THINGS WE LIKE
Rosemary Mayer liked to make lists. One such list is titled ‘Things Rosemary Likes’, comprising appetitive, diarizing, pleasure-seeking, enumerating writing-as-collecting that is shot through with the indeterminate desires of an extended (and Catholic) adolescence.1 Her making was also writing, knotting words as if things together. How apt that one of her many notebooks—surreptitiously purloined from the piles of industrial scraps (like: rubber stamps, office supplies, unmarked ledgers) her SoHo loft contained2—is incidentally titled in manufactured print ‘Compositions’. It is a flimsy thing: stitched, soft; it slips into my hand, from the caress of the acid-free archive sleeve that now holds it.
The notebook is dated July 5–28, 1968, and it begins with a horizontal list of the things (ideas, foods, readings, medications, husbands) she is thinking about—as a young white artist at New York’s School of Visual Arts exploring and speculating new aesthetic and embodied and erotic forms. She was figuring out what sort of artist and woman she wanted to be. She’d turned down a fellowship to pursue a PhD in Classics at Harvard, preferring the more sensual aspects of study. As she would reflect in an artist statement more than a decade later, ‘My need to make sculpture, watercolours and drawings’—(but also: notebook lists and writings)—‘probably developed at least in part from the strong pleasure I’ve always experienced in looking at things.’3
She repeats the ritual of the list, which is also associative, unedited reverie, the following day (a Saturday):
the Post office
sizes of lumber
making a dress
Was the post office, which is the mail, which is the writing and sending of a letter, a task she needed to get done or a conceptual idea? Or was it both? What about thread? Or the making of a dress? How did these listed things enter her life and work enmeshed?
I like Rosemary Mayer. Writer, Artist, Pocketer of things.
Round necklines, sleeves. Silk shirt, brown pants.5
(I pocket her lists.)
It is April 2022, and I am in an archive again—this time Brooklyn, not Manhattan—for the first time since before the global pandemic that has put alternate modes of reading and writing and thinking and dreaming to work in the absence of physical stuff. Last time I was in the city, I was purloining love letters in the archive; now, it is the etymology of text in texere, meaning ‘to weave’: a fabric just as close to the skin, enveloping it, which is the object of my desiring attentions. Do I like Rosemary Mayer because we like the same things?
SISTERING AT THE UNFINISHED EDGES
Rosemary Mayer was born in Ridgewood, east of the East River, in 1943. With her younger sister Bernadette, they attended Saint Matthias Grammar School on Catalpa Avenue; then won scholarships to an all-girls, private, Roman Catholic high school,6 just blocks away from her boxed and shelved notebook-traces—which, since the artist’s death in 2014, have been sensitively housed, translated, and transformed into new contexts by her niece and nephew, the historian and writer Marie Warsh and the artist and curator Max Warsh, of the Rosemary Mayer Estate. Both Bernadette, as a poet with an investment in photography and performance (most fully felt in Memory (1972)), and Rosemary, as a visual artist with a practice in writing (works, journals, art criticism), would go on to occupy spaces between and across conceptual art and textual practice. In a remembrance published in Artforum, to and for her sister, Bernadette describes how closely love got to conflict in childhood: ‘Though this was before Conceptual art, Rosemary carved her initials in the furniture and then changed them to mine so I’d get blamed. It worked.’7
Soon after, as both sisters became familiar with the disturbances of adolescence, their parents tragically died, which created, or rather disturbed, a different bond between them that was by turns intimate and uneasy. It flourished at the unruly edges between art and life: across correspondence,8 collaborative poetry books that brought word and image together,9 and stapled magazine pages. As Rosemary would later write in her 1971 journal, contemporaneous with the publication of Bernadette’s Moving, to which Rosemary supplied the interior drawings, ‘Anne’s poetry innocent while B’s is not—like me [italics mine].’10
I like Rosemary Mayer. But ‘what kind of a feeling is liking?’ Is it minor, liminal, weak, undefined, the disregarded state before, or perhaps to the side of (like a sister), the paradoxes of romantic love?11 I linger in liking’s unfinished edges: a space from which to write, to feel affection, connection, and confusion at once.
It was in the mimeographed, conceptual art pages of 0 to 9 magazine—which Bernadette co-edited with the artist Vito Acconci, Rosemary’s then husband (they separated in 1968)—that Rosemary first published her experimental works that investigated temporal and social and material configurations, and which recalled the tricksy text art of her youth. On 4 July 1969, for example, Rosemary minutely recorded (per minute) each time a firecracker was heard from outside and beyond her Broome Street loft by marking an ‘x’ onto the page in felt-tip, forming temporally structured lines of varying thicknesses. As Mayer prefaced the work in 0 to 9, ‘the heavy black lines indicate continuous noise from fire-crackers during certain minutes.’12
Or: there was the similar cross-hatched system that was rendered to represent the time it takes to smoke a Chesterfield King Size cigarette (July 1969).
Or: the black lines (mostly firm, but some frayed, too) that depict the starched folds of an upside-down draped and drying pair of chino pants (June 1968).
Or: the clandestine copy of a typed proposal for a ‘Street Work’, which is also a speculation, which is also a dream, describing a delinquent mail art project that involves change of address cards being supplied to the Post Office, confusing recipients, and instigating a cross-hatched movement of bodies across the public space of the street to smooth out the chain of correspondence.
Rosemary’s errant work of displaced envelopes, which intersected with other typed text-based works she was producing at the School of Visual Arts (in which she listed street names, or the materials in/of/around/to the side of writing, which includes ‘the mailing address’), did not move from page to performance, but other collaborators’ proposals did, including her friend Hannah Weiner’s own experiments with mailboxes, as part of 1969’s string of Street Works interventions. Weiner wrapped a letterbox on a street corner in cloth tape, briefly and decoratively packaged it with a baroque bow—before the police cut it apart.
Weiner was a conceptual poet. She was also a ladies’ lingerie designer at The Malabe Company Incorporated at 129 West 29 Street. In 1969, she co-produced The Fashion Show Poetry Event with Eduardo Costa and John Perreault, which was like a fashion show, in that it was an imitation of one—accompanied by poems-as-performances of fashion copy that dissolved the boundaries of aesthetic categories.13
Meanwhile, Rosemary Mayer was scribbling in another ‘Compositions’ notebook:
Need something thick – look in Macy’s
Wrinkles + warp – what really happens w. these materials
I like fabric bec it is sensuous – enveloping how it hangs – graceful, beautiful14
She was experimenting with the weight and form of textile materials as they fell, draped, gathered, became enveloped in folds, when subtly affixed by a pin to the wall. She liked it. She saw a connection with Eva Hesse.15 She was composing, across the warp and weft of text and textile (the affinities between them): through listed notes on the page; or in the cut-up samples of description that is the artist book 41 Fabric Swatches (1969);16 or in a colour pencil drawing of a bedsheet hung on a washing line, its folds rubbed with yellow and pink and brown (Untitled 1968); or in the pins tacked through the selvedge of an unrolled bolt of bone-white cloth to pierce a cracked studio wall. This work, Cloth Wall Piece (1968), no longer exists; only the photograph remains: a document of a speculative gesture, a sketch for something more to come (when she could afford to buy thicker fabric from Macy’s—I speculate). It was unfinished, transitional—neither painting nor sculpture nor writing nor drawing, exactly; instead, she worked through the likenesses between art forms. This in-between, process-based practice foreshadows the extended ‘adolescence’—which is neither child nor adult, exactly—she would claim to be making art through a few years later, when she wrote in her 1971 journal, ‘I feel like I’m having another adolescence…’17
Cloth Wall Piece wrinkles like the textured paper of a displaced envelope containing a dead letter, while in Untitled (1968), a yard of cheap raw canvas barely covers its designated stretcher, revealing the skeleton within. It is a creased, cut loose, open envelope. As Rosemary began to move off the page in her work, and towards abstract forms in three dimensions, the call of writing and correspondence stayed with her. To the side of. Enveloping. 1968-1969: the last two years of the decade, was a boundary; or rather, a seam, separating and connecting: the multiple forms and practices and pleasures of her life and work. I unravel the sensuousness of her conceptual systems, the glimpses of writing in wrinkled lines.
Alice Butler is the 2021/2022 Centre for American Art Terra Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at The Courtauld Institute of Art. She also teaches in Critical and Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art. An interdisciplinary scholar and writer, Alice works across feminist art history, feminist theory, and feminist art writing. She specialises in the intersections of feminist art and writing, to explore questions of sickness, sexuality, and gender, via feminist and queer perspectives and experimental approaches to archive, autotheory, and correspondence. She is currently finalizing a monograph on the sick pleasures and epistolary desires of Kathy Acker and Cookie Mueller’s interdisciplinary art writing, and an edited collection of essays on gesture and feminist art, while also at work on a new project investigating the interrelation of textiles, sickness, and perversion in feminist art and writing practices.
1 Rosemary Mayer, ‘Compositions’ journal, 1968, in Folder ‘Brown Pants!’, Rosemary Mayer Archive. Courtesy of the Rosemary Mayer Estate, Brooklyn, New York.
2 Conversation with Marie Warsh, 11 April 2022.
3 Rosemary Mayer, ‘Untitled’ [artist statement], 1980, Rosemary Mayer Archive. Courtesy of the Rosemary Mayer Estate, Brooklyn, New York.
4 Mayer, ‘Compositions’ journal, 1968.
6 Bernadette Mayer, ‘Rosemary Mayer (1943-2014)’, Artforum, 9 December 2014.
8 See forthcoming collection of the sisters’ correspondence, edited by Marie Warsh and Gillian Sneed: The Letters of Rosemary & Bernadette Mayer, 1976-1980 (New York: Swiss Institute, 2022).
9 Including Bernadette Mayer, Moving (New York: Angel Hair, 1971), with drawings by Rosemary Mayer; Bernadette Mayer, Poetry (New York: Kulchar Foundation, 1978), with a cover illustration by Rosemary Mayer depicting from memory the house they had grown up in as children; Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day (1982), with a section on contemporary art written by Rosemary Mayer.
10 Rosemary Mayer, Excerpts from the 1971 Journal of Rosemary Mayer, edited by Marie Warsh (Chicago: Soberscove Press, 2020), 55.
11 Jonathan Flatley, Like Andy Warhol (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 34-35.
12 Rosemary Mayer, ‘Firecrackers’, in 0 to 9, No. 5, January 1969, edited by Bernadette Mayer and Vito Hannibal Acconci, 74-88.
13 Hannah Weiner, Eduardo Costa, and John Perreault, ‘The Fashion Show Poetry Event’, in 0 to 9, No. 5, January 1969, 53-55.
14 Rosemary Mayer, ‘Compositions’ notebook, 1968, Rosemary Mayer Archive. Courtesy of the Rosemary Mayer Estate, Brooklyn, New York.
15 Rosemary Mayer, ‘Passing Thoughts’, 4 November 1978. Rosemary Mayer Archive. Courtesy of the Rosemary Mayer Estate, Brooklyn, New York.
16 See Rosemary Mayer, 41 Fabric Swatches (New York: 0 to 9 books, 1969).
17 Mayer, Excerpts from the 1971 Journal of Rosemary Mayer, 76.