Rosemary Mayer (1943–2014)

Rosemary Mayer with her work Ghosts, 1981.

ROSEMARY WAS MY CLASSMATE in Mr. Bageris’s drawing course, in my second year at the School of Visual Arts in the fall semester of 1967. We met at its first class meeting. I sat down next to her because I noticed that she was reading Goethe’s Elective Affinities (1809) while we were waiting for Mr. Bageris to start the class. She was the only student in the class reading a book. As I had just finished it, I asked her whether she was enjoying it. She said she was finding it a bit dry, and much preferred The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). I hadn’t read Werther, but I wrote down the title, and later did read it because of her recommendation.

I had not yet figured out how to be both an artist and an intellectual. The problem was one of clashing role models. Whereas my artist heroes were the likes of Honoré Daumier, Vincent Van Gogh, and Auguste Rodin, my intellectual heroes included figures like Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Ralph Ellison. Actually all of them have a lot more in common than I realized at the time. In those days I could not yet find a way to be all of them. I learned how to do that from Rosemary.

She had just arrived at SVA, where she was immediately promoted to the second year on the strength of her artwork. Shortly before, she had refused Harvard University’s offer of a graduate fellowship to do a doctorate in the classics department. She had been the first woman student (or one of the first) to be so honored. But at that time she was married to a poet who, she said, had prevailed upon her to become an artist instead. Once I met her husband, Vito Acconci, I could imagine that dialogue, and the intensity with which it must have been conducted. The result was a body of work that was in love with the physical properties of materials, textures, cloths, and their exploration, but that easily cohabited with a serious and highly developed intellectual life. She was a voracious reader of literature, criticism, and the classics, and fluent in Greek and Latin. It never would have occurred to her to not read Goethe in a drawing class.

Nor did she feel even the slightest pressure to show off her figurative draftsmanship in a painting class. Instead she submitted for presentation and discussion two large, companion hard-edge Minimalist/Color Field paintings, based on a combinatorial system she had devised. For the first, she divided the surface of the canvas into a grid, bisecting each square cell diagonally to form two triangles. She determined the color of each triangle by combining the primary colors in couplets, mixing them, and recursively applying the same combinatorial formula to each resulting color, for each successive cell. For the second, she repeated the operation, except she began with a different combination of primary colors in the first cell, which determined a different succession of colors for the rest of them. But here she constructed each cell as a separate stretched canvas that she affixed to all of the others at the back of the frames with small hand vises, thus replicating in individual cell modules the same geometric grid in the second painting that she had drawn onto the surface of the first.

When it came time for her presentation, she quietly and casually explained the system. Basta. No pomp, no bluster, no hot air, not a word about inner turmoil, creative agony, or grappling with the existential and metaphysical issues the rest of us deployed in order to protect our frail creations and enhance the impression we wished to convey of ourselves as serious artists. Her manner of presenting her work to us took for granted that we all had read and thought as much about art as she had, and had the same sophisticated understanding of it, although that was not true. She completely knocked me out, and traumatized the rest of our classmates. But her effect on us didn’t feed or flatter or inflate her. She remained, as always, quiet, clipped, self-contained and shy, with a surprisingly mordant sense of humor. I learned a great deal about contemporary art and art theory from talking to her.

She herself was not a Conceptual artist and didn’t much care for Conceptual art. But I could not have developed my own work in that direction without having absorbed her cool detachment and deep intellectual engagement in the artistic process. That informed stance, that complex psychological attitude toward art would not have occurred to me without her example.

Adrian Piper is an artist and philosopher based in Berlin.