Diaries of an Artist
The Art and Writing of Rosemary Mayer
In 1981, the artist Rosemary Mayer (1943 – 2014) began documenting the dinner parties she held in her Tribeca loft in a large sketchbook. Known as Dinner Book, it was a record of who came to dinner and what they ate. It was adorned with drawings by Mayer and her guests, wine labels, and photographs, and was annotated with commentary on each meal and occasion. As an object, it functioned on two levels: it was a diary of the momentous and the mundane, of birthdays, small celebrations following periods of deprivation (illness, money problems), and even what she called “solitary feasts”—meals she cooked for herself; but it was also a visual object, dominated by the curves of Mayer’s loopy handwriting, juxtaposed with images, drawn and collaged.
While not an art project per se, Dinner Book relates to themes prevalent in Mayer’s work throughout her forty-year career, particularly how to mark—even monumentalize—the passing of time, and how she used writing and the book form as part of this process. Mayer became preoccupied with temporality and transience during the late 1960s, and began to explore these themes through text, image, and form. She incorporated text into almost all of her art. In fact, writing is what knits together her diverse body of work, which includes large-scale fabric sculptures, works on paper, illustrations, one-of-a-kind art books, and installations. It is also what provides the grounding for the various fugitive materials and subjects that make up her work: snow, fabric, ghosts, angels, flowers, time, and memory. She published her writings, primarily lyrical essays fusing history and autobiography, in Art-Rite: Surroundings, Tracks: A Journal of Artists’ Writings, WhiteWalls: A Magazine of Writings by Artists, United Artists Magazine, and in the anthology, Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America; and she was also an art critic, writing for Arts Magazine and Art in America. In addition to all this, she regularly kept a journal for most of her life.
As a kind of diary, Dinner Book also relates to one of her most significant and revelatory projects: her 1975 translation of the diary of the Mannerist artist Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 – 1557). Written at the end of his life, while he was finishing the frescoes for the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, the diary is highly detailed, yet rather uneventful. Like Dinner Book, it is mostly concerned with food (though it does not include any accounts of dinner parties), and evidences Mayer’s fascination with temporality and the biography of the artist. Food passes the time, along with work, the weather, and physical ailments. A typical entry reads: “Thursday I did the arm and ate an omelet and fell asleep in my clothes.”1
Mayer’s translation was published in 1982 as Pontormo’s Diary, in a volume that also included a catalog of her work from the 1970s and early 1980s. This juxtaposition between Pontormo’s personal reflections and images of Mayer’s work highlights the unexpected affinities she shared with this artist who lived over four centuries earlier. As she explained in a 2013 interview: “I was living in Post-Minimalism, a time after a time of clarity, and Pontormo was in a time after the clarity of the Renaissance.”2 Pontormo, and his fellow Mannerists, were a historical frame of reference for her time and for her work about time. In her introduction to the translation, Mayer’s description of the stylistic transition from the Renaissance to Mannerism could be read as a cipher for the transition from Minimalism to Post-Minimalism: “Once surfaces were clear, ordered and opaque, surfaces that quickly answer questions. Painting was flat. Sculpture had definite shapes with clean edges. Then forms dissolved, colors paled, began to float in uncertain atmospheres.”3
She also offers her interpretation of the diary as a way to feel connected to time during a period of uncertainty and inevitability:
“[Pontormo] made himself a static, withdrawn life; [he] made convoluted, floating work. He used his diary to know which days were passed, what foods had kept him well enough to work. A thing to hold onto the way kids hold balloons.[…] There are children who think that you can disappear with floating balloons.”4
Given her affinity for the balloon as a metaphor for grasping at lapsing time, it is not surprising that, in the late 1970s, she began working with actual balloons, a form that could express an utmost state of transience. She created three temporary installations using helium-filled advertising balloons. One of these, Some Days in April, was created in 1978 in a field in Hartwick, New York. Mayer described the work as a temporary monument, one dedicated to the month of April, which had a particular resonance for her as the beginning of spring, but also because of its associations: her parents, who had died when she was young, both had birthdays in April, and a close friend had died in April. She painted each balloon with names—spring flowers, stars, and her friends and family—and the dates associated with them. There was no audience, making it in many ways a private memorial, but she documented this installation, and her other two balloon works, in photographs, drawings, and books. The accompanying book for Some Days in April feels somewhat defiant. It is a more permanent monument, a way to feel tethered. It contains drawings of the knots Mayer used to tie the balloons to wooden stakes—so that they would not float away—as well as stories about those she was memorializing, often written in layered text. Mayer wrote that “the book could contain an entire visual space, a complete visual field. It keeps its own time, orders perception in time.”5
Mayer’s most public early presentation of work was on the printed page was in 0 to 9, the journal of experimental art and writing, edited by her sister, poet Bernadette Mayer, and Rosemary Mayer’s ex-husband, conceptual artist Vito Acconci. She would sometimes help them collate the magazine (which was typed, mimeographed, and stapled by hand), and she submitted art work to four of the six issues, as well as to one of the Street Works projects, spearheaded by John Perreault, Hannah Weiner, and Scott Burton in 1969 (and documented in 0 to 9).
0 to 9 was a logical place to begin experimenting with the dissolution of the art object and the materialization of language, which influenced the emergence of expanded conceptual practices and the development of performance art. Mayer submitted her first emphatically time-based work to the fifth issue of 0 to 9 (January 1969), an attempt to document the sounds of firecrackers in Little Italy each minute between 9:00 PM and 1:30 AM on July 4th. The piece comprises fourteen pages of “x’s” and lines, each “x” representing the discrete sound of a firework and the lines representing periods when individual fireworks were indiscernible. It was a conceptual experiment, but also a record of her aural experience, a stretch of time while listening from her loft on Broome Street.
While she was involved in 0 to 9, she was also a student at the School of Visual Arts, where in a painting class she began deconstructing her paintings as physical objects by removing them from their stretchers and draping them on the wall in various ways. From there she moved on to working with other fabrics, becoming interested in how the properties of fabric itself could dictate the work and its form. She wrote later that it was during this period she realized that “The art object should not be still, unmoving and independent of its circumstances. Nothing is.”6 She felt somewhat alienated from her peers, however; her main confidantes at the time were Acconci and Adrian Piper, who were increasingly preoccupied with the dematerialization of the art object, and thus, Mayer felt, were critical of her lush, still very material practice.
Nonetheless, she pressed on with her increasingly large-scaled sculptures, while at the same time becoming increasingly involved in feminist politics through consciousness raising groups and the women’s artist-run gallery A.I.R., of which she was a founding member. One exemplary and lush work from this period, The Catherines (1972 – 73), is composed of layers of translucent, colored fabric stretched and draped over bowed rods. As she elucidates in an essay entitled “Two Years, March 1973 to January 1975,” the work references legendary historical women:
“Enveloped in huge gowns, over centuries, there were […] The Catherines: Catherine Sforza who fought the Medici, Catherine of Aragon who wouldn’t comply […] Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, Catherine of Sienna, mystic writer and advisor to the Pope […] All their colors, the textures of their garments, the hazy voluminous shapes they leave now hovering.”7
This homage to forgotten women was influenced by her burgeoning feminist consciousness, but reading the rest of the essay reveals it as part of a more complex undertaking. “Two Years” is a record of the work Mayer created during this period of two years, a time of great productivity. It is dense with references and images, many of them reoccurring subjects in her work: etymologies of titles and related words; lists of colors and flowers; paintings by Matthias Grünewald, Pontormo, and Rosso Fiorentino; descriptions of church architecture and interiors. Framed by a discrete period of time, it is a diary of everything running around in her head while making these works, and of the process of her giving presence to the past, and of capturing the evanescent. “Two Years” reveals her use of writing to explain—in a deeply sensual, subjective, and poetic way—her intentions. In a 1976 review of Mayer’s work in Artforum, the art critic Lawrence Alloway wrote about the interplay of text, image, and form that had become characteristic of her work, writing that “the presence of her words furthers our sense of her forms of revelation.”8
During the 1970s and 1980s, Mayer exhibited her works in numerous solo and group shows in New York and throughout the country, but by the 1990s she had become increasingly distanced from the art world. Even so, she continued making work, though she described herself as a “solitary art worker.” In 1992, she began teaching art at LaGuardia Community College. While teaching a class in illustration, she came upon a project that would obsessively occupy her for the rest of her life, one that explored her ongoing preoccupation with text and image, as well as her fascination with history. She began illustrating epic poems in watercolor and ink, creating a series for Beowulf and Gilgamesh.
Her next and last project was the most ambitious: researching, writing, and illustrating the stories of the women of the Roman Empire. (She casually referred to this project as “The Roman Ladies.”) A revisionist history foregrounding the wives, mothers, daughters, and lovers of Roman emperors, the work is perhaps the most direct expression of her interest in creating presences and telling life stories. Each of these women is compelling in her own right, yet their contributions have over the centuries been largely lost to history. In the corner of each illustration, she recorded the dates during which she worked on them, keeping track of the project, which lasted several years. Tethering the passing days and years of her own life to the lives of these historical women—Helena, Theodora, Maria, Serena, Thermantia, Eudocia, Justa, Pulcheria, Eudoxia, Licinia, Juliana—she imbricated her own presence and history with theirs.
- Rosemary Mayer, Julia Ballerini, and Richard Milazzo, Pontormo’s Diary (New York: Out of London Press, 1982), 115.
- Rosemary Mayer, interview with Gillian Sneed (July 12, 2013) Rosemary Mayer Archive.
- Mayer et al, Pontormo’s Diary, 147.
- Ibid., 86.
- Rosemary Mayer, “Works 1975 – 77” (unpublished artist’s statement, 1977, Rosemary Mayer Archive), 10.
- Rosemary Mayer, “Passing Thoughts” (unpublished artist’s statement, November 4, 1978, Rosemary Mayer Archive), 1.
- Rosemary Mayer, “Two Years, March 1973 to January 1975,” in Individuals: Post-movement Art in America, ed. Alan Sondheim (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc, 1977), 191-212.
- Lawrence Alloway, “Rosemary Mayer,” Artforum Vol. 14 No.10 (Summer 1976): 36.
is a historian and writer. She has written articles for Buildings and Landscapes, Urban Omnibus, and Plot, and is the co-editor of the journal Prospect. She is also the Director of Preservation Planning for the Central Park Conservancy. Rosemary Mayer was her aunt.Gillian Sneed
GILLIAN SNEED is an art historian and writer, whose work centers on gender studies, and modern and contemporary art of the Americas.