WRINKLES SPELL GOSSIP
‘In the technical jargon of sewing,’ wrinkles mean memory.1 I speculate on the early memories traced onto hers (before she window-shopped in Macy’s): her father covering a threadbare armchair with brocade; her mother sewing close to her; her uncle selling silk ribbons over the counter. As she writes in a 1980 autobiographical artist statement, ‘Fabric… was always lying around’—inviting her belated touch, another form of repair, to glimpse pleasure in the ‘bad time,’ marked by ‘fear, tension, and withdrawal,’ also death: from childhood through to extended adolescence.2
I pick at the pieces of her wrinkled memories; I speculate and gossip. I pull on the threads of association, run with the complex affects and attachments of liking. Rosemary liked ‘gossip’ too (July 16,1968). It came to enter her work through an expansive, otherworldly impulse to imagine and fictionalize and play with the truth of what might be real in the realm of the aesthetic; to rearrange the mail; to steal and purloin, like: scraps of candy-coloured lingerie from her friend Hannah Weiner, which she sewed together, then overstitched in contrasting threads, folded over in two like a bedspread, and suspended from two knots (Untitled, August 1971)—the evanescent form vulnerable to the pressure of ‘large forces (gravity) and small ones (air currents in a room).’3 She gossiped when she pocketed nylon and lace ‘minor’ materials. But she gossiped when she purloined allusions to the grand, the ‘serious’, the subjects cloaked in velvet robes (as in: ‘Bernini’, ‘Pontormo’, ‘Titian’),4 too. To gossip with the sensual scraps, with the found object, with the ghosts of the past and the fictional makings of (art) history, is to feel pleasure as a reparative aesthetic and political project that is not tied to fixed objects or ways of being and making. Untitled of August 1971—now known as Scraps—is the only extant work of that year, but its mesh materials are sheer or slippery, were once handled by a friend; are vulnerable to aging and wear and smells; the work is by necessity incomplete.
For Rosemary (or so I like to think), gossip became a means to deviate from masculine ideas of monumental objecthood and objectivity; it was to flirt with the minor, the feminized, ‘the soft’, foreshadowing the lightweight materials she was working with in 1971: rayon, nylon, lace. As she wrote in her journal early that year, ‘Narrow minded bastards who think objects are only decoration—automatically assuming that bec. [sic] a thing is attractive or interesting to look at it’s not anything else.’5 And by the spring: ‘Materials today—the colors too lush—too likeable… Art pushes the boundaries where afghans & scarves & pillowcases don’t. Could they? [italics mine].’6 If to make art with what is ‘too likeable’ is to make art with what is ‘too much’ (the critique of excess often aimed at female-identifying artists), gossip was a speculative tool that helped Rosemary transgress the disparagement and shame her tied, draped, and knotted works often faced, when they were labelled as trivial, amateur, illegitimate, fringe, not-at-home at the New York Cultural Centre.7 It is to occupy social and aesthetic formations, languages, and urban environments differently (even illegally): to feel sustenance in the soft, stolen, sideways scraps.
This turn to gossip as a practice is keenly felt in the ‘impossible drawings’ that imagined the fall of fabric—sketched in vibrant peaches and purples, greens, and reds—as it is pinned and twisted and sewed and draped, as fabrics merge with other fabrics. This method was, as she wrote in a journal entry that summer, a ‘chance to play’8—to speculate, propose, and anticipate, sculptures that did not yet—or perhaps never would—exist. I absorb the trace, the remnant: to sense the bodies she was dreaming of, tentatively unveiling.
I like to think this gave her pleasure, without disputing the pain and frustration of not knowing, or of scraping by, of being unable to afford the things she needed.
Before gossip was a verb, it was a noun—which travelled from the Old English godsibb, meaning ‘sponsor, godparent’ plus the ‘relative’ in sibb, to a later and gendered sense of female ‘friend, or familiar acquaintance’. In the era of the Baroque—the associated objects and figures of which featured on one of Rosemary’s handwritten lists (‘Everything that’s influenced my work/me’), alongside ‘My mother’s old clothes… My mother… sewing’9—‘The gossip, like the witch, was persecuted’—silenced—‘as if she was an outlaw, instead of at the heart of her community.’10 Rosemary recuperates this particular figure—the gossip as sister, as mother, as witch; their ‘secret language’11—in the twisted, gathered, and swollen nylon and silk forms attached to bent wooden rods by funnelled seams, nicks, and tucks.
Rosemary’s fabric spectres are full, but disembodied, holding hints and glimpses of the historical women to which their titles are kin to (many of whom were also speculatively gathered in Christine de Pizan’s 1405 City of Ladies; more recently reinterpreted by the artist Tai Shani in the episodic project beginning in 2018, DC: Semiramis). Semiramis of late 1972 involves curtains of layered and gathered and looped orange and beige nylons and nettings; the fabrics froth like freshly poured coffee, strung up on bowed cords. Delicate gauzes produce delicate shadows on the painted brick wall. Lightweight, cheap materials (stolen, window-shopped, sensual) sag and swell with the forces of atmosphere. It is laced with traces (newly alive, but abstracted) of the Assyrian queen who was pathologized in Babylonian legend for sexual wantonness and incest. It is an undergarment as well as an armour. Text and textile gather in the forms and language of Semiramis, which is also a partial, pleasure-glimpsing, speculative counter-history that refuses to mark her subject whole: ‘sculpture not as picture of, but as hint to, reminder of.’12
Rosemary’s composition-making was a way of touching the past from the present—through the semi-transparent tide of a modern fabric, or the erotic sheerness of gauze, or the ceremonial lace veils of the Catholic tradition which were ‘also on [her] mind.’13 Materially flimsy, fragile (like her ‘Compositions’ notebook), her forms give and withhold; connect and separate, much like the transitional space of anti-monumental, incomplete, often hesitant, ‘to the side of’ liking—which could be a feminist historical project.
Before the noun in ‘gather’ meant a ‘plait or fold in cloth’, the verb denoted the action of assembling, of agreeing, of coming and being together—which I run with as meaning likeness, too. Gathering is also rooted in the Old English gaed, as in ‘fellowship, companionship’—as in an expanded figuration of sister. I’m drawn to her gatherings; the affinities stitched there. Part 1
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Marie Warsh and the Rosemary Mayer Estate for their assistance, generosity, curiosity, openness, knowledge, and hospitality, in the research and writing of this essay.
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 Peter Stallybrass, ‘Worn Worlds: Clothing, Mourning and the Life of Things’, in Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identity, eds. Dan Ben-Amos and Liliane Weissberg (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1999), 28.
2 Rosemary Mayer, ‘Untitled’ [artist statement], 1980.
3 Mayer, ‘Passing Thoughts’.
4 Rosemary Mayer, ‘Everything that’s influenced my work/ me’ page from notebook, undated (mid-1970s), Rosemary Mayer Archive. Courtesy of the Rosemary Mayer Estate, Brooklyn, New York. In 1975, Mayer began work on a handwritten and illustrated translation of Pontormo’s Diary, which was published in a volume alongside images and essays in 1982; see Mayer, Pontormo’s Diary, in collaboration with Julia Ballerini and Richard Milazzo (New York, Norristown, Milano: Out of London Press, 1982).
5 Mayer, Excerpts from the 1971 Journal of Rosemary Mayer.
6 Ibid., 16.
7 ‘Soft as Art’, 31 March 1973. Rosemary Mayer Archive. Courtesy of the Rosemary Mayer Estate.
8 Mayer, Excerpts from the 1971 Journal of Rosemary Mayer, 128.
9 Mayer, ‘Everything that’s influenced my work/ me’ page from notebook.