The Poetry Project

What Rosemary Knew

Tausif Noor

Rosemary Mayer – Ways of Attaching
Swiss Institute, 38 St Marks Pl
September 9, 2021 – Jan 9, 2022

When she died in October 2014 at the age of 71, you could sense from the obituaries penned by friends and family the enormity of Rosemary Mayer’s intellect, matched only by her eclectic, spirited manner of living. The paper of record made an endearing reference to Mayer’s “wry sense of humor, her love of jewels and baubles.” In Artforum, her sister Bernadette penned a remembrance with a staccato, almost deadpan tone that gives way to an image so beautiful I have a difficult time reading it without tearing up: “I am grateful to Rosemary for making the Hesiod volume of the Loeb Classics fall from the shelves, enabling me to make the title for my next book Works and Days. And also for turning my gingko tree yellow for the first time.” For the same magazine the artist Adrian Piper, a longtime friend of Mayer’s, praised the artist’s nonchalant attitude, one that belied her conceptual rigor, her fluency in Greek and Latin. They had met for the first time in 1967, in a drawing class at the School of Visual Arts in New York; Rosemary had returned to the city after studying classics as an undergrad in Iowa and having rejected a doctoral fellowship to study classics at Harvard in favor of pursuing a career as an artist. “She was the only student in the class reading a book,” Piper recounted.

The book was Goethe’s third novel, Elective Affinities, the title cribbed from a contemporary theory in chemistry and often translated as Kindred by Choice. That title holds an epistemic key to understanding Mayer’s singular sculptural practice, one which insisted, at every level, upon fluid boundaries between past and present, art and life, high-minded bravura and unfettered pleasure. Her formalism was driven as much by her interest seeking out the women cast aside by history, reaching for connections that were tenuous—perhaps preposterous—between women who belonged to neither the same time nor geography, but perhaps held a common name, a shared desire. She erected ephemeral monuments to ordinary individuals, cast from humble materials and allowed these tributes to exist provisionally, momentarily. Hers was an understanding of history as the dynamic composite of the single moment and the sweeping arc of the past, located between the fleeting gesture and the eternal ruin.

Ways of Attaching, an excellent survey exhibition of Rosemary Mayer’s extraordinary and incisive practice, curated by Laura McLean-Ferris with Alison Coplan at the Swiss Institute this past fall, placed as its fulcrum Mayer’s ingenious and fluid understanding of history. It offered rare glimpses at her 1970s fabric sculptures alongside a wealth of archival materials that contextualize and enrich appreciation of Mayer’s practice for the diehard cultist and uninitiated alike. This is no small feat on behalf of an artist whose legacy has slipped between the cracks of art history, a discipline that rewards those who hew to a staid form of legibility defined by capitulation to the market, consistency in creative output, and a self-directed attention to archival practice enabled as much by self-interest or narcissism as by the shrewd selection of preservation-friendly media. Her oeuvre—sculptures constructed from bolts of fabric, ephemeral “temporary monuments,” and performances developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s, before she turned away from the corporate speculation that passed as creativity in Reagan-era New York—does not meet those conditions, but flies past them, refusing the diktat of the market in favor of evanescence and the celebration of the everyday.

Mayer’s large-scale fabric sculptures anchor the exhibition, and their provenance also underscores the difficulty of folding Mayer into a neat narrative of feminist art. Dominating one corner of the first floor gallery is Galla Placida (1973), presented in New York City for the first time since its debut in Mayer’s solo exhibition at A.I.R., the women-led artist collective and gallery that she helped found in 1972. Suspended from a round armature that extends from the first floor gallery ceiling, Galla Placida comprises swathes of synthetic fabric, in shades of deep purple, green, and burnt orange gathered together in diaphanous folds of varying translucency, weight, and iridescence. Its title refers to a largely forgotten fifth century Roman empress. When it was exhibited at A.I.R., it was accompanied by three other sculptures whose titles also referenced notable women (Hroswitha, after the medieval German poet) or groups of women (The Catherines, after a composite of various rulers named Catherine), as well as studies and sketches that show Mayer working out the knots and styles of drapery that held these fluid forms in place.

Those studies and sketches were re-presented, framed on the walls of the Swiss Institute’s first floor gallery and placed in a vitrine where other treasures were held. They include Rosemary’s illustration of her and Bernadette’s childhood home in Ridgewood, for the cover of Bernadette’s first collection, Poetry (1976) and Rosemary’s journal from 1971-3, open to a page with diagrams for works interspersed with personal mantras (“I wont get into more PAINT,” “letting stuff do what it will”). Upstairs, a handsome selection of collages, hand-drawn posters and invitations for public performances and events from the late 1970s index Mayer’s decision to pursue not materiality, but mood, atmosphere, and gesture, linking her art to the joyous company of friends.

These included the artist Ree Morton, whose untimely death by car accident in 1977 and whose own public celebratory work Something in the Wind (1975)—in which she inscribed the names of friends, including Rosemary, on flags and strung them up on the South Street Seaport—inspired Mayer’s 1978 work Some Days in April. She had realized that three people she’d lost too early—her mother, father, and Ree—were all born in the month of April, a tragic congruence that she mobilized as a private ritual in public space. Mayer set adrift balloons—each inscribed with these loved ones’ names, a date associated with them, and the flowers and stars visible at the time—in a field in upstate New York, and documented the process. For the duration of that performance, the symmetry of having once shared the same space, the accident of having been born in the same month, and the coincidence of living and dying were brought together through Rosemary Mayer’s insistence on honoring them. In the space of the exhibition, the archival material enables that momentary cohesion, a token of Mayer’s affection, to ripple out in time between the past and future.

Ways of Attaching follows a spate of recent attention to the renegade women artists of the 1970s in general (notably the major traveling retrospective of Ree Morton curated by Kate Kraczon in 2018) and the sisters Mayer in particular. An exhibition of Rosemary’s conceptual fabric sculptures ca. 1969-73 was presented by the art historian Maika Pollack in 2016, accompanied by the publication of her 1971 diary (which, in turn, was recently expanded and reissued by Soberscove, who also published a 2018 volume dedicated to the artist’s temporary monuments; those temporary monuments were exhibited by the curatorial duo Gordon-Robichaux in the summer of 2021). Bernadette’s experimental tour de force Memory was restaged in Chicago and New York and the publication of a volume combining its images and text for the first time by Siglio Press; the Swiss Institute will publish a volume of the sisters’ letters early this year.

Add to this the outpouring of writing by critics and art historians Wendy Vogel, Diana Hamilton, Gillian Sneed, Nicole Rudick, Jennifer Krasinski, Paige K. Bradley, Thea Ballard, Johanna Fateman, and Amy Tobin, among many others, and perhaps the line I am drawing across time, space, and discipline will become clear. I don’t think it is putting too fine a point on the matter that the recognition of Rosemary Mayer and her peers is feminist, that this feminism has a precedent in Rosemary Mayer’s work, and that this exhibition was possible because feminism was backed by institutional support. Reading Mayer’s 1971 Kunstlerroman provides little satisfaction for readers seeking the romance of a New York bohemia that never quite existed, and less still for those hoping to easily graft contemporary mores onto her work. Attending consciousness-raising meetings and struggling with her own anxieties as an artist, Mayer detailed her ambivalence and developing attitudes to feminism and politics, to her peers and to her own practice.

But there was so much she knew, perhaps intuitively, and more often kinaesthetically. She knew that the membrane between the past and the present was so thin and porous to be practically non-existent, that friends deserved to be celebrated, that love took a million different forms, that every material could be reassembled to fit the needs of what demanded it, that above all it was important to preserve your dignity in the face of cynicism. She knew all this and more, and she knew that one day, maybe long after she was gone, we would be ready to receive this knowledge too.

#267 – Winter 2022