You can’t pin down a flower for very long is the second solo exhibition of Rosemary Mayer (1943–2014, New York) at ChertLüdde and the first in Europe after the major traveling exhibition Ways of Attaching, which brought different aspects of Mayer’s work to a broad, international audience.
This new exhibition focuses on a largely unexplored aspect of Rosemary Mayer’s practice: her interest in flowers, which the artist integrated into many forms and aspects of her art. The artworks in the exhibition, spanning two decades, are made in various mediums, including watercolor, photography, sculpture and an artist’s book, demonstrating the persistence of flowers as part of her practice. As in nature, in Mayer’s work, flowers were “insistently reappearing,” a phrase she wrote on one of the watercolors.
Like Mayer’s fragile fabric sculptures dedicated to historical women and her temporary balloon monuments, flowers were deeply connected to her interest in the ephemeral and the passage of time, linked to the transience of life but also its cyclical resurgence and return. For Mayer, flowers and their cataloging also had a deep connection to language and history – she studied their names, etymologies and presence in classical mythology and art history while also allowing them to become a vehicle for exploring her own history and biography. The flowers in her work thus become rich metaphors, with several (sometimes unexpected) connotations. Full of association for the viewers as well, her depictions of flowers can offer beauty and comfort but are also a tool for unveiling and expanding our understanding of this American artist, a pioneer of the 1970s feminist movement.
Mayer’s focus on flowers was a way to connect many of her art-historical interests, as visible in the drawing that gives the exhibition its title. “You can’t pin down a flower for very long” is a phrase written on her watercolor Untitled (part of the pinning down of flowers), from 1975, which includes a long poetic text that links the architecture and gardens of 11th-century England with the elaborate floral decoration of Baroque churches and with the depiction of drapery in Mannerist paintings:
Part of the pinning down of flowers
Like the drapery of angels
Petals formed as variously as the folds of drapery
As likely to change with the least movement, dissolving light to dark
Changing in deep folds
Lilies, roses, green and gold fruits blue-green leaves, anemones, twine together in a huge arching garland woven with the mystic rose a garland of flowers a ring of baby angels hand in hand circling columns.
Through flowers, the artist also connected to her own past, reflecting on her family. Both of her parents died when she was a teenager. In various biographical writings, she revealed how this trauma led her to be fascinated by “the evanescence of everything” and the “wonder at the magical unfolding of an amazing sight.” She attributed her interest in flowers to her father, who tended a garden in the backyard of their Brooklyn home, growing, she recalled, “roses, tulips, lilies of the valley, columbine, sweet William, strawberries, cornflowers, marigolds.” Her father imbued a broader appreciation of nature and seasons in her and even taught her to paint with watercolors. The various petals depicted in the drawings and watercolors thus become connections to him, doorways to another world where we find the people who are no longer with us.
Mayer also made artist’s books, which were an ideal way to encapsulate and organize her varied interests and connections. This exhibition includes a facsimile of one of these books called Transitions (1976), which chronicles the transition from winter to spring through the everyday experience of flowers while reflecting on their connections to seasons and mythology. The book consists of daily drawings of crocus, a flower known to mark this transitional period, alternating with a handwritten texts about the artist’s experience living alone in a small town in upstate New York during winter, as well as stories of Hyacinth, Narcissus, and Iris in Greek mythology. Just as flowers and plants can be preserved in the pages of books and diaries, to be dried and cataloged, or to become bookmarks, and, at the same time, are small reminders of days or episodes, Mayer in her book, though drawing and text, combines various gestures of botanical archiving. The work also evinces how antiquity, and its ongoing relationship with the present, was at the heart of her theoretical and artistic research, and specifically, her connection to time.
The exhibition also hosts one of Mayer’s ephemeral Ghost sculptures, called Roses, which was originally created for an exhibition in the summer of 1981 at the Arnot Museum of Art in upstate New York and is recreated for the first time in Berlin. This was one of several similar sculptures that Mayer made between 1980 and 1981, and which she intended to exist only for the duration of each exhibition. These sculptures were often connected to the time and place of their creation, and the title, Roses, seems to relate to the summer season in which it was made. Like flowers, the Ghosts have a life cycle but are likewise “insistently reappearing” today, thanks to the Estate of Rosemary Mayer, which recreates them based on Mayer’s materials, procedures, and intentions.
Also on public view for the first time are a series of photographs of flowers, which open a new dialogue about the artist’s use of this medium. The selection of photographs of wet roses for this exhibition, on view in the gallery bookstore, comes from a group of 35mm slides depicting flowers taken by Mayer in 1975 and 1976. Mayer photographed the roses at the moment they are starting to wither, soaked by rain and flawed by the wind. Perhaps used by the artist as the basis for her drawings, these photographs show intimate, intricate details, moments of abstract seduction and carnality that the eye does not always capture. Seduction is a double-edged sword for Mayer, representing a moment poised between strength and extreme fragility, between volition and domination: “Invitation requires caution on both sides. It can be equally challenge and feast. The crocuses and other flowers become enticement, props for seduction, proposals, a formal invitation asking the pleasure of your company”, so Mayer concludes her book/diary Transitions, blessing us with an open invitation to the grace of a floral offering.
Rosemary Mayer (1943–2014, New York) was a significant figure involved in the New York art scene from the late 1960s until her death.
Best known for her large-scale fabric sculptures inspired by the lives of historical women, Mayer’s practice extends to include works on paper, artist books and outdoor installations, exploring themes of temporality, history and biography. A prolific artist as well as an active participant in the feminist artistic discourse of her time, 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. She was one of the founding members of A.I.R. Gallery, the first artist-directed space for and by women artists in the United States.
From 2021 to 2023, Mayer’s first survey show Ways of Attaching traveled from Swiss Institute, New York; Ludwig Forum Aachen; Lenbachhaus, Munich and Spike Island, Bristol. In 2023, Mayer was also included in exhibitions at the Knoxville Museum of Art in Tennessee, at Artspace Aotearoa in Auckland, New Zealand, and in a two-part solo presentation at Hannah Hoffman Gallery and Marc Selwyn Fine Art in Los Angeles. The exhibitions in Los Angeles were included as part of Hyperallergic’s curated list of the 50 best exhibitions of 2023.
Photos by Marjorie Brunet Plaza