Theater of Painting



Susan Bee is a painter, editor, and book artist who lives in New York. Bee is represented by Accola Griefen Gallery, New York, where she will have a solo show of new paintings from May 23 to June 29, 2013.

Criss Cross: New Paintings will be accompanied by a catalog with an essay by art critic and poet Raphael Rubinstein.

Bradley RubensteinSusan, I just saw this piece by Roger Denson in the Huffington Post: "Mira Schor and Susan Bee, the Thelma and Louise of the Feminist Painting and Crit set, pose the biggest threat to male domination of the medium and criticism of painting in that they are critics as wellas painters, and editors to boot, whose joint imprimatur has been pulsing out the feminist-left political art journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G since the mid-1980s." (Huffington Post, May 1, 2012)

I thought that was really great. It ties together your importance as a painter and the relevance that your work with M/E/A/N/I/N/G still has today as intellectual currency. In some ways it seems that it might be a little daunting to be seen as such an historical figure. I wanted to bring it up as we start, since we are going to be talking a little about your past work as well as the things you are currently working on for your upcoming show.

Susan Bee: I was pleased that Roger included us in his "Left Political Art Timeline, 2001-2012" and also that he cited my painting with the caption "It was a decade of ANGRY painting, and nearly all of it was by women painters." I am feeling more like an historical figure lately, especially with the 25-year anniversary of M/E/A/N/I/N/G in 2011, and my own work as an artist going back over 40 years. I guess that feeling is a product of growing old and continuing to make art -- against all odds. I have seen many other artists quit, as they became discouraged and just couldn't keep up the fight to make their art. It has been a struggle for me to continue. I sometimes talk to my students about the Sixties and Seventies and the beginnings of the feminist movement and Woodstock, about politics and living in the rainforest in British Columbia, and so on. They seem fascinated with this period of experimentation and often want to know more about my artistic and political beginnings and why and how Mira and I started M/E/A/N/I/N/G. The other aspect of my life that has become daunting to me is just the fact that I have had so many shows, worked on many collaborative book projects with poets, edited and designed numerous publications, and produced so many art objects.At some point, I realized that I was having trouble just keeping track of it all.

BR: Let's go back a little bit, get a little of your history in general. I know it is a lot of ground to cover, but can you pinpoint something of a real beginning of when you knew you were going to be a painter? Was it a slow discovery, or was there a real "aha!" moment?

SB: I seem to have been literally born into this profession of painting. Both of my parents, Miriam Laufer and Sigmund Laufer, were artists. They had emigrated to New York City from Berlin and Palestine in 1947, five years before I was born. I was brought up in the hub of the bohemian New York City art world of the 1950s. We spent our summers mostly in Provincetown, or we traveled to Mexico or Europe. I had the chance to meet many artists and see many artworks as a child. I grew up in Yorkville, at 85th Street and Lexington Avenue, very close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My public elementary school was just a block away from the main entrance. The museum, the streets around it, and Central Park were my turf. I would hang out in the museum on weekends and after school and regarded it as a home away from home. This was before the museum was spiffed up and gentrified. In those days, it was dusty and unpopular. I remember it as a quiet place for art lovers and eccentrics, as well as the perfect meeting place for moody, arty teenagers like me and my friends. I also took painting lessons at the Museum of Modern Art as a child. When I was quite little, I would accompany my mother to her studio and sit in the corner, making my own oil paintings. Later I went with my father on weekends to the Pratt Graphics Center and worked on small etchings. I went to the High School of Music and Art in Harlem (now LaGuardia High School), which was a wonderful experience, because I could spend half the day painting and had great teachers like Sherman Drexler.

My parents were opposed to my going to art school and following in their footsteps. They wanted me to be a professional of some sort -- perhaps an architect -- but art turned out to be my calling; I couldn't escape its grip. By the time I was 13, I realized I was committed to art. But I was also good at academic subjects, so I ended up going to Barnard College, where I had gotten a scholarship, rather than an art school. I also got involved with Charles Bernstein in high school. We met when I was 16 and he was 17. That relationship continues. At Barnard, which is an all-women's college, I got an education from major feminist thinkers like Catherine Stimpson and Kate Millett, who were teaching there. It was a time of turbulence with many protests, and the campus was often shut down. I also studied art and art history with Brian O'Doherty, Adja Yunkers, and others and continued to paint there.

After college, Charles and I went up to Vancouver in Canada, where he had a fellowship for a year. We lived in the woods in the rainforest. I drew and painted, and he started to write poetry. This work was recently published in The Capilano Review. We then lived in Santa Barbara for a year before we returned to New York City in 1975. I got married to Charles in 1977 after living together for many years. I had my daughter, Emma Bee Bernstein, in 1985. She died in 2008. My son, Felix, was born in 1992; he just turned 20.

In 1975, I went to Hunter College to get an MA in Art. I worked with prominent minimalists, such as Robert Morris and Ralph Humphrey, and I studied art history with Rosalind Krauss, who was my thesis advisor. At that time, I was doing altered photographs and paintings, and I published my first artist's book, Photogram, in 1978. My MA thesis was about Man Ray, Moholy Nagy, and photograms.

I designed Charles's and Bruce Andrews's poetics magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E from 1978 to 1981, which I also wrote for. I became very involved with a large group of young poets, filmmakers, and artists in New York at that time.

Around the same time, I became reacquainted with Mira. I first met Mira as a child in Provincetown. Her parents and my parents were friends and colleagues and were in the same milieu of Jewish American artists. At one point, my father told me that he and Mira's father, Ilya Schor, collaborated on a book before we were born. My father designed it, and Ilya illustrated it. Mira and I met again as young adults on the beach in Provincetown in the late 1970s and found we had a great rapport. This led to us working together on M/E/A/N/I/N/G, which we started in 1986.

BR: I think it's so interesting that there were these connections between your family and Mira's. Almost like you two were predestined to work together. Both L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and M/E/A/N/I/N/G were very influential to me starting out as an artist in the Midwest in the Eighties. It may seem kind of strange, but journals like that, as well as Chicago's New Art Examiner, were much more important in terms of keeping up with art than, say, Artforum. When I moved to Detroit, especially, M/E/A/N/I/N/G was the journal of record. George and Chris Tysh were always talking about this or that article. I think the design of it, too, had something to do with how seriously it was taken. In Detroit there was a longer history of painters and writers putting together magazines, like Meat City or Destroy All Monsters, but you two were combining art theory and politics in a way that was also very straightforward.

SB: We knew and admired the New Art Examiner and felt very involved with the poets, artists, and theorists that ran most of the small-press publications. We set out to be an alternative to the glossy art journals, but we also were well aware of the other political and feminist journals that directly preceded us, such as October and Heresies. Our decision to exclude pictures was financial -- it cost too much money to have images -- and it made our journal different from the glossies. I was interested in creating a design that emphasized readability and legibility. You had to read M/E/A/N/I/N/G, not just look at the pictures!

In the meantime, I worked as an editor and designer for many other publications. For a year from 1979 to '80, I was the editor of Women Artists News, which I also pasted up and designed. I also designed and edited many small-press poetry publications, including many Roof books from 1980 to 1992. But mostly, I worked for commercial publications such as medical and legal journals. I also worked at Lincoln Center designing the programs, including the playbill for the original Einstein on the Beach. I continued doing my artwork and tried to get it shown, with little success. I brought my photograms and altered photographs to galleries, but most dealers weren't interested in this type of experimental approach to photography. I also had difficulty getting my paintings seen at that time. I did have a solo show of the altered photos in 1979 at a small local gallery and participated in many group shows. It wasn't until 1992, at age 40, that I had my first solo show of paintings at a commercial gallery, the Virginia Lust Gallery in Soho.

BR: I remember that show. She was also showing June Leaf's paintings around the same time. I don't think I had seen any of your work before that. I saw Mira's work in Provincetown, where I was spending the summers, but I remember being excited to finally see your work in that show. Can you talk a little about what you were doing then, about the work, how it fit in to what was happening at the time?

SB: I am amazed that you saw my first solo show. At that time, I was making collaged paintings with paper dolls and plastic animals and fake jewels embedded in the surface. These were dense compositions with a fractured narrative. Some of the painting also included dripped enamel paint layered over the entire surface as an homage to Jackson Pollock. I was interested in exploring the gender relationships as played out by the male and female paper dolls and also, at the same time, was using a lot of imagery derived from children's books and toys. No doubt, I was influenced by having young children around. In fact, I used to borrow their toys to use in the paintings. So this show had a lot of children's imagery. I was also interested in kitsch and in addressing high and low imagery, so I was combining oil painting with collaged Victoriana, postcards, vintage ads, and other sources. The results were layered and weathered and somewhat comic and surrealistic, yet faintly nostalgic for my own remembered childhood. I played with paper dolls and small plastic toys as a child and would create imagined worlds and fantasy situations, so this reimagined play was reflected in these paintings.

However, shortly after my show there, the gallery closed, so I was left to look for another gallery again. A few years later in 1996, I decided to join A.I.R. Gallery, the first women's cooperative gallery in the United States, now 40 years old, which presents a real alternative to the commercial system. I am still a member and have had six solo shows there.

BR: Yeah, I remember that there was a quality that hovered between a kind of high and low art, a combination of "abjection" and kitsch, which was something I found compelling when it was combined with high-art painterliness. Can you talk a little, in brief, about those six shows -- how the work developed? Looking at the work in retrospect, do you see an arc, or storyline, in the development of your style?

SB: My first solo show in 1998 at A.I.R. was Post-Americana: New Paintings. It had images of American icons and kitsch elements, such as the Liberty Bell, Molly Pitcher, Big Ben, the Pilgrims, turkeys, as well as various small objects, such as plastic snakes, butterflies, shells, insects, and fake flowers. The figures were embedded in encrusted, paint-saturated surfaces. These paintings were a comic and surrealistic exploration of American history.

My second show at A.I.R. in 2000 was Beware the Lady. The paintings revolved around appropriated figures from movie posters and pulp fiction covers of the 1940s and 50s, as well as paper dolls, postcards, and advertisements. These paintings and the subsequent ones in my next show, Miss Dynamite in 2003, dealt with the themes of love, imprisonment, female rebellion, and punishment, alongside childhood innocence and the passage from girlhood into adulthood.

Color is a major element in these paintings -- bold, splashy, and expressive. I am attracted to images of the strong, sexy, and somewhat dangerous dames that are endemic to film noirs, pulp novels, mysteries, and B movies. These bad girls seem to represent the underside of the innocence of childhood. In these paintings the women are strong figures emerging out of the morass of the paint to assert themselves and their sexuality.

In 2006, I had a show at A.I.R. titled Seeing Double: Paintings by Susan Bee and Miriam Laufer. This was a two-person show of paintings by my mother, Miriam Laufer (1918-80), from the Sixties and Seventies, and my Philosophical Trees paintings. This series of collaged oil paintings use the motif of the tree of life as a structure for cultural references to everything from Blake, film noir, and pin-ups to mystical traditions, such as the Kabbalah.

In 2009, my fifth solo show at A.I.R., Eye of the Storm, opened just two months after my daughter died in Venice and a year and a half after my father died in October 2007. The paintings explore an expressionistic, apocalyptic vision in the form of imaginary seascapes, floods, and storms at sea. The themes are reflections on the aftermath of disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, September 11th, and the Asian tsunami, as well as more personal losses.

My sixth solo show, Recalculating, opened at A.I.R. in 2011. I showed mostly small oil paintings, which dramatize the relationships between male and female characters through the lens of the dark, violent films of the 1940s and 1950s, engaging psychic dislocation, trauma, and incongruous mystical and religious iconography. In contrast, natural elements formed the basis of some of the other paintings I showed, which were inspired by Caspar David Friedrich and Charles Burchfield.

Looking back on the trajectory of these solo shows, I can see that my approach to the subject matter and painting changed over time. In my last show, I was creating smaller paintings without collage and with a simpler palette and a flatter style. The paintings were tighter and more focused on the interactions between the characters. Meanwhile, my landscapes have become more romantic and expressionistic, more oriented to fantasy and religious and dream-like visions. I am now less interested in a decorative surface and find myself creating narratives with an emphasis on the inherent painterly composition. In my first solo show at Virginia Lust's Gallery, I was using paper dolls in a similar way. But the paper dolls were static icons and did not have the emotional force that the more expressive figures I am using now have.

BR: You spent part of last fall at the MacDowell Colony. Did the change from being in the city have any effect on your new work?

SB: I appreciated the time to develop some challenging new paintings. I was at MacDowell for three weeks and started four paintings, which I finished in New York. Two were related to compositions by Caspar David Friedrich, but they were influenced by the colorful autumn foliage, which I could see from my studio window in the barn where I was painting. Another work was a based on a film still of two girls in a car, but the fourth one, "Ahava, Berlin," was the most complex and different.

"Ahava" was inspired by a trip Charles and I made in the fall of 2012 to Berlin. We stayed near the former Ahava Kinderheim, located in the Mitte, which was the Jewish ghetto, and is now an arts district. It was a politically progressive Jewish children's home. My mother lived there from 1927 to 1934. This is painfully personal material for me, since both my parents grew up in Berlin and were exiled in their teens to Palestine. I based this painting on a melancholy snapshot of me standing in front of the war-scarred, graffitied building, which remains standing as a testament to the suffering of the Jewish population in Germany. Lucky for my mother and for me, the orphanage and most of the children were transferred to Israel, where Ahava (Hebrew for love) continues to this day.

Raphael Rubinstein wrote the following, which is part of an essay to be published in the catalog for my upcoming show at Accola Griefen, about "Ahava, Berlin":

"Following the Nazi rise to power, the Ahava Kinderheim and its inhabitants, including Bee's mother, providentially relocated to Palestine. Situated in the former East Berlin, and also in the Mitte, Berlin's old Jewish quarter, the Ahava building was war-scarred, dilapidated and heavily grafittied when Bee came upon it. In her painting she translates those features into automatist paint drips, mostly red and blue. Exuding a violence that is rare in Bee's other abstract motifs (even when they accompany a violent scene), these skeins and drips of paint suggest that the building itself is wounded. Standing stiffly under a plaque that reads 'Ahava,' the artist is a diminutive figure who looks overwhelmed by the ravaged façade, by the tortured history it represents. 

"Yet, at the center of the painting something else is happening. Reflected in the mirrored entryway of the ex-Ahava Kinderheim are details of buildings on the other side of the street. Or maybe some details are of the interior courtyard -- the painter plays with subtle spatial ambiguity. In contrast to the paint-spattered Ahava façade, these buildings are clean and cared-for; Bee paints them with soft geometric forms and muted yellows and whites. A green-leafed tree is partly visible. Unexpectedly, Bee transforms a snapshot situation (tourist daughter standing in front of orphanage where mother lived as child) into a powerful image of hope and renewal, albeit one that acknowledges the heavy price of history. The ultimate message of this painting is legible on the sign placed just above Bee's head: 'Ahava,' the Hebrew word for love."

BR: I really enjoyed stopping by your studio, seeing your new work in progress. I particularly liked the new pieces where you were developing a real sense of theatricality. By using your figures, which formerly had been more of a collaged element, as characters, the painting's background became more of a stage, or set. These new paintings really work as an extension of the series of "noir" paintings. Is this an evolution in your work, or are you just examining different issues in paint?

SB: I have become very taken by the idea of theatricality and artifice. I am creating these paintings as spaces for a drama to take place. The figures are actors and actresses in a stage that I am setting up for them to play out their roles. The film stills I'm referencing are very dramatic. There is a subtle undertone that is pulling you in and pushing you out. I remain intrigued by the dangerous women and the desolate men in the film noirs. These paintings have brought into focus the power of the individual faces and bodies and their relationship to the painted ground -- and also their relation to each other. I'm now emphasizing the dynamic between the figures, whether they're pressing against a windowpane or pressing up against each other. In fact, the paintings' focus is on these relationships and the psychological space and emotions that are carved out among the persons that I'm portraying.