On New Year’s Day, 1971, the artist Rosemary Mayer wrote in her journal: “New thoughts: to stop being invulnerable.” At age 28, she was searching for balance, adjusting her emotional aperture to modulate how much of life got through: “Before everything could get to me—now nothing can—the next step is to let selected aspects of the real stuff of days get to me.”
Excerpts from the 1971 Journal of Rosemary Mayer
(Soberscove Press, 2020)
The second edition of Excerpts from the 1971 Journal of Rosemary Mayer gives us more of the real stuff: a woman reckoning with herself, her body, her art, her world. As a genre, journals appeal because they let you inhabit, in some small, voyeuristic way, another’s subjectivity. For that alone, this book is a gift to young creatives. There is solace in Mayer’s capriciousness and candor as she develops her style and navigates the New York art scene. In her journals, she creates and performs herself, composing an unguarded self-portrait of an artist as a young woman.
The first edition of Mayer’s 1971 journal, a slim paperback, was published in 2016 by Object Relations in conjunction with an exhibition at SOUTHFIRST Gallery in Brooklyn. One of many journals she kept over the years, it documents the time after Mayer separated from her husband, the artist Vito Acconci, and before she became a founding member of the women-led A.I.R. Gallery in New York City. During this time, she created “Veils,” a series of large looped, knotted, and painted fabric sculptures that materialize like lush, brooding spirits. The new edition of her journal includes additional photographs of her domestic life, preliminary sketches from her notebook, installation images, and precise, structural illustrations rendered in bright colored pencil. The updated book also comprises a much vaster collection of journal entries. This extended length makes all the difference—not because it matters, really, what Mayer did on any particular day, but because the accumulation of content gives her shape, the way small colored tiles form a mosaic.
In place of a traditional narrative, Mayer’s thoughts meander, fluctuating between formal modes and moods. Journal entries that might otherwise be tedious are kept fresh with a mixture of dead-pan delivery (“I came home feeling rotten. I bought a turtle. He won’t eat.”), melodrama (“I should cut my pair of pantyhose to shreds—& mail them to who’s responsible for people having to work”), and moments of philosophical insight (“The Aloneness hit me briefly this afternoon. To have continuity with no one”).
In 1971, Mayer was living in an apartment on Broome Street in Little Italy. Downtown Manhattan was in the midst of a creative revival. Mayer had met and befriended influential artists like Sol LeWitt, Donna Dennis, and Adrian Piper. An endorsement from LeWitt in 1970 reads, simply, “Dear Museum of Modern Art, Rosemary Mayer is a real artist.” Conceptual art was on the rise. Galleries moved downtown and multiplied. Women and people of color made space to create, even as they were sidelined from the mainstream conversation. Activists campaigned successfully to have SoHo rezoned to allow artists squatting in studio lofts to reside there legally. Not yet a caricature of gentrification, this was still a place for starving artists to starve for their art.
The city, in all its grit and charm, reflects Mayer’s state of mind. “I want to move,” she writes, “I feel as though this place is falling in on me. The peeling paint is a sign for my mind...sifting sand...with nothing in sight…” In her journals, she dwells on notions of materiality, fame, love, and money, intertwined with thoughts on literature, gallery shows, and events she attends. She declares Ray Bradbury “OK,” Joan Didion “phoney,” and Philip Glass “terrific.” The women’s march has “no euphoria, just lots of women.” She reads Anaïs Nin and resonates with the idea of wearing “a mask to avoid being hurt,” but Nin’s mask “was goodness, sweetness,” writes Mayer, “whereas mine is assurance, intellect, work, seriousness.” Mayer’s days bear the weight of unwrought resolutions—to quit smoking, to lose five pounds, to make more, better, bigger work; to collect unemployment, sidestep the 9–5 grind, to keep the plants alive (“3 plants have died so far”); to fall in love and love well, to forge into the future with a few scraps of fabric and a pack of cigarettes.
From these musings her artistic process emerges, not in flashes of clarity, but in the slow unravelling of days and months. The journal shows Mayer indulging in moments of inspiration, self-absorption, and self-criticism that any artist may recognize as her own. “I feel what I’m doing isn’t good enough to be important—That’s maybe what’s wrong,” she laments. Her awareness of being caught in this cycle is part of the cycle itself: “That I want it to be important so that I’ll be famous. I feel really vacant of ideas. Wait. I know I’ve been through this before. Is it any different this time?” We watch her work to define her place in the contemporary art scene: “Last night we looked at Colin Greenly’s work … glassy plastic crystal things—man-size decorations…are mine very different?” she wonders. “Mine are more concerned w. the stuff they use…their forms come from what materials do…& what I can do to them.” The physicality of her sculptures, art books, and performance pieces make them distinctively her own. “I’m a purist … subject matter is extraneous—it is the materials & their properties that I love,” she writes. While some of her work is purely material, others link the physicality of the object with a clear subject. Following a pregnancy scare, for example, she creates a new piece inspired by abortion, a visceral mess of beige cloth draped and stained “red as blood.”
In his 1967 essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Sol LeWitt argued that “the thought process[es] of the artist are sometimes more interesting than the final product.” Mayer’s journal proves the value of what LeWitt calls the “intervening steps,” the “scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed work, models, studies, thoughts, conversations.” Her records add new detail to the history of the New York art scene and offer a perspective on the creative life that is intimate, imperfect, and as interesting as any final work of art.