PRINT Summer 1976

Rosemary Mayer

ROSEMARY MAYER’S EXHIBITION at the A.I.R. Gallery in 1973 established her singular authority as a sculptor. There were three major pieces, each named after a historical woman: Hroswitha, Galla Placidia, and The Catharines. The first was a 10th-century German nun who wrote Latin poetry; the second a 5th-century Roman Empress; the third an amalgam of namesakes, from Catharine of Siena to Catharine the Great of Russia. Each of these works is over life size, meaning that it rises higher than eye-level and exceeds the span of one’s outstretched arms. In a one-page text that accompanied her show, Mayer identified one of the women in this manner: “The title refers to Galla Placidia who, from 425 A.D. until her death in 450, ruled the Western Roman Empire, from Rome and later Ravenna, for her incompetent son Valentinian III, the last more or less legitimate Emperor of the West.”1

The idea of taking heroines as subject matter arose out of a consciousness-raising group to which Mayer belonged in the early ’70s. It is important to characterize the use she made of such subjects. She avoids the mythologizing of feminine stereotypes with exemplary intelligence. She makes no attempt to draw on primitivistic symbols of matriarchy, such as the Earth Goddess. These programs may have propaganda value, but seem as crude as the male-oriented symbols they are designed to combat. Mayer has taken the Surrealist concept of the personnage and invested it with renewed semantic power. The personnage was a totemic, ancestral, or regressive image manifested in forms that relied on the human contour, but without specifying details. (David Smith’s vertical sculptures are an inventory of the form.) Mayer revivifies this evocative but sometimes banal form brilliantly. The feminine presence is evoked, to use her own words, “enveloped in huge gowns, over centuries,”2 but in tacit rather than overt allusions. Galla Placidia, for example, is constructed of colored transparent materials, which, draped from a rigid hoop, imply a style of feminine clothes, though not that of the 5th century. The scale of the piece, combined with its ample volumes, has an imperious presence, but the image is not simply that of a costume; it connotes both wings and a boat’s prow. Thus the feminine figure is absent as well as present, missing as well as given.

The interplay of presence and absence is a declared theme in such drawings as Lucretia in Ferrara. The reference is to Lucretia Borgia, in which an abundant mass of drapery implies a body that is not depicted. Mayer made a series of drawings of angel sleeves at this time, often derived from details of paintings by Grunewald and Pontormo, in which the sliding color gradients and the bunching of creases are isolated from figures. However, the drapery retains the imprint of gesture and wear, so that human presences are delicately but irrefutably called up. Cecil Gould has observed that “the relation of the body to the drapery is comparable with that of the skin to the bones,” and also that drapery can be used “as a means of stimulating desire through partial concealment.”3 It is not desire in a physical sense that Mayer evokes, but the desire for revelation. Her supple, radiant, and crinkled drapery acts as the screen, and the signal, of a hidden presence; one not seen, but which shapes the lie of the drapery. Mayer has taken a traditional resource of art—drapery —and intensified it without severing it from its original formal and iconographical functions.

Conversely, she has taken an aspect of recent painting and reinterpreted it no less decisively: Morris Louis’s veil paintings were in her mind as she contemplated the steps that lead up to her draped sculpture. The tawny complexion of Galla Placidia, its greens and rusts, may suggest Louis, but her color has an acid bite, a declaration of the metallic base of paint and dye, that is characteristically sculptural rather than painterly. Her draped sculpture then constitutes a synthesis, in which traditional, even antiquarian, forms of knowledge are combined with a modern sensuousness. Mayer’s speculation about possible levels of representation revises Louis’s formality. Mayer’s work communicates at a complex level, very different from the simplified, direct address sought by adherents of primitivistic female imagery. The theme of women is central; so are the complexity and ambiguities attendant on all works of art that are not bound by a service function.

Some artists work in terms of a consistent production—a flow of roughly equivalent pieces—whereas others (and Mayer is of this sort) proceed by numerically few works but each of them consequential. After the draped pieces, she abandoned soft materials and revealed the skeletal structure that had been their support. These are the tensile and transparent sculptures of 1974, Shekinah (the title refers to the female manifestation of God) and Bat-Kol (the title refers to a “heavenly voice, the female angel of divine pronouncement”).4 Bat-Kol is a vibrant transparent structure with slim bent wooden bows and taut cords and wire. Its anthropomorphism is reduced to gesture, as the bow tips point at the spectator. Mayer has compared her use of the bows to “the way painted angels in Annunciations extend an arm, pointing an imperative.”5 For all its skinniness, there are condensed points and lines of color, amplifying the pared forms.

As Mayer’s structure emerged without drapery, it included, as Bat-Kol does, references to tents and pavilions, shelters supported by tension. There are two sculptures which seem not to reach quite the intense point of formal resolution and semantic resonance that one expects of Mayer, Ista and Ista II. The title means “neither here nor there” in Latin, an apt word for Mayer’s fugitive but pervasive presences. The increased use of sanded wooden planes in these works leads to The Portae, a sculpture that was shown early in 1975 at the Whitney Museum’s Art Resources Center downtown. It was accompanied by a manuscript of handwritten notes, pasted-in reproductions, working diagrams dealing with the making of The Portae, including reference material and sources.6 Mayer connects the piece to Rosso Fiorentino’s Deposition, a prime example of early Florentine Mannerism. The three ladders of the entangled original are echoed by the sections of Mayer’s sculpture.

The Portae means “gates,” but the center of the piece is crowded and does not invite physical entry. In fact, the wooden forms suggest a roof-support, with struts supporting an unseen roof. The image is fundamentally that of a threshold, an area of contact. In plan the wooden planes make a right-angled Z, with drapery threaded through the architectural forms like a choir of angels or a garland for a baldacchino. The drapery is fiberglass, a tough scratchy surface tinted with lyrical colors, and the wood is varnished with similar hues. Thus color changes both by gradation and by reflection, just as the forms of this exceptional structure vary emphatically at each step the spectator takes. It straddles spaces and it connotes movement.

The success of Mayer’s personnage sculpture is at least threefold; The women’s movement and her interest in defining art in relation to it provided the motivation. Her interest in exalted moments of European art, such as Grunewald’s, Rosso’s and Pontormo’s, expanded her formal means beyond what would have been available to a Minimal artist. And her haunting use of absence, reinforced by her tact and controlled emphasis, gives her work the sense of an arrested, complex occasion. On one hand, her saturation in art history is never nostalgic, and, on the other, her indirections have never lacked emotional candor. In the transition from personnage to architectural form she has not sacrificed this balance of skills.

The function of her texts, as they record her thought, is important. It should not be supposed that the literary work is primary, with the sculpture or drawings serving as its emblems. On the contrary, Mayer declares the life of the artist in relation to the work. Her contextual information is essential, not as a crutch, but as evidence of the personal and cultural context from which art comes and in which it has to be seen. Sometimes the artist supplies this information; sometimes it is present in society because it has already been presented and absorbed. With art as new and as personally grounded as Mayer’s, however, the presence of her words furthers our sense of her forms of revelation.

Lawrence Alloway



1. Rosemary Mayer, Typescript, A.I.R. Gallery, New York, 1973.

2. RosemaryMayer, “Two Years March ’73 to January ’75,” typescript, to be published in Alan Sondheim’s forthcoming Lives (E. P. Dutton).

3. Cecil Gould, The Draped Figure, London, 1972, p. 3.

4. Mayer, “Two Years.”

5. Ibid.

6. This book, a unique copy, includes an earlier version of “Two Years.”