Review: Temporary Monuments: Work by Rosemary Mayer, 1977–1982

Temporary Monuments: Work by Rosemary Mayer, 1977–1982
Soberscove Press
Edited by Marie Warsh and Max Warsh
Introduction by Gillian Sneed

I was never an art student, but I picked up a few along the way. It happened, as these things do, during and just after college, and I was surrounded by a unaffiliated mobile colony-salon of painters, cartoonists, designers, and none-of-the-aboves. With artists come art projects, and I recall many days and nights of artfulness with my friends: sketching and cartooning, painting and zining, melting crayons onto collages and photo montages, and graveyard photo shoots that felt so REAL, you know? Art. ART. AHHHRRRRRRRT.

Naturally, all that art now rots in landfills (save for the cemetery pix. I have one too many shots of me with Morrissey hair, draped across a gravestone). Ars brevis, vita longa, despite what you may have heard. But the experience, and frankly the fun of expressive experimentation with ready-made materials, stick with me.

I sense that same kind of whimsy, spontaneous invention, and transience—though with a particular edge—in Rosemary Mayer’s work, chronicled in Temporary Monuments: Work by Rosemary Mayer, 1977–1982. Mayer—who passed in 2014—was New York-based and active in the feminist art movement from the late sixties on.

I’m not reducing Mayer’s work to art student fiddling about, mind you. She was best-known for her early series of fabric sculptures—though it’s a fame confined to the art community—which were particularly lush, strong, and suffused with a mysterious wisdom and elegance. As for her next trick, the  Temporary Monuments series cataloged in this book… Honestly? The book, while pretty, isn’t the best way to experience her art, though it does have its rewards.

How do you chart the history of temporary art? It’s so temporary. Surely the first temporary art was so absolutely temporary we have no record of it. The notion smacks of 20th century invention, probably pushed by those smart-aleck Dada, Surrealist, or Fluxus types. Plenty of individual artists have created fleeting conceptual works that underscore the ephemerality of time and existence; the pervasiveness of entropy, decay, and death, and all that cal. Yoko Ono’s Apple; Joseph Beuys Fat Chair; Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Breath; or any of Damien Hirst’s horror film psycho props come to mind.

No particular movement or artist can lay claim to temporary art. Or maybe all artists can. Ultimately, all art is temporary, and the heat death of the universe is the ultimate critic. The Mona Lisa, Guernica, The Starry Night, Jeff Koons’ shiny balloon animals (thank God)—all destined for the cosmic fire pit and cold ashes of oblivion the un-morning after.

Mayer was aware of her monuments’ finite nature. That was the point. As noted in the book, she was surrounded by male artists like Richard Serra (who created monolithic steel sculptures that man-spread themselves across public spaces to the annoyance of pedestrians worldwide), she chose to make impermanent works that struck a chord but didn’t impose on the space or viewer.

Mayer’s materials were bright but evanescent—balloons, ribbons, metallic streamers, fabric, paint, and snow. Her themes were not. She erected monuments to friends, family, and forgotten people, that were festive, playful, and, I suspect, relatively cheap. Capable of being set up and taken down in a flash, they were appropriate tributes to our fleeting moments on this planet.

Mayer’s Snow People, displayed in the Garden of the Lenox Library in Lenox, MA, (1979) is, to me, the book’s strongest piece. Snowhumans created to provide a suggestion of a human figure and the shadow of facial features, named in the plural on painted signs placed at their frosty feet. Adelines for all the women named Adeline that lived a hundred years before, accompanied by an anonymous gathering of Thomases, Williams,  Ediths, Fannys, and others. Another collection of suggested spirits was Ghosts, a series of installations at U of C’s Renaissance Society, the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, NY, and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Ghosts is an airy, supernaturally uplit collection of specters crafted from crinkly paper and ribbons, static yet roiling, draped and crucified on crossed frames of thin wooden sticks. Unlike other works in the book, the Ghosts installation comes with no explanation, but that’s a point in its favor.

Do all the pieces work? I’m reminded of the saying, “I guess you had to be there.” Spell and Some Days in April probably provided a stirring sight in person, but the book’s photographs, while sharp and professional, don’t really put you in the middle of the action. You have to imagine the balloons soaring and the ribbons flapping yourself. Mayer created Balloon for a Birthday in 1978, making us 40 years late to the party. Her monuments, long gone, are made still more temporary by their inability to be truly preserved, physically or even visually. You get the sense that you’re missing something, or rather you missed something by not being there to see Some Days in April take flight, as it were. Photographs and films can preserve a scene but never provide a sense of presence. They’re just glimpses and hints of what went down. Then again, that may have been another one of Ms. Mayer’s points.

The installations do soar in Mayer’s art books. Several pages are nicely reproduced containing her musings and sketches of the inspiration and implementation of each work. I’m a sucker for sketchbooks and Mayer’s were filled with sinuous, colorful renderings that, frankly, look better than some of the finished projects, are a pleasure to peruse. Altogether, Temporary Monuments is a lovely package commemorating, and serving as a monument to, a less well-known artist and an inspired period of her career.

Temporary Monuments: Work by Rosemary Mayer, 1977–1982 is available for $30 from Soberscove Press and Small Press Distribution.

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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.