Forms of Memories: Rosemary Mayer at Swiss Institute

Forms of Memories: Rosemary Mayer at Swiss Institute

In 1988, at the age of forty-four, artist Rosemary Mayer wrote an article titled “Some of My Stories” for the feminist art and politics journal Heresies. Weaving together her own narratives and those of friends, she described women who were underpaid and undervalued, many of them suffering from cancer, drugs, or men. Resigned yet hopeful, Mayer also contemplated her own status. “Twenty years ago was better,” she wrote in the introductory poem, reflecting on her career’s successful dawn and current stagnation, “And maybe in twenty more, / It will be better again.” Unfortunately, it took nearly thirty years and the artist’s death in 2014 for her work to gain the renewed attention it merits. Though she was a lifelong New Yorker, this exhibition at Swiss Institute is the first survey of Mayer’s multifaceted oeuvre in her hometown, or anywhere. Featuring nearly eighty works spanning her most prolific period, from 1968 to 1983, “Ways of Attaching” encompasses conceptual texts, fabric sculptures, and related drawings, watercolors of billowing drapery, mixed-media collages, and plentiful documentation of her performative public art projects.

Mayer’s writing—as a critic, essayist, and translator—was often entwined with her art, so it is fitting for this show to begin with a series of text-based conceptual experiments from 1968–69 that register fleeting phenomena like firecrackers heard and cigarettes smoked. These matter-of-fact documents are displayed in a vitrine alongside a number of contemporaneous drapery studies. Seemingly incongruous, these works anchor Mayer’s parallel interests in language and temporality as well as textiles and drapery, concerns that would eventually overlap in her practice.

After making a series of paintings on unstretched canvas and other fabrics—an example on satin is included here—Mayer jettisoned her paints in 1971 and began working primarily with textiles. Initially, her fabric sculptures offered a lyrical take on postminimalism, as Mayer encouraged the pliable materials to express themselves. In the wall-bound Balancing (1972), two lengths of silky rayon and dyed cheesecloth drape from bowed rods and anchors set into the wall, evoking the sails of a ship. But the artist quickly began constructing more elaborate scaffolds for her readymade and hand-dyed textiles, resulting in volumetric works like Galla Placidia (1973), produced for her debut exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery, of which she was a founding member, and shown only once since. For this commanding sculpture, Mayer layered translucent gauzes and iridescent satins in lavender, coral, and chartreuse, wrapping them around a suspended ring to create a billowing form that gathers at its center and cascades to the floor.

Only a few examples of these fragile sculptures have survived, but Mayer kept detailed photographic and hand-drawn records. Her whimsical yet exacting drawings, of both finished and unrealized sculptures, form the heart of the exhibition. The sketchy Abracadabra Sailboat (1972) resembles an early formulation of Balancing, while the more detailed De Medici (1972) documents the complex star-shaped structure of a finished but no longer extant sculpture. The knotted, sewn, and draped arrangements conjured in a quartet of colored pencil and marker drawings from 1971 demonstrate the variety and indeterminacy of forms the artist was exploring—rarely did two ideas look alike. Mayer described these drawings as plans for “impossible pieces”—an acknowledgment of opportunities falling short of her aspirations—and many never escaped the two-dimensional realm.

A set of photographs depicts figures of women made of snow. In front of the snow people are signs with common names for women.

View of “Ways of Attaching,” 2021–22, at Swiss Institute, showing documentation of Snow People, 1979.

While Mayer continued making sculptures for gallery displays—works that are missing from this presentation—she began, in 1977, to publicly stage what she called “temporary monuments” employing ephemeral materials. Well-documented in the second-floor gallery, these ceremonial events celebrated seasonal cycles and honored lost friends, family members, and even those unknown to her. For Snow People (1979), installed in a library garden in Lenox, Massachusetts, where her sister, poet Bernadette Mayer, lived at the time, Mayer carved fifteen figures in snow and paired each with a placard that paid tribute to all the Adelines, Fannys, Carolines, and other commonly-named women of the town’s past. Naming played a central role in Mayer’s practice: she frequently titled sculptures after historical women, but she was just as concerned with memorializing those of her own time. The balloons she lofted into the air from a barren field in Upstate New York for Some Days in April (1978) bore the names of her parents, who died when she was a teenager, and Ree Morton, an artist friend then recently deceased, whose public projects inspired Mayer to pursue similar pageantry.

Mayer’s highly personal, evanescent tributes contrast sharply with the brashly monumental, industrially fabricated sculptures that her male peers installed in corporate plazas during the same period, as well as the countless historical statues that dot New York. The related ephemera displayed here, which include photographs, hand-drawn posters, and two evocative drawings of the “mooring knots” Mayer used to tether the balloons, record and preserve these fleeting events, which often had little or no audience. As a gathering of these surviving traces, the show presents an illuminating and overdue tribute to an artist who spent her time memorializing others.

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