Rods Bent Into Bows (Fabric Sculptures and Drawings 1972-1973) is the first solo exhibition of Rosemary Mayer (b.1943, New York – 2014) in Europe. The title takes its name from notes found on one of Mayer’s sketches, one of many technical drawings of modest precision she made for the planning and documenting of her sculptures. This exhibition is the first time since the 1970s that much of this work is being shown, and includes some drawings which will be made publicly accessible for the first time. The show focuses on a critical point in her production, 1972–1973, during which Mayer actualized her fabric sculptures and related drawings, a body of work for which she is most known.
Between 1969 and 1973, Mayer’s art developed from conceptual works, including abstract studies of color, into sculptures experimenting with the medium of fabric and its mutable possibilities of form. She began working with fabric in 1970, initially by deconstructing paintings, removing the canvas from stretchers and exploring the possibilities of canvas on its own. By 1972 she was working with various fabrics, determining new combinations and modes of display. Balancing (1972) epitomizes this important period of experimentation. It is composed of two bent acrylic rods, suspended by cords to create sail-like shapes upon which fabric drapes in fleshy tones.
In an unpublished article from 1973, Mayer explains her attraction to the material: “Like liquids and natural phenomenon, fabric too is subject to gravity and natural forces. Its forms are accidental and inevitable. Like waves in water or leaves on trees, in reality fabric forms are never the same. Only when reproduced in a two dimensional medium can fabric forms be seen still and definite. Fabric is a man-made substance which shares the visual characteristics of natural phenomena.” (*1)
By 1973, she had further developed her practice formally and conceptually. Her 1973 work, Hroswitha, alludes to the medieval German poet and dramatist, reflecting her growing interest in various historical women who became the inspiration for a series of sculptures (*2). These works consist of translucent swathes of colorful fabrics – silks, cheesecloths, and nylons – adhered to a largely concealed structure of rods. Through the use of bent wooden bows, the works move away from the wall and project into space, which can be seen as a symbolic departure from painting.
These works evoke myth and history in a manner radically distinct from the approach of minimalist male artists, who favored durable materials such as steel and concrete. In the employment of draped, layered, and suspended fabric, Mayer implicates the visceral and the unseen, or, in her words, a “presence caught in thin veils, films of color on color.” Through her historical evocations and use of traditionally feminine materials, Mayer shines new light upon these overlooked women, while inserting herself into a historically male tradition of commemoration and monument-making.
Her fascination with the history of women was informed by her involvement in a feminist consciousness-raising group as well as A.I.R. Gallery, the first artist- directed and maintained gallery for and by women artists in the United States. In 1972, Mayer, along with 19 other artists, founded the space as a platform for artistic opportunity and inclusivity, during a period dominated by male artists. Mayer participated in the inaugural exhibition and had a solo show there the next year. Rods Bent Into Bows includes archival documentation of this seminal exhibition, which included three of her sculptures: Hroswitha (1973), Galla Placidia (1973), The Catherines (1973).
Drawings hold a significant place in Mayer’s oeuvre as expressions of inspiration, meticulous studies of shape and color, as well as precise renderings of her sculptures. Rods Bent into Bows includes several of Mayer’s drawings, many of them depicting sculptures that are now lost, and a series called Endless Work (1972), envisioned for an installation at A.I.R. Gallery. The drawings reflect her ongoing exploration of the tension between painting and sculpture. In her 1972 artist statement, Mayer details the relationship of drawings to permanence, “Drawings as permanent records, reminders for small spaces.”
The exhibition is realized in close collaboration with the Estate of Rosemary Mayer, New York. We would like to thank James Walsh and Amanda Friedman for their indispensable help throughout the process.
Rosemary Mayer (1943-2014) was a significant figure in the New York art scene beginning in the late 1960s and throughout the 70s and 80s.
A prolific artist and writer as well as active participant in feminist artistic discourses, Mayer was intimately involved within a close-knit network of fellow artists, scholars and gallerists, including artist Adrian Piper; her sister and poet Bernadette Mayer; former spouse and artist Vito Acconci; artist Ree Morton; writer, art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway, and many others.
Mayer was also a writer and art critic and was engaged in numerous art writing, literary, and publishing projects throughout her career. In addition to the text that accompanied or was integrated into much of her work, she translated Pontormo’s Diary, a 16th century Italian Mannerist artist’s diary, which was published with a catalogue of her work. She produced an issue of Art Rite, the New York-based proto-punk zine that defined post-conceptualism and contributed to several issues of 0 TO 9, a journal of experimental art and writing edited by Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci. In her later years as an art professor, she worked on projects illustrating epics, such as Beowulf and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Mayer kept a journal for most of her life, which elucidates the intricate relationships she had with her cohort and provides insight into her art-making and writing projects.
Throughout her artistic career, Mayer’s work was exhibited at numerous alternative art spaces in New York, including The Clocktower, Sculpture Center and Franklin Furnace, as well as several university galleries. In 2016, Southfirst Gallery in Brooklyn held a major exhibition of her work, igniting a renewed interest in her work. In 2017, the Museum of Modern Art acquired some of Mayer’s drawings and artist books from the 1970s. Her work was recently on view in the group exhibition, Bizarre Silks, Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts, etc., curated by Nick Mauss at Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland. Mayer will have a solo exhibition at the Swiss Institute, New York, in 2021.