at her image-and-text drawings and collections of natural objects through an array of lenses embedded in glass. Designed to be seen either from above or on the wall, these lens boxes, which sometimes feature elaborate frames, are wondrous microhabitats in which one can keep making new discoveries. They have the hermetic poetry of a Cornell box, but without Cornell’s suffocating nostalgia. Instead, Bauermeister’s boxes exude the freshness and clarity of a naturalist’s notebook, with a dose of trippy 1960s idealism. In works like The Great Society (1969), she addressed the political turmoil of the era. Signaling her turn toward nature, Bauermeister also began making wall relief from carefully patterned, inscription-bearing river rocks.
Describing herself as “pre-Fluxus” because she began working experimentally in her native Germany in the late 1950s, before Fluxus officially got underway, Bauermeister is sometimes linked to Pop Art. Her affinities were more with John Cage’s circle—circa 1960 her studio in Cologne was the site of important performances by Cage, David Tudor, Nam June Paik and others. Bauermeister moved to New York in 1962 (she claims it was seeing Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram with its stuffed goat at the Stedelijk that inspired her migration) and remained there until 1973, when, in her own words, she “withdrew into the German forest, brought up 4 children, grew vegetables, got involved with ecology, geomanthy and mysticism, meditation, silence instead of verbs.” [From an interview with Bauermeister in the Spring 2009 issue of Art Conservator. http://williamstownart.org/news/images/bauermeister_interview.pdf] Bauermeister recalls her early life in a 2011 memoir titled Mein Leben mit Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Why isn’t her work better known? It could be that the intimate, non-spectacular format of much of it has impeded the kind of rediscovery enjoyed by, say, Yayoi Kusama. Maybe a certain confusion of nationality has also played a role: because her best known work was made in New York, Bauermeister has not been fully embraced in Germany; because she left New York in 1973, she hasn’t been given her rightful place in the history of New York art. And, of course, she had to cope with the biases against women artists. Happily, she was featured prominently in the 2007 exhibition “WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution.”
It’s pretty hard to get a sense of Bauermeister’s work from reproductions, which obviously make it impossible to shift your focus among her multiple lenses, but a recent recording by two Amherst College students of some of the words and phrases that appear in The Great Society effectively conveys her playful, pinball-machine kineticism.