The Poetry Project

On The Letters of Rosemary and Bernadette Mayer, 1976-1980

Tausif Noor

The Letters of Rosemary and Bernadette Mayer, 1976-1980
Edited by Gillian Sneed and Marie Warsh
Swiss Institute, 2022

“Today I feel cloudy like the weather and the city,” wrote the sculptor Rosemary Mayer in a letter to her younger sister Bernadette. It was the spring of 1976, and Rosemary had recently begun cohabitating with a new boyfriend in her Tribeca loft, her first serious relationship since her 1969 divorce from the artist Vito Acconci. Restless and insecure, she sought commiseration from Bernadette, who had recently left New York City and was living in western Massachusetts with the poet Lewis Warsh and their infant daughter Marie. In her letter, congratulating Bernadette on the emotional sincerity of Studying Hunger—a text the younger Mayer had published in 1975 under the guidance and goading of her psychoanalyst, David Rubinfine—Rosemary mused on the sisters’ shared sensibilities: “Maybe we have similarities in some parts of our nervous systems, our mental set-ups,” suggested Rosemary. “Or whatever one would call whatever induces particular views of, or sensitivities to, the world.”

By the mid-1970s, the sisters Mayer had established themselves within the New York avant-garde, working across text and image to fashion a new poetics of the everyday: Rosemary with her fabric sculptures and “temporary monuments,” and Bernadette as a fixture in the poetry and conceptual art scenes, having edited the magazine 0 to 9 with Acconci and debuted her pathbreaking installation photo and sound installation Memory in 1972. Beneath the sisters’ aesthetic inclinations lurked family tragedy: their parents had died in quick succession by the late 1950s, leaving Bernadette and Rosemary the orphaned wards of disinterested, conservative kin whom they would leave behind for the freedoms of downtown bohemia. “Our past is extreme + we have the world to deal with as well,” Bernadette would write back in a separate missive that October. “I don’t even need to express this. It’s so difficult to speak of these things in a letter.”

Between 1976 and 1980, Bernadette and Rosemary’s shared past—alongside their professional woes and aspirations, impressions of their milieu, and experiences as female artists—would furnish an intense epistolary relationship, one that has recently been made available in a beautifully designed volume and which testifies not only to the singular brilliance of these two artists, but to a shifting consciousness around artistic labor and the infrastructure required to support it. Edited by Marie Warsh and art historian Gillian Sneed, the letters from this period of intense productivity—during which the sisters Mayer were closer than ever, though living relatively far apart—showcases how these women navigated the terrain of artistic success and failure, supporting one another while also articulating their distinct, discrepant personalities and approaches to an artistic life. Published on the heels of the traveling exhibition Rosemary Mayer: Ways of Attaching, which toured a set of North American and European venues from 2020-21, this collection not only adds to the growing corpus of refreshing, rigorous scholarship on the sisters Mayer but more broadly contributes to a necessary feminist revisionism of postwar American art history.

Structured in four chronological chapters that each detail a year of correspondence, the collected letters illuminate how the “mental set-ups” of Rosemary and Bernadette, however similarly attuned to the world outside, were conditioned by their working environments. When the letters begin in 1976, Bernadette and Lewis, living off the support of an NEA grant, are collaborating on what would become Piece of Cake, a series of daily writing experiments; the following August, they would work on its sequel, Leek House, and also begin publishing United Artists magazine, to which Rosemary would contribute. The extent of the sisters’ collaboration, though documented in the Ways of Attaching exhibition and elsewhere, is a key insight brought to light through this collection. Beyond contributing to each other’s publications, the sisters also shared reading recommendations from Louis Sullivan to Octavio Paz, Annie Dillard, and Theodor Adorno; a catalog of their eclectic interests from these letters alone would provide a world-class education. In Massachusetts, though Bernadette and Lewis Warsh’s days are filled with the quotidian chores involved in raising Marie (and later, her younger siblings Sophia and Max), the pair carve out time to write and work at night. And while they are removed from their urban milieu of New York—where they would return in 1980 when Bernadette accepts the directorship at the Poetry Project—their New England years are also the time when they developed friendships with nearby writers like Fanny Howe, Russell Banks, Clark Coolidge, and Bill Corbett, and hosted visitors like Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley.

In her letters, Bernadette tends to catalog the textures of her working and social life in long streams of consciousness, often typewritten at night when the children have been put to bed:

The typewriter makes me feel chatty because it’s so easy and fast to say things since I’m typing at a great speed and also it’s good therapy for me because since the book is finished I’m dying to still be feeling that I’m writing something, I can’t stand not to be working, I’m an inevitable, I mean inveterate worker.

Her missives tend to be heavy on factual details, recounting events and impressions, updates on her children’s milestones. Frequently, they are peppered with sisterly advice: “Trust your instincts, Rosemary!” she writes in 1976 [emphasis in original]; “The only thing is to keep working + NOT GET TIRED.” Leaning into her role as a mother, Bernadette seems to ventriloquize a kind of sageness, a tone that is only heightened by the neat, typewritten lines of her words—and perhaps further exacerbated by Rosemary’s more frequent, more confessional, and sometimes downright needy letters. The first letter in the volume seems to set up this dichotomy, with Rosemary frankly discussing her unemployment, her recent bout of diarrhea, and her dieting; she speaks candidly about her need for solitude to do work, her obsessions and doubts: “I set myself impossible schedules or deadlines that no one could meet and then get upset,” she laments. “Tried to concentrate on me the person … Am I always tired? Or only for the last year?” she asks in September of 1976. “Is this a depressing letter?” A touching refrain in the sisters’ letters is their concluding implorations for the other to write soon, write more, write more frequently.

Rosemary’s self-consciousness lends her letters a pathos that creates a space for relatability and often, levity: she writes candidly about being drunk, about being depressed, about feeling lazy. Often, she is droll about the art scene in New York (“The galleries are dull”) and her ambivalence toward it, as in recounting a panel on art and politics featuring Donald Judd: “His naivete about the implications of his work was surprising. Lots of really awful people were also there as always.” Like her ebullient sculptures named after historical female figures, oftentimes sharing the same name or other small point of connection, Rosemary’s letters surface a desire for connection, however transient. So too do we see Bernadette’s vulnerability, her desire to succeed as a mother, a partner, an artist. Through letter writing—an exchange premised on mutual trust that produces a particular space of connection—a sense of the sisters’ characters comes into focus: practical Bernadette, whimsical Rosemary. But because the epistolary space is also a stage for performance, these roles are not fixed. As an artist, Rosemary is just as much of a workaholic, particularly toward the end of the volume when her sculptures and public performances demand more of her time; Bernadette, too, finds room to blurt out her honest feelings, her volatility, her loneliness, going so far as to confess that she doubts her own existence when left to her own devices.

Prompted by distance, letter writing allowed the artist and sisters to express intimate desires and fears as artists, but retrospectively, we can also see how they acted as a staging ground for future work. The rhythms of domestic life would shape the content and form of Bernadette’s December 1978 masterpiece Midwinter Day, for which she asked Rosemary for recommendations on contemporary art in January of that year. And her exchanges with Bill Berkson, roughly contemporary to this period and gathered in the 2006 collection What’s Your Idea of a Good Time?, demonstrate the extent to which the form was crucial to her thinking and her thinking with others. During the mid-1970s, Rosemary Mayer’s installations from this period became more and more conceptual and ephemeral, with works like Spell (1977) and Some Days in April (1978) and Connections (1978) premised on connection and correspondence that, like these letters, understood meaning to be not only relational but resting as much in the dematerialization of objects as in their construction, perfectly illustrated by her 1979 installation of snow sculptures for the Lenox Library in Massachusetts. Moreover, in reading these letters, we get a sense of the sacrifices—personal, financial, emotional—that the Mayers made in order to pursue a particular kind of life, one that could be counted in grant applications, in the days anticipating a check in the mail, in the moments before the big break. The letters also and equally measure time in increments of pleasure and surprise. We watch as Marie and Sophia and Max grow teeth and make friends; we see the grants come in, the seasons pass. Among the many joys of the collection is the wealth of archival treasures, including family Polaroids of the Warshes in Massachusetts, rare installation shots of Rosemary’s exhibitions, and facsimiles of some of the actual correspondence, replete with Bernadette’s doodles of gingko leaves.

I’m not ashamed to admit that when I received this volume, I treated it like a divination guide, flipping to the closest corresponding date to see how it was to live as an artist in ’77, ’78, ’79 and to find some signs for how to live now. For the last few years, Bernadette and Rosemary have shepherded my own attempts to eke out some kind of life as a writer, a life with other writers, a life with a poet in particular. While helping my boyfriend move into my apartment this past winter, I found a note I’d written four years ago, slipped into the copy of Bernadette’s collected I gave him for his birthday, right before the time I was beginning to fall in love: “Bernadette was born on May 12th, so she’s a Taurus, and not quite a Gemini, but the poems I think are still forgiving of his fact.” After Bernadette died last November, it was hard to read in general, and impossible to read these letters in particular; they felt too elegiac, too distant. I kept getting stuck at the introductory declaration: “Bernadette Mayer (b. 1945) is a poet and writer, the author of over thirty books…” I wanted the is to stay is, to not shift to was, even though it already had, has. The weeks passed and reading got easier. I continue to flip to random pages and dip into the river of their thoughts. It remains difficult, however, to accurately convey the extent to which the work of Rosemary and Bernadette Mayer have shaped the way I think, who I believe myself to be, what this all might be for. “Past + present’s all I have to write about,” wrote Bernadette one day in October 1977, “I feel I alternate.” It’s all I have to write about too, and I look to them for answers. Write to me soon.

#272 – Spring 2023