Meyer’s prolific output challenged conventions, eschewing order for automatic expression and speaking bluntly on the experience of motherhood. She first gained critical acclaim for her durational experiment Memory, in which she paired one roll of film shot every day for a month in 1971 with voiceover narration.
A central figure of the New York small-press community, she published a number of significant writers, earning praise because she had a keen eye for talent.
Bernadette Mayer was born in Brooklyn in 1945 and had what she described as a childhood preoccupied with loss. “Everybody in my family died by the time I was sixteen,” she told Artforum in 2020. “My relatives were afraid that if they adopted me, they would die too. My father died of a hereditary condition at age forty-nine, so I thought I had to hurry up and do everything I wanted to do before age forty-nine.”
She was forced by her uncle, who became her reluctant guardian, to attend the College of New Rochelle, a Catholic university and “a really bad place to be,” she said. After his death she dropped out and enrolled at the New School.
Mayer took a poetry course with Bill Berkson and absorbed the New York School of poets, which included Frank O’Hara, who was known for his poignant, diaristic style, and John Ashbery, whose labyrinthine poems push the limits of comprehension. In 1967, she graduated from the New School, where she would later return to teach, and cofounded the magazine 0 to 9 with Vito Acconci, who had been married to Mayer’s sister, Rosemary Mayer, a sculptor who cofounded A.I.R. Gallery.
After 0 to 9 folded in 1969, Bernadette Mayer became involved with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where she taught workshops and was even named its director in 1980. She led the organization until 1984, having established a lecture series and a Monday night reading series with a $10,000 donation from the Grateful Dead, both of which the Poetry Project still hosts. That year she also departed United Artists Press, which she had confounded with her then-partner Lewis Warsh.
Meanwhile she steadily published and exhibited her own work, including Memory, first presented in 1972 at New York’s 98 Greene Street. The show included 1,200 photographs arranged in sequential order and paired with a 31-part voiceover narration lasting seven hours in which she provided musings and memories about the images. It was well-received, with Village Voice critic A. D. Coleman describing it as “a unique and deeply exciting document.”
Memory has been presented several times in various forms since then, including a 2020 edition containing text and photographs by Siglio Press in 2020.
Mayer was the recipient of a 1995 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists award, a 2009 Creative Capital award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship. She penned some 30 books of poetry and prose, including the book-length poem, Midwinter Day, written during a single day.
Commenting on the poem in The American Poetry Review, poet Fanny Howe said, “In a language made up of idiom and lyricism, Mayer cancels the boundaries between prose and poetry… Her search for patterns woven out of small actions confirms the notion that seeing what is is a radical human gesture.”