Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou

Passing the Times with Rosemary Mayer  

Rosemary Mayer: Ways of Attaching was shown at Spike Island, Bristol, between 8 October 2022 and 15 January 2023. 

Most of my day is spent travelling – walking as much as sitting on trains. So that, when my body finally arrives in Bristol, my brain is still wandering the streets of North London, trying to make out the early morning light through the trees. Google tells me the gallery is 30 minutes away, a straight walk, perpendicular on the screen, penetrating the outermost curve of the city. In reality, the path sharply clings to the abrupt swerves and turns of the River Avon. My feet will my brain onwards, to adjust in motion to this new place. But I know my travels have only just begun. That the terminus I reach will not be the end point, but one of departure. A new beginning, another journey, forwards – no, backwards – in time.  

I move my feet in accordance to Google’s directions, the surging river to the left of me, a sea of cars flowing to my right. 


Spike Island is a brick compound of Tardis-like proportions. Outside it resembles a small school or warehouse; inside, the ceiling of its first gallery projects upwards like a cathedral. There is a kind of worship in this space, one worthy of a pilgrimage, but it doesn’t involve hymn books, communion or miraculous occurrences, as such.   

At long last my brain catches up with my feet, and I walk into the quiet of the gallery in a reflective mood befitting one entering a church. A chapel-like dimness meets me and I’ve half a mind to light a candle. Strange shapes hover in different coordinates of the room, materials float and shift in alternate corners, but what catches my eye first is a book on display, placed carefully, like a bible on an altar. 

This is Rosemary Mayer’s handmade art book, Passages, based on her own tour across Europe in 1975. I do not know how Mayer made that trip – whether she flew on planes or sat on multiple trains or hitchhiked her way through Italy, Germany, France and England. I do not know how she felt in transit: did she, like me, feel sick in cars or on boats? And I do not know whether when in France, her head was still in Rome, feet motioning across the gravel esplanades of the Tuileries though her mind’s eye was full of Bernini’s marble sculptures, smooth to the touch but colder than the ponds of the Grande Couvert. What I do know is that her book is full of such travels. That the cities she toured are at once immortalised and morph, perhaps mortally so, across its pages. That her reconstruction – using paper and vellum, collage and drawings, photographs and sketches in graphite, ink and watercolour – of European cultural and political history becomes her own.  

In Passages, Mayer traverses histories and historicizes her own traversal of spaces and times by overlaying written and drawn memories onto historical accounts and artistic monuments. Moving across and through these austere and august locales, the literal corridors of art history, Mayer seeks out the women behind the artistic, monarchic and papal masters. She exhumes their buried stories from within the catacombs of these holy sites, commemorating their visions with her own. Travelling back in time, Mayer not only perceives but retrieves forgotten figures, conducts a sacred ceremony of exchange with ideas long lost, tongues long silenced. She travels, displacing 1970 onto 1670, so as to illuminate their mutual continuum, their interaction, not intermission, as epochal producers of cultural knowledge. Embedding her imagination in that of the past, she demonstrates that travel is a thing of the mind as much as the body. That truly being in a place requires a mental embrace, an intellectual inhabitation as much as a physical one. 

I move between the pages that have been removed from Mayer’s book and displayed behind a clear screen. It is ironic, no doubt intentionally so, that a book devoted to relics has now become its own reliquary; its own gorgeous, coveted artefact, at once solidifying and narrating a stage, a process, a moment in Mayer’s life more than those upon which it mediates and monumentalizes.  

The eye of my phone takes one, two, three shots of a page devoted to the sanctification of Teresa d’Avila – cut me a hand, then a foot, then the other. I am in Rome. I am in the Santa Maria della Vittoria. I am in a crypt. I am in a chapel. I am in Bristol. I am in a gallery. I am in Mayer’s New York apartment, piecing together these especial fragments from a trip of a lifetime in this her decade of abundant creative endeavour. 

Pre-Google and digitisation, Passages offers more than a database, a virtual map, an album of  photographic snaps algorithmically collected and stored in the hard drives of our lives. Instead, Mayer  invites us to peel back the layers, open the red velvet casing, and recollect, through her own  recollections, Europe in the seventeenth-century, Europe in the 1970s, Europe in the now, pressing in,  passing through those times, which are now our times, the various passages illuminated, consecrated,  in Mayer’s beautifully constructed book.  

Say a prayer at the turn of each page, and a colloquy of voices sing out from the chancel of this work. 


Though beautiful and playful and multitudinous in thought and visual detail, Passages is not the work  for which Mayer is best known. It is, however, a brilliant compendium of the themes and interests that  preoccupied her in the 1970s. It captures Mayer’s desire to commemorate, commentate and even  decorate the passing – indeed, the phases and “passages” – of time. It captures her ability to  personalise grand historical public events and depersonalise and aggrandise smaller anecdotal ones. It  captures the eternal in the ephemeral, the serious in the trivial, the sparse in the excessive, the infinite  and the magnificent in the finite and the everyday. Though Mayer was to develop these preoccupations  in her works of sculpture, painting and drawing, and her continued practise of journaling and letter  writing, it is Passages that holds these divergent themes and temporalities together whilst replicating  them through the turning of the page, the corollary of leaves folded one against the other, the rippling out and accruing of experiences and impressions through diverse media and mediums. 

Passages, is, therefore, a baroque work, in a Deleuzian sense, that moves and renews itself through the imposing architecture and ornate edifices and marbled bodies of the actual baroque era. There is ‘always a fold within the fold’ in Mayer’s work; again, a literal ravelling and unravelling of former ages, the actual fabrics of former times and their fabricated histories, all the while refolding another time – the creative and feminist revolution that was the 70s – and place – the US – and subjectivities – Mayer herself – into its reconsidered and reconstituted pages.  

Consider those leaves devoted to Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, as I did, in the gallery, then later, on the train speeding towards home. A photocopied photograph of St. Teresa’s prolonged ecstasy precariously pivots against a backdrop of undulating lines and organic flourishes of mauve, turquoise, yellow and blue – the signature shapes and sensuous sensibility of Mayer’s surrounding compositions. The saint’s ecstasy – or ours at contemplating this copy of her face – bursts out from the monochromatic close up into an additional, alternate plane of pleasure, the passing of which is extended, in perpetuum, through Mayer’s deliberate isolation and decoration of it. Time, like pleasure, Mayer suggests, is what we make it, what we choose to dwell on and project our desires onto – or into. Time, like pleasure, she implies, is the image that collects or is collected by it – Teresa’s face – and time, like pleasure, is the form, the vessel, that transforms and transcends its supposed passing and wasting and rushing away.  

Rosemary Mayer, Detail: Passages (1976), Collaged pages in plastic sleeves, handmade binding and red velvet cover. Courtesy The Estate of Rosemary Mayer.

Teresa’s expression of extreme pleasure – divinely erotic as it may be – becomes ours, as well as a time-expanding though contextually specific measure of it. Teresa’s pleasure, now ours, is an icon entirely of and yet removed from its initial time – Bernini’s time – of making. Here, Mayer’s extrication of Teresa from the grotto of the chapel – and from the voyeuristic Cornaro patriarchs attempting to observe the vision, the cascade of gold light, the angel with the phallic gold spear, the saint’s own ossified veils spilling down and out and over a rocky platform – magnifies this pleasurable instant – the pleasure of time and time becoming pleasure.  

With just her face, and Mayer’s own pencil drawings, the erotics of Teresa – of seeing and witnessing and subliminally experiencing her pleasure especially – at once suspend time and spill out of it, into Mayer’s memorialisation, into our own, into mine on the train as I speed past Bath and Chippenham, Swindon and Reading.  

This is the most baroque of moments – the continuous unfurling of being out into the present, the future, from the past. Out from the marble, from the photograph, from the faded page, a fold in a fold, times in time. Teresa’s face – not the next page calligraphically written by Mayer about the saint’s grizzly canonisation through post mortem dismembering – the fixing of a holy but bodily ecstasy of which we know nothing and yet everything; the closed eyes, the open mouth ever opening onto…the sensory envelopment of a higher power and its overpowering, sensuous, spiritual hold; the flowing of unceasing warm pleasure from hard, cold stone. 


In her 1971 journal, several years before she would tour Europe and glimpse the face of Bernini’s Teresa, Mayer reflected on the baroque nature of her work.  

1971 would be a year of changes in legislation, a year of feminist conferences, campaigning and consciousness-raising groups. It would be a year of self-exploration and artistic experimentation for Mayer; a year of lovers and longing and looking at art made by others. A year of unemployment and financial insecurity and loneliness, from which would spring new ideas and reflections on her practise – though the thinking, questioning, conversing and making of art is momentarily described in one journal entry as a ‘substitute’ for sex (think Bernini’s Teresa again).  

1971, the year Mayer would draw her ideas when words failed her. The year when the process of drawing would become an aesthetic in itself; not a surrogate for the sculptural line but the prompt and promise and full probability of it. The year when she would fully embrace the baroque in the quotidian and the mundane, grasp the beauty and fantasy in the domestic (in materials like cheesecloth and ribbon and rayon), the sensual and luxurious play of colour, whether it be on the page or the wall.  

‘I’ve been making a lot of drawings–of impossible pieces–I like them because it’s a chance to play with colours & all the possibilities of draping, tying, sewing, etc…w.o. & they can be unfettered by space & size…what they do is actualize in real materials–paintings–’ (p.128) 

These drawings made in the formative year of 1971 – of what would go on to be a most fruitful decade artistically for Mayer – hang in the gallery not far from where Passages is displayed, not far from Teresa’s open mouth and elative vision. Exquisitely drawn, they do indeed reflect the ‘possibilities of draping, tying, sewing’ without the requisite cash artists so often desired to create. In coloured pens and marker, the lines that we see swirling evocatively and sensuously around the head of Bernini’s ecstatic saint, are here ‘impossibly’ but irrefutably, boldly, employed to effect translucent layers of feeling. Magenta drapes are knotted in pellucent fabrics of blue and yellow, theatrically overlaying one over the other. Simple, yet exuberant in their sheer folds, the drawings arrange and expand and compress time in their knots and ties, their pleats and creases, their orchestrated flow and filigree of intricate intersections. Small scraps of fabric – a navy strand against a strip of red – cascade richly, elaborately, downwards (like Teresa’s dress), creating arcs and loops of connection, a frisson of contact, a sophisticated and operatic motion like a single brush stroke or a note suspended in air, on paper, against a wall.  

Rosemary Mayer, De Medici (1972), Coloured pencil and graphite on paper. Courtesy Andreas und Margrethe Schmeer

Simple, yet elaborate in their understanding of the interplay between time and space, the eye and the material, these drawings show the future of Mayer’s work. They hold the manifold possibilities she sought but struggled to attain, in 1971, from painting and sculpture, but would eventually rediscover through her love and belief in the inherent potentiality and properties of cloth materials: ‘art pushes the boundaries where afghans & scarves & pillowcases don’t. Could they?’ (p.54). Yes, they could. 

Like Teresa’s perfectly sculpted head mid-gasp (the simultaneous ellipsis and elapsing of ecstasy), Mayer’s drawings convey something of this prolonged pleasure and passion; they show how ordinary materials exude an extraordinarily palpable presence – at least to the eye that seeks such pleasure. And the eye – much like it does with the extravagantly crafted and embellished pages of Passages – does seek: it seeks to look, and looks to touch, her drawings, her ideas, with pleasure, with relish – because they give us this in the first place.   

‘…what really turns me on about art, is looking at art, that I love visually arresting, interesting to caress with the eyes art…which only goes along with my sensual nature…please me everything…do it…but looking is really the most important channel for me…’ (p.141)  

Like Mayer, we look at those lush lines, the curves of the pencil against the page, the sweep of soft cloth, the swirls of the imagination, a new body of possibility, feeling, unfolding its way into being. 


If drawing was to be a mode of realising and releasing this pleasure, this pleasing time of looking, the eventual material sculptures made later in the decade by Mayer only accentuated this. 1971 was an important year, but the mid-to-late 70s, as Passages highlights, saw Mayer develop her practise and go on to create even bolder cloth works that challenged interdisciplinary boundaries and confounded where the line of drawing begins and that of sculpture ends.   

Lucretia in Ferrara 1509 (1973), a large coloured pencil drawing on paper, did exactly this. Resembling one of Mayer’s sculptures, the drawing extends the same delicate, organic lineation and shade found in Passages and her drawings of 1971. Yet it evades one’s sense of what it exactly gestures towards. Multiple lines, like miniature pleats, stitched seams or minute folds, breathe and spread morphically across the page. The drawing appears to exult in its own joyous repetitions and linear ambiguity. Imitative of gathered fabric twisting in its own colourful volutions and striations – or the painted canvases Mayer twisted and separated from their wooden frames – Lucretia in Ferrara is not so much design as the nearest thing to a drawing-cum-sculpture. Its occupation of space, its evolving and spreading in gradual lucent layers expresses something of the mood and movement found in her contemporaneous cloth work, The Catherines (1973), a larger than life baroque presence that billows out from a flattened bustle-like wooden structure that undergirds swathes of rayon, pellon, ribbon, nylon and cheesecloth in regal tones.  

What Mayer gives us – proffers to the eye and its eager touch – are tantalising apparitions of bodies in pencil and cloth. Choosing to commemorate the memories of classical and renaissance women – Lucretia Borgia and the many Catherines throughout the ages – both works tempt and tease in their plenitude and the magnitude of their material qualities (or the qualities they emulate in the case of Lucretia in Ferrara). Yet both resist interpretation; both fold away simplistic readings in the complexity of their revising and devolving of space. 

Standing alone, all I see is the pleasure in the monuments. The smoothing over of socio-political creases that such women as Lucretia Borgia and Catherine de Medici or the Empress of Russia knew in their lifetimes; and the generous allowance of actual drapes and folds of material to talk, to hypnotically burgeon and froth forth into the gallery, to occupy its space, to haunt a wall, to trick a corner, to drift onto the floor, to captivate the eye, to confound chronological time and all of its historical contortions into this spectral resounding and materialising of self.  

Unlike Bernini’s Teresa, Mayer’s legendary female personages come back to us in undulant colours and living lines, in royal shades and dramatic opulent hangings. They sweep the stage of art institutions and appear in all their excessive amorphous glory. Though they are as mannered and expressive and voluptuously apparent as Teresa – as any baroque statue or scene – they are not monuments that could become stuck or staid in a certain critical contextual, but evade and embrace time at once. Lucretia of the sixteenth century blooms out in the late twentieth; Catherine the Great of the eighteenth impressively gathers the room about her. Mayer’s cloth envisions not so much the women themselves, but their power, their vibrance, their vitality; she makes their presence tangibly and texturally felt, once again, through the ages. 


On the train, looking at the fabric of the night unfurl, the stars and their stud-like embellishment flash bright, I wonder about other contemporary artists who looked back in order to work forward.  

What differentiates Mayer’s propensity to commemorate hidden historical female figures and stories from, say, her contemporary, the artist Judy Chicago? Two women artists who specialised in uniting the abstractly floral with women who flourished in the past. Could it be that what differentiates them is the lack of moralising, on Mayer’s part? Where Chicago’s monumental installation, The Dinner Party (1974-78), also uses craft and textile techniques to celebrate and figure the presence of mythological and real women (from Virginia Woolf to Hildegard von Bingen to the Primordial Goddess), Mayer deliberately denies the specificity of her classical personages. There are no idiosyncrasies or details or motifs as identifiers, unlike those found in Chicago’s place settings. There are no personal stories woven or embroidered into the cloth, sketched into her drawings (no crowns for her Catherines, no trellis of golden hair for Lucretia, indeed no cloth for her extracted copy of Teresa). And while Chicago celebrates the individual’s contribution by forming a literal canonical space, Mayer commends her figures as a once material contribution in and of herself, that need to be known but not personally so. Her sculptures are spectres, haunting the passage of time, augmenting the surfaces they hang from, hauntingly floating in or uncannily hovering around areas, subtly subverting spaces and their rules and regulations, slyly inverting the rules and regulations of discrete and distinct art forms, questioning who should make them, and how, and where they should be displayed. Mayer’s monuments quietly question the monumentalising process (and its material practises and conditions) itself. Chicago’s work does so too, but in its essentialising of embodied femininity, its didacticism, and exclusions of certain figures over others, The Dinner Party throws the problematics of monuments of maidens into the light again. 

Chicago, a name known to us unlike Mayer, forges connections between women of disparate eras, but in an overtly uncompromising and didactic fashion. Mayer, with her cheesecloth and rayon and dye, softly, playfully, probingly, seductively asks us to connect, through the veils of time, with those of the past, here, in whatever present known to us. 


Then again, I can’t help but wonder: while Mayer and Chicago were drawing affinities between themselves and women of the past, why did they not create lines of communication between each other?  

Mayer, though a founding member of A.I.R, an independent, not-for-profit gallery formed and run by and for 22 women artists, expresses frustration with the women-only nature of feminist groups in her 1971 diary. There is the implication – as there is with her ghostly sculpture Hypsipyle (1973), based on a mythological queen who refused to kill her father during a war between men and women – that Mayer found the focus or atmosphere of these groups trying. Unlike Chicago, whose Dinner Party involved over a hundred women volunteers, Mayer mostly worked alone or collaborated in smaller groups, with friends and family. There remain, nevertheless, ties of affection – ‘Ways of Attaching’ as the Spike Island exhibition title suggests – between her and other women artists and friends, as well as female personas of periods past. Again, here, her attachments are carried through woven things – materials friends donate or find for her work – the power of a pink sheet of paper written and sent to her by her sister, Bernadette – the metaphor of clothes, especially a woollen jumper full of holes, being analysed by Bernadette as her sister’s fear of being alone, exposed and vulnerable.  

Rosemary Mayer, Hypsipyle (1973), Satin, rayon, nylon, cheesecloth, nylon netting, ribbon, dyes, wood, acrylic paint. Installation view, Ways of Attaching, Swiss Institute, New York. Courtesy of Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Stitches in time, anatomies of paper or satin, netting or acrylic paint; here, in these material modes and mothers, Mayer connects with women of the past, women of the present, and women of the future.  

We don’t have to – can’t – talk in tongues of marble after all.  


And still the baroque – the dramatic, the fantastical, the sublime – travels forward into our midst, not from heaven, but from Mayer’s archive of historical women. 

Galla Placidia (1973) sails from the furthermost corner of the gallery, assertively pointing to its centre, a magisterial matriarch of a form, a force of splendour against the stark whiteness of this room. Akin to one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s floral paintings bursting into life, the sculpture exudes a suprahuman quality, an alien sense of propriety and importance. A form that purports to defy gravity (though in actuality it is suspended with transparent string from the ceiling), Galla Placidia gives the impression of weight and might and power, while effortlessly and gracefully levitating before us. Purples, pinks and mustards gather over a barque-like frame, a train of purple cloth amply pouring from its uppermost outer curve – a shimmering wake of mauve over yellow over green gently meeting the floor. 

I am impressed. This is not a sculpture that caresses the eye – or, indeed, that the eye caresses, like those of her 1971 drawings or cloth works. This intrudes and protrudes into our view, commands our full attention and respect. Taking its name after a woman who was, as the wall caption says, ‘a major force in Roman politics during the fifth century, who eventually became a regent of the Western Roman Empire’, Galla Placidia is an ostensibly simple work that hides – folds into itself – its complexities, its fragilities, its gathered and gathering historical problems. Named after a woman who endured slavery, forced marriage, probable rape, as well as influencing the course of Roman political life and Christian culture, Galla Placidia commemorates the presence of possible power wielded and embodied by a woman only. Unlike Chicago’s pantheon of a commemoration, Galla Placidia, much like The Catherines and Lucreita of Ferrara, assembles the force of such women, allows the abstraction of them to take over, captivate and delight, seize and steal our gaze from ourselves, from our surroundings, not to tell a story or hand out a moral, but to have us witness, have us enjoy, have us revere them as entities of something often denied (forceful figures who were there), as artworks of seemingly grand, conceptually baroque, but materially simple gestures and gesturing; as memorabilia to actions past continuing out into our present.  

Rosemary Mayer, Galla Placidia (1973), Satin, rayon, nylon, cheesecloth, nylon netting, ribbon, dyes, wood. Courtesy The Estate of Rosemary Mayer.

 They are folds unfolding back and forwards, forwards and back again in time; a Deleuzian ‘coextensivity of the unveiling and veiling of Being…’ of artistic being; of Mayer’s artistry too, a woman channelling then controlling (corralling?) the baroque, so as not to be in a passionate thrall to it (Bernini’s Teresa again). Travelling through places – Catherine’s Russia, Placidia’s Rome, Teresa’s too – through times – the end of the Roman empire, the beginning of a religious war, then a feminist one – through spaces – chapels and apartments, galleries and books, trains and tunnels of thought – Mayer’s cloth apparitions appear, reminding us of the passages through which we too will walk, one early morning, one late night, our heads in one place, our feet motioning across gravel towards another. 


Excerpts from the 1971 Journal of Rosemary Mayer, edited by Marie Warsh (Soberscove Press) and The Letters of Rosemary and Bernadette Mayer, 1976-1980, edited by Gillian Sneed and Marie Warsh (Spike Island, UK, 2022), are both available to purchase now.  

Quotations and fleeting references to Deleuze’s thoughts on the fold and the function of the Baroque are taken from Gilles Deleuze & Jonathan Strauss (trans), ‘The Fold’, in Yale French Studies, no. 80 (1991), pp.227-247. 

Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou is is a writer, the founding editor-in-chief and general arts editor of Lucy Writers, and is currently writing up her PhD in English Literature (and Visual Material Culture) at UCL. She regularly writes on visual art, dance and literature for magazines such as The London Magazine, The Arts Desk, The White Review, Plinth UK, Burlington Contemporary, review 31, Club des Femmes, The Asymptote Journal, The Double Negative and many others. From 2022-2023, Hannah will be managing an Arts Council England-funded project for emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds, titled What the Water Gave Us, in collaboration with The Ruppin Agency and Writers’ Studio. She is also working on a hybrid work of creative non-fiction about women artists and drawing.

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