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Rosemary Mayer

Southfirst
60 N. 6th Street
October 21, 2016–January 15, 2017

Rosemary Mayer, The Catherines, 1972–73, fabric, wood, dye, 120 x 72 x 48”.

Between 1969 and 1973, Rosemary Mayer’s art underwent a dramatic transition. Abetted by the arrival of feminism, its investment in the body and the recuperation of craft, the laconic beauty of her early text-based works effloresced into the voluptuous fabric sculptures for which she is best remembered. Curated by art historian Maika Pollack, the gallery’s founder, with Marie and Max Warsh—Mayer’s niece and nephew—this exhibition tells the story of this sea change while also shining a light on a significant yet under-recognized figure in feminist and post-Minimalist art.

During the late sixties, Mayer (who passed away in 2014) contributed to 0 TO 9, a mimeographed journal of Conceptual art and poetry, with her sister, the poet Bernadette Mayer, and her then husband, Vito Acconci. Several works on paper from this period traffic between image and text. In Untitled [12 columns], ca. 1969, compositions of colored squares drawn on graph paper are paired with black-and-white typewritten pages detailing those same patterns in words.

Semiotic games give way to atmospheric affect in The Catherines, 1972–73, a gauzy matrix of peach and purple veils draped on a teardrop-shaped wooden support. Created the year Mayer cofounded the all-female cooperative gallery A.I.R., the work is titled in honor of notable women from European history: the warrior countess Caterina Sforza, the empress Catherine the Great, the mystic Catherine of Siena. Openly feminist and unapologetically ornamental, its flesh-colored swags of various transparent fabrics make sartorial and genital insinuations. More subtly, The Catherines also suggests the ethereal forms of Mannerist painting, to which—as Marie Warsh and Gillian Sneed have noted—Mayer likened the art of the 1970s after the dissolution of Minimalism’s spatial certainties. “Once surfaces were clear, ordered and opaque, surfaces that quickly answer questions,” she wrote in the introduction to her 1975 translation of Jacopo da Pontormo’s diary, “then forms dissolved, colors paled, began to float in uncertain atmospheres.”

Chloe Wyma