For This Mother and Daughter, The Family Business Is Culture
Blood might be thicker than water, as the adage goes, but paint is thicker than both. Immigrant artist Miriam Laufer, who died in 1980, was the mother of Manhattan Upper West Sider Susan Bee, and matriarch to one of the most experimental and intense artistic dynasties of Jewish New York. Besides the mother and daughter, the father, Sigmund Laufer, is a graphic artist. Bee married her high school sweetheart, great poet of postmodernism Charles Bernstein, with whom she has a daughter, Emma, a young photographer. Culture is the family business.
Artists in Residence (A.I.R.), a 30-year-old nonprofit Chelsea gallery that was the first in the world dedicated to the promotion of feminism in visual art, has just opened a mother-and-daughter reunion. Titled Seeing Double, it marks the first time that so many of the family’s paintings have been gathered together into one exhibition since the young Bee sat in a corner of her mother’s studio, spattering oils.
Descendant of a sofer (Torah scribe), her absent father an actor in Yiddish theater, Miriam Laufer was born Miriam Ickowitz in Poland in 1918. After her father left the family, her mother left her and her brother, Leo, in Berlin in the care of the Ahava (Love) Jewish orphanage, a progressive Kinderheim that encouraged its charges to culture; the entire orphanage left Germany for Palestine in 1934 and settled just outside Haifa, exchanging certain tragedy for uncertain opportunity in an idealistic, almost otherworldly land. After studying on scholarship at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design with various artists and thinkers in exile from a Germany that itself had become a “degenerate” abstraction, Laufer worked as a painter for the occupying British army, honing her drafting skills while encountering a sense of word as image or object, lettering Mandate signs in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Polish, Greek and Urdu. After marrying Sigmund Laufer, a dedicated kibbutznik and an activist in the Labor Party, the two left for New York in 1947, settling in the German enclave of Yorkville on the Upper East Side while making their presence known among the scenesters downtown in important exhibitions at the renowned Phoenix Gallery during the 1960s art boom, with the painting world then living cheap down on 10th Street.
Whereas Laufer’s pedigree was the total European education, later informed by the eerie stillness of Palestine in rare peace, Bee’s history is that of talky, raucous and wittily smart Jewish New York, in its postwar, still-Socialist ascendancy; her home a perpetual Kaffeeklatsch of artists and intellectuals, the recently enfranchised and willful. Born in 1952 to parents who had already rebelled by becoming artists, Bee’s sentimental education was not as much a distancing from the Europe that informed her mother’s early art as an embrace of Mother America. For her, bohemian meant the influence of television and movies, the kitsch that might be America’s answer to canon. Whereas Laufer’s canvases take on women in angst, in societal distress, imprisoned in the schizophrenia of multiple feminine roles (mother, artist, sexual entity, as the more famous half of the Laufer family), Bee’s works are conscious celebrations of a later feminist victory in manic cartoon-y color, with the only disconcerting stroke the dark trees that root the centers of her canvases, branching out into the gnarled whorl of the next.
Indeed, what unites the canvases of these two women is their dis-unity. As they hang in consecutive galleries (Laufer’s offering titled Paintings From the 1960s and ’70s, Bee’s called Philosophical Trees) what startles is the generational rift. Whereas Laufer’s are direct descendants of Modernism — German Expressionism; riotously colorful Fauvism; Matisse’s blobby nude women, who seem deeply sensual at one look and at the next, grossly deformed — Bee’s are a homemade, third-grade version of the postmodern: folk-pop, naive or primitive “art projects” done with collage, the palimpsest of B-movie and noir stills, pulp fictive iconography, kiddie stickers, action-figure decals, paper dolls, rubbery amphibians and oodles of other wonderfully trashy signifiers. Her world of hula girls and pinups, shepherd staffs topped with eyes and Arthurian knights errant is Dada filtered through the gaze of Walt Disney, its aesthetic Max Ernst gone Coca-Cola, potato chip William Blake.
Mother and daughter aside, what’s evident is two consecutive generations of consciously feminist women staring each other down, through a mirror. Though Bee arrived on the scene too late to merit any direct, practical inheritance of the paint-slinging, heavy-stroked Modernists, Laufer, who came of age under Israeli teachers on leave from Bauhaus and Der Bruecke, lived just to the cusp of the media age, and any later life appropriations (as in her wonderful “Homage to Brecht”) of external effects, like the pasting of newsprint and the overlay of advertising slogans, were only addenda to her long, mature style. In her room of the exhibition, a screen is meticulously lettered in a Gothic hand, with a quote from Jean Genet: “She did violence to her feelings.” The glass of a car windshield holds the portraits of two naked women — one languorously sexual, the other all business — attempting to concentrate on driving. Between them, a stencil; a single word that seems addressed to all the harried, run-ragged New York women with smudged lipstick and a family to feed: “Stop.”
Though what lasts in Laufer’s work is its old-fashioned-ness (the oceanic swell of her nudes; the compositional rigor behind their languid, lazy reclines), what will last in Bee’s remains to be seen. “I would say that [Laufer’s] work was more overt than mine is. I am more introverted… and the meaning of my work is more hidden,” Bee is quoted as having said in the catalog for a recent exhibition, Women of the Book: Jewish Women Book Artists. “I tend toward ambiguity and complexity and I don’t think my work wears its heart on its sleeve, but maybe in its pocket. Of course, this could be a result of being the daughter of such a large artistic presence….” Modesty becomes Bee. And though she is relatively young, her work has already assumed a motherly whimsy.
A third generation is evident in A.I.R’s final room, known as its Fellowship Gallery and reserved for the exhibition of the work of female artists just beginning careers. After Laufer’s European trauma, and Bee’s American riot, we are given the predominantly black-and-white photographs of Marni Horwitz, a 26-year-old American-born woman who chose to live and work for a time in the Old World made new, the Czech Republic post-communism. Horwitz has returned with a series titled Desire Despair — artfully forlorn images of industrial landscapes and bar interiors. Rapturous lovers defy concrete and rusted metal; drunken workers confront the camera of a woman intruding into the smoky, beer-saturated world of men. It’s an odd, yet textured, ending to this show. After tradition (Laufer), and its subversion (Bee), we are returned to quiescence. After struggling for so long to make, to create and be relevant, this latest generation of artists, who might also happen to be women, seem to be rediscovering the joys of stepping back and telling us not what they hope for, but just what they see.