Excerpts from the 1971 Journal of Rosemary Mayer
(Object Relations/Southfirst Gallery, 2016)
What do we do when we journal, or keep a diary? To follow the example of Rosemary Mayer’s newly excerpted and edited journals, which document a pivotal year in Mayer’s life and career, one might recount one’s thoughts on the relation of beauty to the art object or what it takes to be an artist, along with impressions of concerts attended, friends visited, lovers lost or found, and meals eaten. In her journals, Mayer—who co-founded the all-female A.I.R. co-op gallery in 1972 and died in 2014—worries, too, about how to pay her rent, and how to stay on unemployment while pursuing her ambitions as a young artist of twenty-eight.
Mayer was a dedicated journal-writer for three decades, but the book focuses entirely on 1971, a crucial year for her career as an artist. As Marie Warsh, Mayer’s niece and the editor of this volume, writes in her introduction, Mayer summarizes her experiences that year in another text with characteristically abbreviated phrasing: “I had dealers come to see my work. Art all of the time. Lots of good friends. Incidental love affairs.” The book also includes photographs of Mayer’s apartment and fabric sculptures from the period, as well as facsimiles of sketchbook pages and preparatory drawings—some of which also appeared in Conceptual Works & Early Fabric Sculptures, 1968 – 1973, Southfirst Gallery’s recently-closed exhibition of Mayer’s work, much of which had not been exhibited since the 1970s.
There is a strong symbiosis between the book, published by the gallery’s imprint, Object Relations, and the exhibition, which included conceptual texts originally published in the magazine 0 to 9, drawings, and fabric sculptures. Most notably, the exhibit featured Mayer’s large wall sculpture The Catherines (1972 – 73), named in honor of famous and forgotten Catherines throughout history. The sculpture is composed of different textures and colors of fabric draped from three frames that rotate around a central, vertical axis and which are bent into an ellipsoid shape. The fabrics—in burnt orange, pale yellow, plum, chartreuse—shimmer with a play of transparency and opacity in the light, heavier fabrics hanging beneath a sheer, gauzy veil of about the weight of a mosquito net. This diaphanous layer brushes the floor, as would a light robe worn by the sculpture. The book edition of the journals mimics the colors of The Catherines, with a cover in a similar plum and a title page in a similarly dusky orange. These similarities make the strongest case for the imprint’s own name, Object Relations, as the text relates—or relates us, its readers—directly to the exhibited objects it is meant to supplement.
The status of such art objects in debates around the conceptualism of the 1960s and ’70s occupies much of the thought Mayer displays on art-making in her journals. Her main antagonists in this debate are her ex-husband, Vito Acconci, and her close friend Adrian Piper. In an implicit rebuttal to their ideas, and with a seizure of bold certainty that replaces the tinge of self-doubt present elsewhere in the journals, Mayer exclaims in her January 7 entry: “Narrow minded bastards who think objects are only decoration—automatically assuming that bec. a thing is attractive to look at it’s not anything else. 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.” Against the conceptual artist’s emphasis on the dematerialization of the art object, Mayer maintains her faith in the object—even when creating such art seems daunting. “Making my art seems like such a physical impossibility,” she writes in her May 20 entry, in a tone now more despondent, “too much dirt, things never dry, you never know how they will act, I rush thru it—I hate having to buy all the parts every time.” In both the exhaustions and the invigorations of Mayer’s tone, the young artist who reads these entries in 2017 may find a reflection of her own inner and outer debates.
The personal, political, and artistic are all on view in Mayer’s writing, reflecting her own poetics of the journal as a genre of everyday experience. She does not shy away from unrefined or embarrassing details and exhibits candor about her struggles and social encounters: her women’s-consciousness-raising group sometimes disappoints her; fellowship applications intimidate for the credentials they require (and which she doesn’t have); the shower water stops and the toilet paper runs out on the morning she wakes up sick. And, though Mayer never intended to publish these journals, they hold their place among other artist’s writings of the period. Indeed, 1971 was an important year for the intersection of art and journaling in the work of some of the friends and family who reappear throughout Mayer’s entries. Her sister, the poet Bernadette Mayer, spent the summer of 1971 journaling and taking photographs for what would become her important early installation and book, Memory. The sisters’ friend Hannah Weiner was in the midst of beginning her work as a self-proclaimed “clairvoyant poet,” composing from a journal-based practice, following the onset of hallucinations after a psychic break in 1970. And, Piper, whose notorious Catalysis street performances Mayer photographed, had also begun a type of writing practice she would eventually name “meta-art,” situated somewhere between autobiography and the documentation of her conceptual and performance works. It is by situating Mayer’s journals in both this history and the contemporary context of their publication that they encourage with the honest life they portray.
With this new volume in hand, what can we say this peek into Mayer’s journals is about? (Or, “abt.” in the style of Mayer’s abbreviations.) Put most simply: as with most journals, these excerpts from the 1971 lived by Rosemary Mayer are abt. the young woman in the process of finding something out abt. herself. As for me, what have I found out? In reading, there’s something about myself (my own self-doubt and self-encouragement) and something about her art (she hesitates in writing, but her work is self-assured). Her diary makes them bleed together. Through her writing, her forms are shifting—settling into what she knows and what, with hindsight and the revelation of the work in shows like the one at Southfirst, we can finally see.
In their work and writings, both Rosemary and her sister, Bernadette, draw on their interests in Classical literature and philosophy. Just as Ovid told of “bodies changed to other forms,” the practice of reading and keeping our own diaries might keep us alert to the metamorphoses we face in 2017—of our own bodies and minds, our communities, and our national politics. (Bernadette’s famous-among-poets list of writing experiments suggests the following themes for such journals that might help us to pay attention: “elaborations on weather”; “daily changes, e.g. a journal of one’s desk, table, etc.”; “tenant-landlord situations”; “dangers.” The casual inclusion on this list of quotidian experiences and ill-defined but ominous “dangers” speaks to the insidious ways change can work upon us.) In her 1979 translation of Jacopo da Pontormo’s 16th-century diary (itself a brilliant, collaborative intervention into the genre of the journal, likely prepared by Mayer’s own journaling practice), Mayer summarizes the political conditions that give such vital use to the diary as a form and practice in the face of “daily changes” and “dangers.” (In da Pontormo’s time, the immediate context was nothing less than the Sack of Rome in 1527.) “There are public and private states of order and disorder,” Mayer writes. “Words refer differently as grounds shift […] unheard of things happen. Expect them. […] What claims validity will probably blind you or deafen you, leave you to fall over the sharp-edged fragments in the streets.” In this passage, Mayer exhibits a confidence won of the self-questioning and anxiety of the younger woman she was in 1971, who we can happily come to know with this selection of journal entries. So, in our own time of shifting political ground, as readers, writers, and artists, we, too, might start our own journals to “Think abt. all this” and win some kind of confidence.
Phillip Griffith is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City.