Ways of Attaching
“Narrow minded bastards who think objects are only decoration—automatically assuming that bec[ause] a thing is attractive or interesting to look at it’s not anything else,” Rosemary Mayer fumes in a January 7, 1971, journal entry. “Real visual art has to continue—it’s a human need—to see challenging beautiful things—& beauty is in the nature of materials as equally as it is in thoughts, process, structures, activities, reactions.”
“Ways of Attaching,” the first institutional survey of the late Rosemary Mayer, at the Swiss Institute, encompasses the evolution of Mayer’s work. It begins with her conceptual sketches from the late 1960s before transitioning to her “impossible” drawings of textiles and fabric sculptures from the early ’70s, ending with her performances and “durational monuments” from the late ’70s to early ’80s. Throughout, the exhibition traces Mayer’s desire to connect the tactile beauty of textile to semiotics, historical figures, and female empowerment; ultimately, Mayer sought to emancipate her work from physical constraints entirely.
Mayer created the watercolor and ink work Untitled (London) (1975), for instance, following a tour of Europe the same year. Inspired by the flowing, ungrounded, and colorful smocks of the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo’s canvases, the work features puffed rounds of shadowed color, more reminiscent of popcorn or smoke than fabric. At the seams, Mayer wrote in sharp cursive what could be called a poem, phrase fragments, or associative words: “Constantly / swirling / gilded / stucco / Apotheosis,” it reads in part.
The work sits squarely within a conceptual tradition. Indeed, Mayer was deeply embedded in the art world of her time: her sister, the photographer Bernadette Mayer, edited the influential conceptual journal 0 to 9 alongside the performance artist Vito Acconci, Rosemary's then-husband.
Mayer’s work held a Feminist dimension as well. Alongside her focus on fabrics—which the art world shunned for years as a “domestic” material—she began to name work after historical women. It is likely no coincidence that the first year Mayer began creating her “impossible” drawings—depicting fabric knotted and looped in ways untenable in reality—was also the year she began to participate in community-minded organizations. A year later in 1972, she became a founding member of A.I.R gallery.
What might have begun with the dream of realizing her “impossible sculptures” led naturally to Mayer’s durational sculptures, also on view at the Swiss Institute. For the work Some Days in April (1978), for instance, Mayer lettered a name, the date, an overhead constellation, and a seasonal flower onto a balloon before letting it go—grounding the work to a specific matrix of associations at the same time that she set it free. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Rosemary Mayer, Untitled (8.26.71). 1971, Colored pencil and colored marker on paper, 14 x 11 inches. Photo: Estate of Rosemary Mayer.