Rosemary Mayer: The Catherines, 1972–73, wood, fabric, and dye, 10 by 6 by 4 feet; at Southfirst.

This exhibition of works that Rosemary Mayer made between 1969 and 1973—a period during which she and nineteen other women artists founded the cooperative A.I.R. Gallery, and a broadly fertile time for the New York art scene of which she was a part—demonstrated how she gracefully negotiated between Conceptualism and gauzy materiality, between structure and the ephemeral. It showed the artist, who died in 2014, experimenting in a handful of mediums, starting with text pieces and drawings and building up to arresting fabric-and-wood sculptures.

The presentation began with displays of paper-based work, including editions from 1967 and ’68 of 0 to 9, a mimeograph-printed magazine edited by Mayer’s then-husband, Vito Acconci, and her sister, Bernadette Mayer, to which she contributed formally spare drawings. Also shown here were her text works from the same time, many of them simple exploratory pieces that respond to rules or systems: idiosyncratic ways of counting, additive modes of building a sketch over the course of multiple pages. Such works most clearly echo the Conceptual practices of Mayer’s peers, but also are rooted in space, whether through Mayer’s concrete poetry–style attention to the page’s form or through her direct textual references to her urban surroundings.

Following this selection of various black-and-white works, the show took on color. A number of studies in colored pencil on paper—most 8½ by 11 inches—sketch out the fabric sculptures she would go on to produce. These annotated pieces function both as maps to their three-dimensional corollaries and as stand-alone works. Mayer—who was also a writer and a diarist (alongside the show, the gallery published a collection of her journals from the same span of time as the works on view)—lodged ideas in materials in strange, brainy, and loving ways, and her illustrations animate these processes, sometimes while providing dry commentary. In one, an arrow points to a depiction of a form consisting of four sections of cloth (blue, yellow, purple, and red) draped within a square frame. “Too much a painting,” Mayer observes. 

While the drawings have a strong material presence, Mayer’s reliance on the written word launches them beyond pure formalism. One illustration, depicting two of the wood-and-string bow shapes that often form the skeletons of Mayer’s sculptures, offers handwritten instructions that resemble an off-the-cuff poem:

BENT RODS 

how to bend them

wrap them in wet stuff

make a bow

 

Although the act of diagramming quietly centered the exhibition, the small selection of Mayer’s fabric sculptures still felt like a culmination. Lady of the Mercians (1973) balances semicircles of ruched, transparent loose weaves in rust and gold on thin wooden bows affixed to two dowels. Suspended near the wall, it resembled at once an ethereal organism and, with its reliance on wire and hooks to stay afloat, a makeshift construction. The Catherines (1972–73) was the most ambitious work on view. A pole nearly the height of the gallery’s ceiling supports a network of wooden bows draped in fabrics in various fleshy tones. The airy cloth was sewn using dressmaking techniques, giving the construction an eerie bodily feel. The Catherines is meant to evoke a wide-ranging lineup of great women named Catherine: Catherine the Great, Catherine of Sienna, Catherine of Aragon, and so on. Mayer’s uncanny and lush sense of material is undergirded by the complex figurations of women’s history, which appear in her sculptures as patterns, stitches, bent wood, and dressmaking forms. Her sort of abstract works seem to take pleasure in structure—whether the laws of gravity, the rules of language, or the narratives of history—openly blooming out from what governed their creation.