Mary Bauermeister, Avant-Garde Artist and Host, Dies at 88

Mary Bauermeister, a German artist who played a signature role in the development of the freewheeling performance art of the 1960s avant-garde, died on March 2 at a hospice in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. She was 88.

The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery of New York, which represented her, said the cause was breast cancer.

Ms. Bauermeister’s art practice began in postwar Germany, where she made honeycomb-like reliefs with toothpaste and modeling compound. She went on to embrace text pieces, floral drawings, music composition, unusual easels displayed as sculpture, mystical tableaus of smooth pebbles and other natural objects, found objects lightly altered into what she called “ready trouvés,” and “lens boxes,” disconcerting but visually irresistible glass boxes crammed with prisms, lenses and colored pencils. She was driven as much by an almost scientific interest in experimentation — and by her congenital need to rebel — as she was by aesthetics.

“I was a war child,” she recalled in a 2014 interview with the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. “From the age of 10, I’d conspired against adults.”

That didn’t mean that she wasn’t ambitious. In 1963, after moving to New York, she began showing with the Galeria Bonino and her works were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum, as well as by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington.

But Ms. Bauermeister’s heaviest impact on art history may have come from the open house she kept in an attic studio in an alley in Cologne in 1960 and 1961.

She had been inspired, she said, to form a “safe space” for avant-garde music in the late 1950s, after watching a televised concert in which the composer John Cage was booed offstage. And as it happened, in 1960, shortly after she had found a space she liked, the International Society for Contemporary Music brought its annual festival to Cologne.

Official concerts included pieces by Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg and world premieres of works by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. But composers whose works had been rejected by the society’s jury — as well as Mr. Stockhausen, with whom she later collaborated and had two children — found a more accepting venue in Ms. Bauermeister’s salons.

“All the other artists always came to the concerts,” she told Mr. Obrist, “and word spread very quickly that you could always hear the latest kind of music in my studio.”

It wasn’t only music. Ms. Bauermeister’s place, with its spare bedroom and its regular program of outrageous events, became a de rigueur stop for artists of all types passing through the area. And the fertile, heady atmosphere of what the video artist Nam June Paik later called the “court of Mary” encouraged artists to leap across ordinary genre boundaries in the sort of collectively imagined performances and collaborations that later came to define the decade’s cutting edge.

Mr. Paik himself, in the midst of one concert, leaped into the audience with a pair of scissors, snipped off John Cage’s necktie, and fled the building. A few minutes later, he called Ms. Bauermeister’s studio to announce that the concert was over.

Mary Hildegard Ruth Bauermeister was born on Sept. 7, 1934, in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, the second of five children of Wolf Bauermeister, a professor of genetics and anthropology, and Laura (Renzi) Bauermeister.

She spent her early childhood in Kiel, in northern Germany, before the family moved to the outskirts of Cologne. During World War II, she and her elder brother Martin were evacuated into the mountains near the Austrian border.

Explaining how she became a visual artist, Ms. Bauermeister said: “I was musical, so I could have become a musician, too. But I wasn’t allowed to play music in a minor key — I was considered too young.”

She quit the piano at 17, and she stopped writing poetry — which, like the piano, had been a daily practice — at 22. “But finding explanations for things was something I’ve always done by drawing,” she said, “and by that I mean drawing and thinking.”

A drawing teacher named Günther Ott fostered her talent at school in Cologne, and she enrolled at the Ulm School of Design, where, in a plaster workshop, the architect Max Bill assigned her to create a cube. She found it difficult, and therefore exciting.

Just before the cube was due, a corner got chipped — so she cut the cube in half and handed it in on a mirror. Mr. Bill was impressed. But Ms. Bauermeister, finding the design curriculum at Ulm too rigid, dropped out and moved to Saarbrücken, where she briefly enrolled in the State School for Arts and Crafts (now Saar College of Fine Arts).

By 1956 she had returned to Cologne, where she supported herself by selling pastels and, in 1960, rented the attic studio. In 1962 she had her first museum exhibition, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, showing drawings and reliefs accompanied by scores and electronic music by Mr. Stockhausen. In October of that year, she moved to New York.

In New York as in Cologne, she quickly found herself in the center of the action.

“They called me Miss Cornflake,” she said later. “I had blond braids, walked around New York barefoot and was incredibly healthy. No drugs, no hash, I didn’t sleep around. I was simply Miss Cornflake and they loved me.”

It may have helped that her work was too eccentric and varied to compete with anyone else’s.

“I think one of her great strengths,” the art historian Barbara Moore said in a phone interview, “is that she’s doing this totally individual work. It doesn’t really identify with any of the movements that happened in her lifetime, whether it was Fluxus or Pop Art or Conceptualism or Minimalism.”

In 1964 and in the years following, Ms. Bauermeister showed her first lens boxes at the Galeria Bonino. She married Mr. Stockhausen, the father of her first two children, a son and a daughter, in 1967 in San Francisco; the marriage ended in divorce. She had two other daughters, one with the musician and composer David Johnson and the other with the artist Joseph Halevi.

She is survived by her daughters, Julika Stockhausen, Esther Bauermeister and Sofie Bauermeister; her son, Simon Stockhausen; her brother, Martin; and her sister, Elisabeth Bauermeister Bauschmidt.

In the early 1970s, Ms. Bauermeister moved to a house in Rösrath, outside Cologne, where her two small children could grow up speaking German. But the “court of Mary” followed her back.

“The house was always full of freaks and hippies,” Simon Stockhausen remembered in a phone interview. “All religions passed by here, like Buddhists and monks and bhagwan people. Mary was very open to all sorts of spiritual things and esoteric things.”

Asked by Mr. Obrist what advice she would give a young artist, Ms. Bauermeister cited something “an old writer” had told her in her youth when she was “desperate” — an injunction that exemplifies the fearlessness, as well as the willfulness, that characterized both her art and her life:

“Always do what requires the greater courage from you.”

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