“Balloons can carry words, be deliberate signals for objects forcing connections. Then everything shifts in time and wind and mind.” — Rosemary Mayer, from Snow People series text (1979).
Time, memory, and change are at the center of Rosemary Mayer’s art. Although Mayer’s work has garnered some attention since her death in 2014 at the age of 71, she remains less known than many of her peers in New York’s 1970s post-minimalist and conceptual art scene (in which she was active, as an artist, critic, and founding member of the women’s cooperative gallery A.I.R.).
Yet even at the height of her productivity in the mid- and late-1970s, her interest in the artists and rituals of the Renaissance and her unabashed embrace of emotion in her exploration of the evanescent set her apart from most artists working in her milieu. Even at its time, her work was untimely.
Mayer’s late-’70s performances, which she called “temporary monuments,” are the focus of “Pleasures and Possible Celebrations”: Rosemary Mayer’s Temporary Monuments, 1977–1981 at Gordon Robichaux (organized with the Estate of Rosemary Mayer). The exhibition features significant texts and ephemera for the performances Spell (April 1977), Some Days in April (April 1978), and the unrealized Connections, but the most compelling documents are Mayer’s drawings.
A group of drawings for Some Days in April states the title alongside a cluster of balloons — some barely outlined, others colored in — bearing people’s names as well as dates and the names of springtime stars and flowers.
The performance took place without an audience, in a field in upstate New York surrounded by trees still bare from the winter. Seven red, yellow, and white balloons, tethered to stakes festooned with ribbons, memorialized deceased loved ones who were connected by the month of April: her parents, both born in April, and artist Ree Morton, her close friend who died on April 30, 1977.
In one drawing, several balloons crowd onto a sheet of light blue paper. Words on the balloons chatter like the voices they commemorate: on one, she notes her father’s name, Theodore, the number four for his April 4th birthday, the flower Columbine, and the star Regulus.
The blushing spring colors of the drawing evoke nature in full bloom; the celebratory atmosphere, the conviviality among the cluster of balloons, is all the more poignant for its elegiac undertones.
A text accompanying the performance elaborates on the balloons’ text in intimate, abstract language that eludes narrative. Mayer’s poetic descriptions have the hazy, dreamlike quality of memory, its ebbs and flows, its flashes of light that instantly recede into darkness. For her parents, she writes:
April was special because both their birthdays came then. There were presents, small parties on the nearest Sundays, cake after dinner or ice cream. The garden flowers came up; it wasn’t so cold; the days got a little longer.
A year before Some Days in April, Mayer created Spell. Her first temporary monument, it celebrated the annual opening of the Jamaica, Queens, farmers market with three giant white weather balloons. The phrases “iris returns,” “crocus returns,” and “hyacinth returns” written on the balloons heralded the coming of spring.
Four drawings included in the exhibition root Spell in historical seasonal rituals. In two of them, drawings of the balloons and a woman in festive Renaissance attire overlay specifics of the performance. Another juxtaposes a similar drawing of a woman with a brief history of artists and pageantry (it begins, “It was artists who marked celebrations with decorations”), and a fourth merges musings on these histories with family memories.
The drawings, along with performance flyers and notes, speak to the importance of text and, more broadly, language to Mayer’s practice. In Spell and Some Days in April, texts on the balloons serve as invocations, spells in themselves, summoning spirits across time. Other texts mark the events or record forgotten histories, but all foster a sense of intimacy with Mayer. She engaged with the nature of time and memory by immersing herself, and her audience, in their power.
Mayer’s drawings, often composed of concentrated areas of detail and vibrant color that dissipate into slight, gossamer lines, have a provisional quality that reflects her temporary monuments. The passage of time is imbued with a sense of melancholy, of something already lost to the past.
Two sculptures round out the exhibition, “Scarecrow (model) for a field” (1978–79) and “17th Street Ghost” (1981/2021). Both recall the draped fabric sculptures Mayer produced in the early ’70s, here animated by their forms. For “Scarecrow,” the only extant sculpture from the time, fabrics in rich red, lilac, and brown hues cloak a skeletal armature made of wooden rods, a brown tulle “head” perched atop.
“Scarecrow” represents a transition for Mayer from site-specific projects to the gallery space. Joyous and makeshift, it symbolizes seasonal harvests and harvest festivals; unsurprisingly, it feels somewhat stifled within the gallery.
“17th Street Ghost” is installed in a separate gallery space, along with a drawing for Spell. The work is related to “Scarecrow” but its radiating wooden rods are wrapped and layered with transparent materials such as glassine paper and cellophane instead of fabric. The natural light from a window transforms it into a mutable body that seems to materialize and dematerialize with different vantage points.
Mayer intended her Ghost sculptures to be disassembled after being exhibited. In the 2018 book Temporary Monuments: Work by Rosemary Mayer, 1977–1982, art historian Gillian Sneed states that she reused materials from one to make another; none remain intact in their original form. For “Pleasures and Possible Celebrations” Mayer’s estate re-conceived the work, with artist Amanda Friedman.
“17th Street Ghost” is at once unruly and ethereal. The glassine and cellophane suggest plastic grocery bags or food wrappers, insignificant things that are used and discarded, or carried away by a gust of wind, lending the work a greater, and more profoundly melancholic, sense of impermanence.
Other artists of the same generation examined the passage of time through light and nature. What separates Mayer is not only the warmth of her work but also the way that it evokes what is unseen or fleeting: moments of celebration and loss distilled into a name or symbol but never fully grasped, always slipping away; an image suspended between memory and imagination; a flicker caught in a sideward glance.
In her essay “The Moon Tent” (1983) Mayer writes:
No one has never seen a ghost. You prefer not to remember. It’s easy. They’re visible only for seconds and even then they change. They live in the fall of a sleeve or skirt, the shapes in a coat laid over a chair. When the light changes, they’re different or gone. Stare at something as the moon or sun rises or sets and see what you see. Any number or things or creatures like what you see in clouds or currents in rivers, or ocean waves. They live one way for seconds or minutes, then have some other form. What you see depends on the way you think.
“Pleasures and Possible Celebrations”: Rosemary Mayer’s Temporary Monuments, 1977–1981 continues at Gordon Robichaux (41 Union Square West, #925 and #907, Manhattan) through June 27. The gallery will host an event to draw “17th Street Ghost” from 2 to 6 PM on June 26, by appointment.