Rosemary Mayer with Hroswitha 1973; Curtesy the Estate of Rosemary Mayer, New York
Rosemary Mayer (1943-2014) was a significant figure in the New York art scene beginning in the late 1960s and throughout the seventies and eighties.
A prolific artist and writer as well as active participant in feminist artistic discourses, Mayer was intimately involved within a close-knit network of fellow artists, scholars and gallerists, including artist Adrian Piper; her sister and poet Bernadette Mayer; former spouse and artist Vito Acconci; artist Ree Morton; writer, art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway, and many others.
Mayer was also a writer and critic and was engaged in numerous art writing, literary, and publishing projects throughout her career. In addition to the text that accompanied or was integrated into much of her work, she translated Pontormo’s Diary, a 16th century Italian Mannerist artist’s diary, which was published with a catalogue of her work. She created an issue of Art-Rite, the New York-based proto-punk zine that defined postconceptualism and contributed to several issues of 0 TO 9, the journal of experimental art and writing edited by Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci. Towards the end of her life while working as an art professor, she worked on projects to illustrate epics, such as Beowulf and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Mayer kept a journal for most of her life, which elucidates the intricate relationships she had with her cohort and provides insight into her art-making and writing projects.
In 1972, Mayer, along with 19 other women artists, founded A.I.R. Gallery on Wooster St., Manhattan: the first nonprofit, artist-directed and maintained gallery for women artists in the United States. With the purpose of showcasing and supporting work by women in order to change the prevalent attitudes towards women artists, A.I.R. Gallery exhibited a wide range of artistic styles and provided artist fellowships and community art programs. Rather than constituting an aesthetic movement, the gallery became a platform for a diverse range of art processes, materials, and voices. Mayer participated in the inaugural exhibition with half of the gallery’s members, including Nancy Spero and Judith Bernstein, and opened a solo exhibition there in 1973.
Between 1969 and 1973, Mayer’s art developed from primarily text-based works influenced by conceptual art into sculptures primarily using fabric. Her 1971 series, Veils, which no longer exists, incorporated layers of colored tricot and nylon painted with watercolor or oil paint. Her 1972-73 work, The Catherines, and other sculptures named for individual or groups of women are wood-and-textile sculptures consisting of translucent swathes of colorful fabrics, evocative of the visceral and feminine, as well as the historical women after which they are named. The works recalled myth and history in a manner radically distinct from the fashion of Minimalist male artists, who favored durable materials such as steel and concrete. Mayer was also influenced by the work of Jacopo da Pontormo and other Italian Mannerist painters, particularly their use of color , as well as the overall qualities of fragility and unease that pervades their work.
Although she is mostly known for her billowing fabric sculptures, Mayer’s oeuvre extends far beyond these signature works. Between 1977 and 1982, Mayer created works that explored site-specificity, temporality and community involvement, which she called “Temporary Monuments.” Works such as Some Days in April (1978) broached notions of memorializing, transience and myth following the deaths of her parents and friend Ree Morton, who had been born and died in the month of April, respectively. Tying helium-filled balloons –a motif used by Mayer to indicate the grasping of fleeting time– with ribbons and inscribing them with emblematic names of spring flowers, numbers and stars, Mayer tethered them onto wooden stakes in a field during a day in April.
In 1977, Mayer produced a work called Spell, a public art project funded by the Creative Arts Public Service grant from the New York State Council featuring large weather balloons to celebrate the opening of a flower market in Jamaica, Queens. The balloons had words written on them evoking the return of spring. The ephemeral work, which relied on collective memory, social engagement and site specificity for its activation, contributed to a shift in contemporary notions of public art. Her 1979 series, Snow People, was another temporary installation, made of snow, similarly dedicated to community members and their forgotten presence. Naming each sculpture after common names, the snow figures were anti-monuments in their fragility, yet reflective of the mutability of time.
During the early 1980s, Mayer continued experimenting with her Temporary Monuments series, producing drawings for festive tents that were never realized and creating a series of works called Ghosts, ephemeral sculptures made out of materials such as plastic, glassine, and ribbons. (Reenactments of these were exhibited at Kunsthalle Basel early this year). She went on to revisit her interest in the classics and art history, investigating the forms of classical Greek vases and Chinese ceramics to produce a series of vessels, large scale sculptures made of wood, cheesecloth, and rabbit skin glue.
At the beginning of the 1990s, she became more focused on teaching art, and this informed her last major body of work. For the last fifteen years of her life, she worked on a series of watercolor illustrations of epic literature such as Beowulf and Gilgamesh, as well as illustrations of the history of the women of the Roman empire. These projects brought together her lifelong investigation of the relationship between text and image, her interest in the history of women.
Throughout her artistic career, Mayer’s work was exhibited at numerous alternative art spaces in New York, including The Clocktower, Sculpture Center and Franklin Furnace, as well as several university galleries. In 2016, Southfirst Gallery in Brooklyn held a major exhibition of her work, igniting a renewed interest in her work. In 2017 the Museum of Modern Art acquired some of Mayer’s drawings and artist books from the 1970s. Her work is currently on view in a group exhibition, Bizarre Silks, Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts, etc., curated by Nick Mauss at Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland. Mayer will exhibit in a solo exhibition at the Swiss Institute, New York in 2021.
Rosemary Mayer, Hroswitha, 1972-73,
Flannel, rayon, nylon netting, fiberglass rayon, ribbon, dyes, wood, and acrylic paint, 295 × 175 × 30 cm
Rosemary Mayer, “Untitled (Diagram for Hroswitha)”, 1972,
Colored pencil and graphite on paper, 21.6 × 28.1 cm; framed: 28.1 × 34.5 × 2.4 cm; Photo Trevor Lloyd
Rosemary Mayer, “Balancing”, 1972, Rayons, cheesecloth, cord, and acrylic rods, 320 × 275 × 10 cm
Rosemary Mayer, “De Medici”, 1972,
Colored pencil and graphite on paper, 43.1 × 35.5 cm; framed: 49.7 × 42.3 × 2.8 cm; Photo Trevor Lloyd
All images are courtesy the Estate of Rosemary Mayer, New York