Michael Rosenfeld Gallery opens a memorial exhibition organized in collaboration with Mary Bauermeister's family

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Michael Rosenfeld Gallery opens a memorial exhibition organized in collaboration with Mary Bauermeister's family
Installation view. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

NEW YORK, NY.- Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is presenting Mary Bauermeister: Fuck the System, a memorial exhibition organized in collaboration with the artist’s family. The first solo exhibition to open since her passing in March 2023, Fuck the System surveys the diverse, interdisciplinary oeuvre Bauermeister executed across seven decades.

Taking its title from an assemblage executed at a key turning point in Bauermeister’s career, Fuck the System features works from each of her major series, including examples of rarely exhibited pastels, light boxes, and easel sculptures. A child of totalitarian Germany who rejected the Constructivist mandates of the country’s postwar schools of art and design, Bauermeister’s art and worldview were explicitly anti-tradition from the beginning of her career. The artist’s fascination with paradox and its potential to reveal fissures in the foundations of entrenched conventions is apparent throughout her work, which both embodies and challenges contradictory binaries, often vacillating between uncontrolled apostrophe and methodical structure, Zen-like serenity and impassioned rage, introversion and extroversion. This fluid approach to thinking about art manifests in a variety of ways; many of her works deal with the nature of optical and ideological perception while approaching the trappings of established hegemonies and contemporary trends with equal skepticism.

Fuck the System will constitute the first public exhibition of Bauermeister’s earliest mature body of work, a series of abstract, psychedelic pastels dating to the 1950s. These expressive compositions reveal the magnitude of Bauermeister’s limitless imagination, which would soon nurture the environment where the first Fluxus happenings took place between 1960 and 1961 in her Cologne studio. The avant-garde that gathered there included John Cage, Christo, Merce Cunningham, Nam June Paik, David Tudor, and others who would go on to form a vanguard scene of musicians, dancers, and performance artists who thrived in New York throughout the 1960s, a milieu now known as Neo-Dada.

Though a majority of the works Bauermeister produced between 1957 and 1962 are material in nature—in contrast to Neo-Dada’s emphasis on ephemeral, time-based art—they nevertheless reflect a philosophy advanced by Cage and carried on by his disciples, in which any perceptible boundaries between art, nature, and lived experience are rejected in favor of a holistic creative enterprise wherein all three arise and interact within the same realm. Fuck the System will feature two standout examples of Bauermeister’s honeycomb pictures, in which casein or a synthetic paste is layered atop a support and impressed with rhythmic motifs, recalling the tessellations of its namesake, pockmarks on the surface of the moon, and droplets of rain breaking the surface of a pool of water. Other works from this period include “dot pictures” which, at first glance, appear to be splatter paintings in the vein of gestural tachisme, but closer consideration reveals countless deliberately placed circles of pigment that variously condense and disperse across the canvas, often resembling views of deep space or microbes drifting about a solution on a microscope slide. As curator Kristen Skrobanek has observed, these works indicate infinite expansion into micro- and macrocosmic realms,[2] a line of thinking that would spawn several of Bauermeister’s most critically acclaimed and widely exhibited series, such as her plastic straw pictures, lens boxes, and stone assemblages, all of which carry on the themes of aggregation, sequential progression, and a deliberate confusion between manmade and natural materials, found and fabricated objects.

Bauermeister’s artistic innovations in these years led to her first museum exhibition in 1962, organized by legendary museum director Willem Sandberg for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition would be prodigious for Bauermeister, as it brought about her conception of the lens boxes: “The night before the opening,” Bauermeister remembered, “I dreamt that each of my paintings was a walk-in space. I essentially walked into my paintings, and so later I started to build boxes.”[3] Another momentous outcome of the Stedelijk exhibition was Bauermeister’s decision to move to New York, which was inspired by her exposure to the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in an exhibition Sandberg curated concurrent with her own solo show; convinced that the city could offer her an environment of artistic freedom Germany could not, Bauermeister began what would become a ten-year residence in New York in October 1962. She enjoyed nearly immediate success in New York, obtaining representation by Gallery Bonino in 1963 and witnessing the acquisition of her works by the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art the following year.

Bauermeister’s productivity accelerated in the wake of these successes, and she readily expanded her established series while initiating new ones, such as the “Lichttücher,” or, “light sheets,” wherein scraps of found linen are sewn into abstract geometric patterns or words, after which the cloth is mounted to a lightbox. Indeed, light is a central component in Bauermeister’s oeuvre both conceptually and in practice; she cultivated a nearly career-long interest in crystallography, and her most widely exhibited series of works, the lens boxes, array magnifying lenses of various sizes and strengths within and outside of wooden boxes that usually frame a drawn or painted composition. As art historian Wilfried Dörstel has observed, “Each of her works records, as it were, the passage of a moving, changing systemic event, whose beginning and end we don’t know – an infinite and intense moment, and a passage also in the sense that immaterial matter passes through matter, light through glass or lenses, cosmic through terrestrial, the invisible through the visible.”[4] In addition to implicating the continually fluctuating nature of human perception, Bauermeister’s lens boxes exemplify the combination of image and object that characterizes much of her work, yet they do so without affirming the obsolescence of two-dimensional art—rather, they bring it into the third dimension, and thus the contemporary world.[5]

Fuck the System highlights several major works from these series alongside examples of an under-exhibited body of work begun in the mid-1960s and carried on through the 1970s, which expounds upon Bauermeister’s concerns with the literal and figural apparatuses of artistic production and display: her series of wooden easel sculptures. Working with a hired carpenter, the artist produced a series of easels designed to refuse their functional capacity. In such works as Corner Easel (1969–70), Bauermeister renders a longstanding instrument of traditional painting as a useless object meant for contemplation. Some easels display mirrors and other objects replete with mimetic implications, including Bauermeister’s own word drawings. Text figures prominently in Bauermeister’s work from the early 1960s onward, and many of the words, phrases, and numerals in her drawings introduce a philosophical quandary, pun, or idiom that further stratifies its interpretive possibilities. “I like to write on works because it's a way of relativizing them again,” she explained. “I'm suspicious of any firm statements.”[6]

In keeping with her predilection for matrices of interrelated themes, many of Bauermeister’s works are structured by a “motif chain,”[7] wherein forms, images, and concepts are nested within each other in order to erase any pretense of circumscription. Untitled (Stone Labyrinth) (1965), for example, bears offset prints of previous stone progression works placed among the real stones of the composition, emphasizing the work’s interlaced meanings and integrated material conditions with the world at large. The stone works are perhaps the best examples of Bauermeister’s interest in mathematics; since childhood she was fascinated by the Fibonacci sequence and other mathematical principles that correspond to the processes of organic life, and many of her serial works are structured by such axioms.

While the selection of works on view in Fuck the System emphasizes Bauermeister’s works of the 1950s–1970s, the longevity of the artist’s investigations into the ideas that originated early in her career will be evident in works from recent decades, such as the stone progression Septett [Septet] (2014–19), the straw picture Untitled (Strohhalm spirale) [Untitled (Straw spiral)] (2015), and V.I.P. Family (1967–2017), a lens box the artist revisited over the course of fifty years. Though they engage the same concepts and materials as her earlier works, the network of ideas they offer and their relationship with earlier works and social contexts remain in flux. As Bauermeister explained in a 2014 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, “[As] an artist in a bourgeois society, you have to be an anarchist, and during turbulent times, you have to structure things: our role changes.”[8]

Fuck the System (Dürer Madonna) (1972) is thus an apt eponym for the exhibition, as the assemblage encapsulates Bauermeister’s attitude toward the art establishment, the art historical tradition, and her place within them. Created on the cusp of her return to Europe, Fuck the System (Dürer Madonna) plays off the gesture of the Christ child in the Northern Renaissance master’s late fifteenth-century painting at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Bauermeister’s rendition of the Western art tradition’s most famous feminine person and deity—and the most eminent bearer of her own name—embodies her complex interactions with the art world and its discontents. Titled with a profanity that bears a bivalent meaning depending on its context (i.e., a crass term for a procreative act or an emphatic statement of objection), the assemblage comprises plaster spheres that appear to warp its painted image in the same way one of her lens boxes would; hanging from the spheres are paintbrushes inscribed with the titular phrase as well as another of the artist’s key maxims, “yes – no – maybe,” indicating the embrace of infinite interpretive possibilities.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery has represented Mary Bauermeister (1934–2023) since 2018. Fuck the System is the gallery’s second solo presentation of her work; in 2019, the gallery mounted Mary Bauermeister: Live in Peace or Leave the Galaxy.

[1] Mary Bauermeister, interview with Simon Stockhausen, 2017

[2] Kerstin Skrobanek, “Stone Towers and Magnifying Glasses – Mary Bauermeister’s Years in New York,” Mary Bauermeister: The New York Decade, exh. cat. (Northampton, MA: Smith College Museum of Art, 2014) p. 40-41

[3] Mary Bauermeister in “Hans Ulrich Obrist in Conversation with Mary Bauermeister, 22 December 2014,” 1+1=3, The Art Worlds of Mary Bauermeister, exh. cat. (Kiel, Germany: Kunsthalle zu Kiel, 2022) p. 55

[4] Wilfried Dörstel, “The Ten Thousand Beings Have Their Characteristic Structure, But They Do Not Formulate It,” in Mary Bauermeister: “all things involved in all other things,” ibid, 47-50

[5] Kerstin Skrobanek, “Needless Needles and Infinite Layers – On Mary Bauermeister’s Work,” in Mary Bauermeister: “all things involved in all other things,” exh. cat. (Cologne: Galerie Schüppenhauer, 2004) p. 31

[6] Mary Bauermeister in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, ibid, 56

[7] Skrobanek, The New York Decade, ibid, 39-40

[8] Mary Bauermeister in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, ibid, 58

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