Between 1977 and 1982, the artist Rosemary Mayer, who died in 2014, developed a group of works that went beyond the fabric sculptures she had made earlier in the 1970s. These new works were site-specific installations: they relied on ephemerality, temporariness, and audience engagement; they made the private and ordinary equal to the public and historical. Mayer dubbed them her “temporary monuments.”Grouped into three series of balloons, people, and tents, they are documented in Temporary Monuments: Work by Rosemary Mayer, 1977-1982 (Soberscove Press, 2018). Edited by Mayer’s niece and nephew, Marie and Max Warsh, the book includes the range of documentation that now defines these ephemeral works: photographs, sketches and drawings, writings by Mayer, reproductions of artists’ books pages and flyers, and a scholarly essay by art historian Gillian Sneed.
“Some Days in April” (1978) is one of the balloon works Mayer used in part to memorialize both her parents and her friend, artist Ree Morton, who had been born and died in the month of April respectively. In a cold, early-spring field in Hartwick, New York, she tethered to the ground large balloons decorated with the name of a springtime star and flower — the number representing the date the dedicatee was born or died, as well as other names she associated with that person (for Morton, for example, Mayer chose Helen and Catherine, two names with historical and mythological resonance). For “Snow People” (1979), Mayer sculpted the forms of 19th-century men and women in snow in an open lot in Lenox, Massachusetts. She labeled each snow person (destined to melt) with a plural name (Ediths, Carolines, Daniels) to memorialize the historically anonymous town inhabitants lost to time’s official record. She later made a small-scale replica of the “Snow People” in paraffin wax; these “Wax People” (1979 – 80) would melt at a higher temperature.
Sneed’s essay focuses the scholarship of this volume on the hybrid, innovative quality of Mayer’s temporary monuments and tells an important part of the story of these works — a feminist story with particular resonance in 2018. A founding 1972 member of A.I.R., the first all-female artist cooperative gallery, Mayer had spent much of the ‘70s creating lush fabric sculptures that sometimes memorialized overlooked women in history, as in “The Catherines” (1973). In May 1980, as Sneed reports in her essay’s opening, Mayer had critiqued the overbearing monumental steel sculpture of Richard Serra in her journals, declaring that “all men are into power” and ruminating over her refusal to participate in the unjust inequality of power that marked this art system. Public art, as Mayer noted at the end of her journal passage, would be one of the necessary domains for confronting this inequality.
Mayer’s term “temporary monuments” was, as Sneed notes, an attempt at creating a new vocabulary for a style of art making that did not yet have a name — a mix of public art, memorialization, site-specificity, and audience participation. Mayer imbued these installations with a quiet but colorful pageantry, inspired by Renaissance and Baroque art history and a personalized poetic sensibility marked by her personal and family relationships and respect for the mundane stories that make up everyday life. Throughout her life and career, Mayer drew particular inspiration from the mannerist painter Jacopo Pontormo, in particular the voluminous, billowing drapery and fabrics depicted in his paintings. She also appreciated his personal diaries that inventoried such detailed everyday lists as the foods and quantities he ate. For Sneed, Mayer’s work presaged trends of social engagement and participatory art in the 1990s and 2000s — as in the example of Thomas Hirschhorn’s monuments to philosophers that become community platforms in the low-income neighborhoods in which they are built — while also belonging to a wider historical narrative of the influence of 1970s feminist art on today’s socially engaged, participatory ways of making art.
Mayer lines her texts like the ones for “Snow People” (originally published in Whitewalls, a journal of artists’ writings that ran from 1978 – 2002) and “Some Days in April” (originally included in an artist’s book for the project) with an associative logic that brings a mythological breadth of theme and feeling down to the size of everyday life. Reflecting on the experience of her last installation “Moon Tent” (1982), Mayer writes in her essay on the project (also published in WhiteWalls) that “what you see depends on the way you think.” For the installation, Mayer decorated an open-air pavilion on top of the home of art historian Robert Hobbs in Lansing, New York with glassine paper swaddling the pavilion’s columns and beams. Mayer then convened a party in the pavilion during the hours of the October 2 – 3 full moon. The work was a monument to this moment of fleeting celebration and togetherness by an artist who throughout her life threw dinner parties at her Tribeca loft that elicited collaborative work on a series of artists’ books. The ephemeral experience of “Moon Tent” prompted Mayer to return to the theme of ghostliness that she had explored in previous writings and installations like her “Ghosts” series (1981). “No one has ever seen a ghost,” she writes. Her observation reads at first as matter of fact but suggests that this is not because ghosts don’t exist but because their presence is fleeting. Mayer goes on to make the connection between these ghosts and her earlier fabric sculptures explicit. “They live,” she tells us, “in the fall of a sleeve or skirt, the shapes in a coat laid over a chair.” The challenge, we are left to infer, is to catch the ghost in that moment — in that way of thinking and seeing in order to appreciate this paradoxical kind of monument.
Mayer’s art making thrived, as Sneed recounts, in the geniality she found in the pre-market-driven art world of the 1970s. Her fabric sculptures embraced sensuous materiality in a moment of conceptual dematerialization, and her temporary monuments extended this focus on materials into the social realm. As in “Moon Tent,” her installations often included elements that we today assign to socially engaged work — for example, the festive atmosphere of her first temporary monument “Spell” (1977), created to celebrate the reopening of a farmer’s market in Jamaica, Queens.
Mayer’s temporary monuments draw forth the power of publicly memorializing our personal ties to people and places and the happenings of everyday life. Though Mayer’s style of art making and eschewal of gallery representation did not survive the rising force of the art market throughout the 1980s, her ephemeral, poetic monuments still offer a constructive critique. In today’s debates over the dismantling of historical monuments to racist and misogynist historical personages and oppressive power structures, Mayer’s temporary monuments show us one way to come together and conjure our own personal ghosts as an alternative historical pantheon to memorialize.
Temporary Monuments: Work by Rosemary Mayer, 1977-1982 was published by Soberscove Press in September 2018.