The Letters of Rosemary and Bernadette Mayer, 1976-1980

Daniel Muzyczuk

Rosemary Mayer, Some Days in April, 1978. Colored pencil, graphite, ink, and watercolor on paper, 66 x 101.6 cm. Image courtesy of the Estate of Rosemary Mayer. Photo by Greg Carideo and Gordon Robichaux.

June 30, 2023

The poet Bernadette Mayer and her artist sister Rosemary began to write to each other when the former moved with her family from New York to Lenox, being deterred from phone calls by the expense. Over the four years covered by this anthology of their letters, Bernadette gave birth to two children, collaborated with her husband Lewis Walsh on the 1976 collection Piece of Cake, and worked towards her book-length poem Midwinter Day; Rosemary introduced the ephemeral installations involving snow or balloons that she called “Temporary Monuments.” Their correspondence—which complements Rosemary’s recent touring exhibition “Ways of Attaching”—both illuminates and substantiates the recent growth of interest in the sisters’ work: anecdotes of daily life mix with candid confessions of loneliness, worries about money, and, above all, attentive criticism of each other’s work and methods during these formative years in their practices.

A large number of these letters end with reading (and watching) lists: Braudel, Fassbinder, Genet, Stein… Rosemary visits the cinema in New York and recommends new movies to her sister (notwithstanding the fact that these were probably hard to find in rural Massachusetts). But when she begins to examine new trends in psychoanalysis, it’s Bernadette who offers advice on where to start with Lacan. Through these letters, it’s possible to reconstruct the set of shared influences that shaped their respective work: an exchange of opinions about Proust, for example, reflects their common fascination with temporality and the quotidian. As well as extending outwards into each other’s spheres, there’s a sense in this correspondence that each is coming to understand their own practice better.

Yet this is not merely an exchange between two sisters who missed each other: these letters should be also considered as works, as the obligation to write with news to the other expanded into an experimental writing practice, the form unlimited by the letters’ function as reports on their daily lives. Bernadette included some of them in her book The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (published only in 1994). “I have my intentions,” she noted in her journal, “to record states of consciousness, special involving change and sudden change, high and low food, levels of attention and how intentions change. And to do this as an emotional science as though, I have taken a month-drug and work as observer of self in process.”1 Rosemary expressed a similar insight in her own journal when she compared her writing with that of Anais Nin: “I try to include everything that’s happening to me. Physical, food, exercise she doesn’t include. Or the weather & how it affects her - or sex though it’s prob. just cut out. I feel so much more solid and rooted in necessity than she seems to.”2 Writing, for both Mayers, was—like their respective work—deeply rooted in everyday experience, and their letters to one another provided a form of exercise in self-awareness.

They were directly involved in each other’s work, too. Over this period, Rosemary was delivering cover art for books by Bernadette and Warsh, who included her writing in their magazine United Artists. At times, these gestures of mutual support would go even further: in one letter, Bernadette asks Rosemary to prepare a list of new art practices, which she subsequently included in Midwinter Day—a recording of September 22, 1978—as activities she would like to be involved in. The publication of these letters reveals how these usual items of everyday life became raw material for this monumental yet intimate enterprise, and lays bare the significance the work held for Bernadette, rooted in the ideas generated by their sisterly correspondence. “I had planned to talk about aesthetics,” she wrote to Rosemary after the poem was complete, “I wound up talking about art and family, writing and being a woman and my wonder at how little information about the past has been transmitted and made available to me through women.”3

In one letter, Rosemary reflects that her investigation into feminism is very different than that of Judy Chicago, whose Dinner Party (1974–79) is based on a constellation of heroic biographies; Rosemary’s work, much like her sister’s, is more concerned with mundane lives. It’s this same fascination that drove her to translate the sixteenth-century diaries of Jacopo da Pontormo into English: a journal containing lists of meals and expenses, not the public deeds of a famous artist. This publication offers us another lens through which to observe how these two sisters transmuted everyday life into art.

The Letters of Rosemary and Bernadette Mayer, 1976-1980 is a co-publication by Lenbachhaus, Ludwig Forum, Spike Island, and the Swiss Institute.


Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals, (Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 2011), 15.


Excerpts from the 1971 Journal of Rosemary Mayer, ed. Marie Warsh, (Chicago: Soberscove Press, 2020), 107.


The Letters of Rosemary and Bernadette Mayer, 1976-1980, ed. Gillian Sneed and Marie Warsh (Lenbachhaus, Munich; Ludwig Forum, Aachen; Spike Island, Bristol; Swiss Institute, New York, 2022), 284.

Poetry, Publishing, Family

Daniel Muzyczuk is the Head of the Modern Art Department at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź. He was the co-curator of Konrad Smoleński’s exhibition for the Polish Pavillion at the 55th Venice Biennale.

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June 30, 2023

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