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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

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JUNE 2021 Issue
ArtSeen

“Pleasures and Possible Celebrations”: Rosemary Mayer’s Temporary Monuments, 1977–1981

Rosemary Mayer, <em>Spell</em>, 1977. Watercolor, ink, and graphite on paper, 26 x 20 inches. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo: Greg Carideo.
Rosemary Mayer, Spell, 1977. Watercolor, ink, and graphite on paper, 26 x 20 inches. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo: Greg Carideo.
On View
Gordon Robichaux
May 2 – June 20, 2021
New York

“Pleasures and Possible Celebrations”: Rosemary Mayer’s Temporary Monuments, 1977–1981 at Gordon Robichaux is the kind of show the art world needs as we emerge from our pandemic slumber. In contrast to the sparkle and flash of Frieze, which also opened in early May this year, Mayer’s exhibition is contemplative and compact, a deep dive into a body of work not seen since it was first exhibited in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Called “Temporary Monuments,” these were outdoor installations that traded the semiotic play of Mayer’s earlier work and the assertive presence of contemporaneous heavy sculpture for the evanescence of concise, thoughtful interventions honoring specific people, one senses fondly, via painted balloons. There are also two sculptures of draped glassine or bundled fabric—Scarecrow (model) for a field (1978–79) and 17th Street Ghost (1981/2021)—but primarily we encounter documentary works on paper in pastel and colored pencil for the open-air projects Spell (1977), Some Days in April (1978), and the unfulfilled Connections (1978). For those that came to fruition, Mayer hoisted large advertising balloons filled with helium, bedecked with streamers, and painted with names of a person, a flower, or a star constellation.

Spell’s balloons inaugurated a farmer’s market in Jamaica, Queens, while Some Days in April honored the artist’s parents, both born that month, and her friend the artist Ree Morton who died in April the year before. For Mayer, balloons were a fulcrum for the sedimentation of personal and collective memory, deeply connected to the passage of time. Her work is a hymn to pre-industrial worldviews, connecting materially and conceptually with agrarian calendars, maypole dances, books of hours, private magic, seasonal rites, and the pageantry and dress of European courts. That these themes flow like a deep stream through her work is all the clearer in her elegant prose, wherein Mayer yokes the memorialization of those no longer embodied with processes of making: “Scarecrows are like the guardian deities people used to imagine, solicit, placate, but embodied in tattered forms, the last of the angels and gods of the land.”1 The referents are historical, but the theoretical stakes were entirely current, as body art, performance, and conceptualism grappled with questions about the body that 1960s sculpture left unanswered. (Underscoring this point, Roberta Smith used the language of anti-Minimalist discourse in a 1973 review, calling Mayer’s sensual, gauze-sheathed wooden matrixes from the early 1970s “theatrical.”) Like the reconfiguration of community that was central to the feminist consciousness-raising groups in which Mayer participated, the third project on view at Gordon Robichaux, Connections, solicited the kinship of communal ritual: it would have welcomed children to decorate balloons sent aloft over lower Manhattan’s Castle Clinton.

Rosemary Mayer, <em>Some Days in April</em>, 1978. Colored pencil, graphite, ink, and watercolor on paper, 14 x 18 inches. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo: Greg Carideo.
Rosemary Mayer, Some Days in April, 1978. Colored pencil, graphite, ink, and watercolor on paper, 14 x 18 inches. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo: Greg Carideo.

In their consummate precision, Mayer’s works on paper are forward-looking, self-conscious acknowledgements of a future in which her own labor as chronicler would be the only proof of the work’s existence. Handwritten copyright insignia grace poster prototypes, while in other drawings, wafting, bowing bubble letters spell out “Regulus,” “violets,” or “Marie” wrapped around different sides of the same balloon, carefully recording each word. Through the works on paper we understand that Mayer’s mental image for a single project was greater than could practically be realized; witness the billowing, churning swaths of fabric in yellow, purple, and orange watercolors in Some Days in April (this particular drawing is inscribed “for a clearing on Bruce’s land, Oneonta, N.Y. in April 1978”), more akin to the stage-set drapery of Baroque sculpture than the rather static hang of Mayer’s streamers as seen in photographs. Even more hauntingly beautiful are the effloresced fabrics of the watercolor Spell (1977), whose folds recall the labial and visionary iconography of Mayer’s peer Faith Wilding. This instinct to explore a concept through multiple mediums—drawings, posters, photographs, artist books, textual descriptions, the installation itself—by exploiting the distinct strengths of each format shows the artist’s remarkable facility in manipulating art’s conceptual and material possibilities. It also reads as especially prescient in that she often produced drawings after the outdoor installation was complete. Thus Mayer inverted the antecedence of Fluxus scores, conceptualism’s research, or performance’s photographic documentation, emancipating the expanse of the white page as a powerful space for potentiality and creative play.

Rosemary Mayer, <em>Some Days in April (Marie)</em>, 1978. Colored pencil, graphite, ink, and watercolor on paper, 26 x 20 inches. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo: Greg Carideo.
Rosemary Mayer, Some Days in April (Marie), 1978. Colored pencil, graphite, ink, and watercolor on paper, 26 x 20 inches. Courtesy Gordon Robichaux, NY. Photo: Greg Carideo.

Mayer was at the center of a particular New York art world: she was a founding member of A.I.R., the first all-female artist cooperative in the US, and worked alongside her sister Bernadette Mayer, her then-husband Vito Acconci, Adrian Piper, Lawrence Alloway, and Lucy Lippard, among others. This makes it all the more surprising that her work is not better known. But in the past five years her star is on the rise: Maika Pollack presented a focused showing of her 1960s and early 1970s work at Southfirst Gallery in 2016, in 2017 MoMA acquired Mayer’s artist books Spell (1977) and Some Days in April (1979), and a survey is forthcoming at the Swiss Institute in New York later this year. The generosity of the present show at Gordon Robichaux is to let us wade into the work at our own pace, to read slowly, to take the work seriously in all its complexity, and to sit with the web of interlocking histories Mayer invokes. One yellowed document accommodates us more than any other to Mayer’s extraordinary mind, recording “Everything that’s influenced my work/me.” It includes, among other things, boots, candles, Bernini, my mother, honey, veils, Homer, forests, Narcissus, cream.

  1. Rosemary Mayer, “A Moon Tent,” in Temporary Monuments: Work by Rosemary Mayer, 1977–1982, eds. Marie Warsh and Max Warsh (Chicago: Soberscove Press, 2018), 138. Text originally published in Whitewalls: A Magazine of Writings by Artists, no. 8, Summer 1983.

Contributor

Elizabeth Buhe

Elizabeth Buhe is a critic and art historian based in New York.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

All Issues