On Rosemary Mayer: Some Days in April

— Josephine Graf

Rosemary Mayer, Some Days in April 1978, fabric, rope and wooden rod; installed during the week of April 17, 1978, at the property of Bruce Kurtz, Hartwick, New York

Rosemary Mayer, Some Days in April 1978, fabric, rope and wooden rod; installed during the week of April 17, 1978, at the property of Bruce Kurtz, Hartwick, New York

On April 8, 1977, the artist Rosemary Mayer released three large balloons, tethered by colorful lengths of fabric and rope, 100 feet into the sky above a parking lot in Jamaica, Queens. The gesture inaugurated the opening of a municipal farmer’s market, and each balloon was festooned with mercurial scraps of language—“Iris return,” “Crocus return,” “Hyacinth return”—summoning spring’s arrival. Titled Spell (connoting both a hex and a “spell” of time), the event was part performance and part public sculpture, and the first of what Mayer would call her “temporary monuments”: fleeting, commemorative sculptures-cum-events that channeled the ephemerality of post-Minimalism via the buoyancy and garlanded excess of the festival. “This work is quick,” she noted in a preparatory drawing for Spell, “the balloons will last twenty-four hours if the weather’s fine.” Buffeted by high winds, they ended up being even more ephemeral than anticipated.[1]

If Spell was a temporary monument, then what, exactly, did it commemorate? There is the opening of the market on that blustery April day, but that seems only half the story. An artist’s book documenting the event offers additional clues. We see images of Mayer and her collaborators grappling with tangled ropes and ribbons against the backdrop of the windswept lot as they attempt to get the balloons aloft. Though she lived in Manhattan at the time, this parking lot was not far from where the artist grew up in Ridgewood, Queens, with her sister Bernadette (herself a well-known poet and artist), before their parents passed away when Rosemary was in her early adolescence. This loss quietly suffuses her work. The book accompanying Spell is peppered with reminiscences of her childhood house, its garden, and the upwardly mobile working-class culture she remembers, woven into the story of the event itself: “I am trying to flesh out the stories, to bring them back,” she writes. “Give them some flowers.”[2]

The flowers of which she writes are literal (the flowers of the market, and those emblazoned on the balloons), but they are also symbolic, conjuring spring and eulogizing a faded youth and community—perhaps an entire society—that has been supplanted with something more monitored and less magical. “The flower market has security guards,” she goes on to write. “The police watch it at night.”[3] If Spell is a monument to the return of spring, spring is a capacious metaphor, holding within it both recurrence and loss: “What if Spring had no colors or it stopped coming the way people stop eating and breathing?” she asks.[4] It’s a heart-wrenching question, made all the more so when you realize it might be literal. (Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book that famously warned of environmental destruction, comes to mind.) Like all flowers, hers are haunted by disappearance.

Almost one year to the day after Spell, during the week of April 17, 1978, Mayer staged another temporary monument titled Some Days in April. Trading asphalt for the hills of upstate New York, Mayer again turned to balloons: large globes of yellow and orange and white (typically used for advertising, a profession that Mayer would, ironically, enter in the 1980s when she was unable to support herself through art alone) danced above a fallow field. Each bore the name of a deceased loved one or historical figure whose date of birth or death fell within the month of April (including her parents, the artist Ree Morton—a friend and frequent interlocutor—and the nineteenth-century nun Mary Euphrasia Pelletier, who started a hostel for impoverished young women), along with their birth or death date, the name of a star, and that of a spring flower. (“Columbine Regulus Theodore 4” reads one commemorating the Mayer’s uncle, a lilting incantation.) In a related artist book, Mayer elaborates on those she commemorates. She remembers her uncle Teddy teaching her to garden and to read the night sky, and muses that her aunt Marie “liked violets in the way she liked any brief, impossible thing,” which is not a bad description for Mayer’s own aesthetic: a pleasure sweeter for its own pending obsolescence.

Like Spell, Some Days in April served as both celebration and panegyric, modeling how language holds up in the face of time. The name of a day outlasts it, as does that of a person, or even a star—as long as there is someone left to say it. (Or, in this case, as long as the balloon stays aloft.) A 1979 work titled Snow People furthers the point. Here, Mayer modeled life-size figures out of snow in the garden of the Lenox Public Library in Western Massachusetts. In documentary photos, they appear as so many ghosts, hands clasped penitently above snowy trunks. Many of Mayer’s works commemorate specific people, but here she conjured the ordinary denizens of Lenox’s past. Wooden placards bearing names (the most common of the region in the nineteenth century, according to her research) were planted throughout:[5] “Annas,” “Ediths,” “Daniels,” they read, and would continue to read long after their corresponding snow-bodies had melted.

Mayer’s temporary monuments also took the form of tents and fabric-swathed armatures she called “scarecrows” and “ghosts.[6] In almost all of her work, Mayer turned to materials coded as “feminine,” “kitsch,” or “childish.” Her approach resonates with the work of contemporaries such as Ree Morton, Lynda Benglis, and Hannah Wilke—as well as practitioners of Pattern and Decoration—who also used adornment, handcraft, and excess to flout modernism and Minimalism and the patriarchal ideology that attended them. In a 1971 journal entry, Mayer laments the “narrow minded bastards who think objects are only decoration—automatically assuming that bec. a thing is attractive or interesting to look at it’s not anything else.”[7] And later on that year: “I’m still wanting to build satin & silk tents … filled w. flowers and jasmine smells & languorous love … which ought to be allowed to happen—decadent? So what.”[8] One smiles reading these words today, knowing that ten years later she would produce pretty much exactly that: Moon Tent, a pavilion wrapped in baroque billows of paper. Lasting for one night on October 3, 1982—a full moon—it was the last of her monuments to be realized.

Mayer’s embrace of pleasure was political, and tinged with class consciousness: her opulence was achieved modestly, often with scraps of rayon and nylon, and made for sharing. Less obviously, there was a politics to her handling of temporality, too. Reversing the monument’s conventional bid to withstand time (often in the service of commemorating patriarchal and racist structures), her works, in their evanescence, positioned time as both the means and the message. And it was through this ephemerality—and purposeful flimsiness, even—that, as historian Gillian Sneed has noted, Mayer placed her monuments in opposition to the “male system” of the art world, as she saw most egregiously exemplified by Richard Serra’s steel sculptures, which demanded permanence and dominated any space they occupied.[9] She reclaims a counter-history of the monument: the artist, in Mayer’s view, should be modeled not on the master builder, who aims to conquer time, but rather “decorators at festivities, memorializers of the dead, catchers, even of passing beauty”—in other words, those figures (often women) who deal in time rather than resist its vagaries.[10]

Her monuments were not only temporary—made to be put up and taken down in a day—but also distinctly anxious about how, exactly, that day passes, how it slips behind us into what we know as history. It is this tension between the singular day and the longue durée of history that drives so many of Mayer’s works. As early as 1969, she had turned to the day as a framework. A piece included in the avant-garde poetry journal 0 to 9 (founded by her ex-husband, Vito Acconci, and her sister Bernadette) consists of a visual recording of the sound of firecrackers she heard between 9:00 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. on July 4, 1969.[11] Far closer to the kind of analytic conceptualism that she would soon abandon, this work quietly betrays an interest in “holidays” (root: holy day) that would suffuse her work to come. How do we mark a day as different, outside of the calendar’s plodding march, and who gets to decide?

The day, as a distinct unit of time, reappears not only in the duration of her temporary monuments (many of which, like Spell or Moon Tent, took place over the course of one day or night), but also her frequent attention to full moons, birthdays, and dates of death—often pairing these with an individual’s name, evoking the Christian tradition of “name days” or saint days—and how these particularities feed memory, fitting into larger arcs of changing months, seasons, skies. Mayer was also a rather diligent diarist, and her 1971 journal (published in 2020 by Soberscove Press) offers insight: the reader is privy to anxieties about money and sex, horoscopes (she was a practiced reader of charts), food (“I made terrible cookies this week and some very severe cornbread”), and struggles with ennui (those “inarticulate days,” she rather articulately describes). To keep a journal is not, of course, inherently remarkable, but Mayer’s makes clear how dailyness was never, for her, simply a given, but rather a subject of great artistic interest and, even, a methodology: “The next step is to let selected aspects of the real stuff of days get to me,” she states of her practice.[12] A couple years later, she would go on to translate the diaries of Mannerist painter Jacopo da Pontormo, turning the lens outward and toward the past, to see how other artists let the days “get to them,” too. And later in life she kept a “dinner book,” each page a tangle of notes and sketches commemorating meals with friends, that starts to feel like the record of a series of performances. Like her sculptures, they balance lavishness with the hard facts of frugality: a lunch on February 10, 1981, is remembered by two labels, one from a bottle of Barolo and the other a can of Bumblebee Tuna.

Mayer was not, at this historical moment, alone in her interest in time. The postwar era saw burgeoning technologies and new capitalist structures that parsed time into ever finer increments, clock time colonizing every last nook and cranny of the day. And as the Cold War brought into focus the possibility of an end, the field of “future studies” was born to wager on time to come.[13] Artists began to engage with time in new and different and sometimes obsessional ways, and many, like Mayer, turned to the day as a preeminent unit of measure. As Seth Siegelaub stated in a 1969 panel on time in art: “We have four people discussing something called time, something we all share, and we get very little agreement on it except that there are 24 hours in a day.”[14]

A spattering of examples: the paintings of On Kawara’s Today Series collapse the date of their making into their content; stanley brouwn’s index cards, each noting the number of steps he took in one day, turn time into a function of his body; Adrian Piper (a close friend of Mayer’s with whom she started a feminist consciousness-raising group) took one self-portrait each day for two weeks in Food for Spirit (1971); Hanne Darboven riffed on the formulation of each day’s date, turning the calendar into a script; Christine Kozlov’s Eating Piece (2/20/69–6/12/69) Figurative Work No. 1 (1969) documents the artist’s daily food consumption, and 271 Blank Sheets of Paper Corresponding to 271 Days of Concepts Rejected (1968) her failures.[15] Each of these relies on the format of the rectangle and the grid, or their cousin, the calendar. Bernadette Mayer, too, shared this preoccupation with the day, producing a 1971 work called Memory in which she exposed one roll of film each day over the course of a month, presenting the resulting images in a neat grid accompanied by text and audio.[16]

To varying degrees, these works evidence what scholar Pamela M. Lee notes as a novel anxiety in the ’60s around a sense of “endlessness”: a new relationship to the historical horizon in which narrative is weakened in favor of repetition and seriality.[17] The “now”—the today—recurs ad nauseum, a presentism that reverberates with what the critic Jack Burnham described as art’s turn to “real time systems,” whereby works hitch a ride with time to close the gap between art and life. There is some relationship to the temporality of Rosemary Mayer’s works here, but I was not shocked when reading her 1971 diary to find the following passage: “Met Vito on the way home & we talked abt. … J Burnham (whose verbiage we both can’t get thru & whom we both suspect—as we would all one truth systems).”[18] I say not shocked because it is precisely an interest in the past, and narrative, and the nonsystemic—a desire to unravel the calendar’s grid into something more flowing, more appropriate to the peaks and valleys of individual experience—that distinguishes Mayer’s relationship to time.

It is significant, too, that Mayer’s works have a distinctly pre-modern feel, reminiscent of maypoles, Ren-fairs, and the gravity-defying billows of baroque drapery. This tendency to mine the past is already apparent in the luscious fabric sculptures she started making in the early 1970s just before her temporary monuments (and which she first showed at A.I.R. Gallery in 1973, of which she was a founding member), and their titles, which frequently reference historical figures. Hroswitha (1972–73), for example—a dark red and black number with scalloped drapes—celebrates the tenth-century nun who is widely credited as the first woman playwright, and one of few to write of their own life in the Middle Ages (again, an interest in the diary emerges, here obliquely). The regal (and yonic) Galla Placidia (1973) commemorates a Roman empress who, living in the waning years of the empire, was a political force and avid patron of Christian art. Why would an artist in New York City in the mid-1970s find herself courting such anachronisms? The titles of her early work suggest a clear feminist impulse, shared by artists such as Judy Chicago, to remedy the erasure of great women from the annals of history. But this impulse, alongside her intertwined interest in festivals and celebrations, astrology, birthdays, and deaths, is part of a larger concern with both time past and a past understanding of time.

The history of modern timekeeping has roots deep within imperialism and industrial capitalism; the development of the clock was closely linked to the navigational needs of transatlantic ships, the scheduling of train timetables, and the coordination of troop movements (the wristwatch was invented during the First World War so that soldiers would know exactly when to emerge, to their deaths, from their trenches). As Michel Foucault reminds us, this history of productivity is also one of discipline. The origins of the timetable derive from monastic life—monks needed to know when to say which prayers—but, as Foucault writes: “The disciplines altered these methods of temporal regulation from which they derived. They altered them first by refining them. One began to count in quarter hours, in minutes, in seconds.”[19] In this sense, the history of timekeeping is one of increasing secularization and distance from the natural rhythms of the earth: a month follows the journey of the moon and the day that of the earth, but the week, hour, and second—conventions tied to economic and political convenience—grow ever more abstract. (France, for example, used “decimal time” for a number of years following the Revolution, dividing the day into 10 hours of 100 minutes each.)

Just as Mayer’s works look to the past to suggest a counter-history of the monument, so too do they recover an alternate understanding of time: her works seek a nonarbitrary time, one grounded in seasons and changing skies, tied to people or their passing. They lament death, but also the dulling, isolating effect of clock time, in which a day is just a number—not a flower, or a person, or a star, and offer something along the lines of a personal liturgical calendar, stripped of religion but full of spirit. (Some might find this sentimental; “so what” she seems to say, this too is political, it’s just delivered in a language we have been untrained to read.) Being an artist is, for her, one path that might escape the calendar’s abstraction. In her diary, she speaks repeatedly of her unhappiness with needing to work a nine-to-five job; a necessity she periodically bucks by receiving unemployment benefits, freeing up time in her studio. It’s not working that bothers her, but rather the flattening of time that regularity (and capitalism) demands. During a spell of unemployment, she writes of being inspired by “A” (Adrian Piper) to keep a schedule, but can’t quite commit. Throughout these struggles—familiar to so many of us, especially after a year in which time has taken on new haziness and possibility—she makes work that revels in the deep idiosyncrasy of time. Contra Siegelaub’s assertion, she suggests that it is perhaps not so obvious that “there are 24 hours in a day” and that some—in April, for example—might be brimming with more meaning than others, and it’s okay if you don’t understand.

  1. [1] For an in-depth discussion of Spell and Mayer’s temporary monuments see Gillian Sneed, “‘Pleasures and Possible Celebrations’: Rosemary Mayer’s Temporary Monuments, 1977­­­–1982,” in Temporary Monuments: Work by Rosemary Mayer, 1977–1982, ed. Marie Warsh and Max Warsh (Chicago: Soberscove Press, 2018).
  2. [2] Rosemary Mayer, Spell (1977), The Museum of Modern Art Collection, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/219651?sov_referrer=artist&artist_id=67932&page=1.
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] Ibid.
  5. [5] Sneed, “Pleasures and Possible Celebrations,” 18.
  6. [6] For the now-infamous Time Square Show in 1980, she installed a “ghost,” a reminder of the area’s sex workers who had been lost to history, alongside a fabric banner painted with their imagined names. As Sneed notes, its poeticism was distinctly out of place among the Pop-inflected flash of the burgeoning East Village and Pictures Generation scenes. See ibid., 21–22.
  7. [7] Rosemary Mayer, quoted in Marie Warsh, ed., Excerpts from the 1971 Journal of Rosemary Mayer (Chicago: Soberscove Press, 2020), 28.
  8. [8] Ibid., 152.
  9. [9] Sneed, “Pleasures and Possible Celebrations,” 5.
  10. [10] Mayer, quoted in Ibid., 7. See also the drawing reproduced on page 55 of Temporary Monuments.
  11. [11] Marie Warsh and Gillian Sneed, “Diaries of an Artist: The Art and Writing of Rosemary
    Mayer,” Brooklyn Rail, April 2016, https://brooklynrail.org/2016/04/criticspage/art-and-writing-of-rosemary-mayer.
  12. [12] Mayer, Excerpts, 25.
  13. [13] Pamela M. Lee has argued that this shifting relationship to temporality profoundly impacted the art of the 1960s, which she sees “as registering an almost obsessional uneasiness with time and its measure.” See Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), xi.
  14. [14] Seth Siegelaub, in Lucy R. Lippard, ed., “Time: A Panel Discussion,” Art International 13, no. 9 (November 1969): 21.
  15. [15] For a discussion of time in Conceptual art, see Alexander Alberro, “Time and Conceptual Art,” in Tempus Fugit: Time Flies, ed. Jan Schall (Kansas City: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2000), 144–57. See also Tausif Noor, “The Art of Daily Living,” Brooklyn Rail, June 2020, https://brooklynrail.org/2020/06/artseen/The-Art-of-Daily-Living.
  16. [16] Memory was also recently published as a book: Bernadette Mayer, Memory (Catskill, NY: Siglio Press, 2020). The day crops up in other books by Bernadette Mayer, too, such as Midwinter Day (New York: Turtle Island Books, 1982) and Works and Days (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2016).
  17. [17] Lee, Chronophobia.
  18. [18] Mayer, Excerpts, 59.
  19. [19] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 150.