Contrasts and Connections
Paintings by Miriam Laufer and Susan Bee

Johanna Drucker

The painter Miriam Laufer was the mother of artist Susan (Laufer) Bee. But is any similarity in their works due to this connection?

Obviously, the influence of sensibility passes by example, as much as anything else. The model of an artist-who-is-a-mother must be a powerful formative force for a young woman growing up with aspirations to her own artistic career. But the shared sensibility linking these two painters goes beyond the mere fact that both chose the same medium. A specific quality of approach connects them to each other in a filiation that demonstrates certain shared attitudes towards paint, and subject matter, approach and expression, even though each artist contends with her own generational and historical frame.

The aesthetic issues that connect each to her own era are starkly evident. Laufer's mid-to-late 20th-century figurative abstractions and Bee's distinctly late-to-postmodern eclecticism are situated in relation to mainstream values and dominant stylistic and critical sensibilities. Bee is as much the artistic daughter of pop and surrealism as she is Laufer's direct artistic descendent, and yet their bodies of work have something in common. Comments made by critics about Laufer's work in the 1960s could easily apply to many of Bee's canvases (for example, Thomas Neumann's remarks about Laufer in Art News, Dec. 1963, "her free approach leads her to daring effects"). Their paintings are perhaps less alike than the words that describe them, but still, the images of these two artists do have a certain­—dare I say it?—family relation.

Both are painters who create voluptuous works, visually rich and sensually satisfying. And both are painters whose pictures provide pleasures and provocation for the mind as well as eye. And both produce works of engaged and distinctly feminist sensibility, concerned with the imagery of self and female others in the iconography of mainstream culture with all its (inevitably) patriarchal conditions.

Looking at the two sets of paintings together is an exercise in curious contrasts. The tensions in each case are the productive ones between a painting of effects (surfaces, forms, compositional arrangements) and an affective imagery (filled with content, fraught with associations, linking personal and cultural references). The differences are all the more striking for showing the ways each is situated within a set of possibilities for painting set by the broader discourse of modernism in the late 20th century.

Finally, the historical dimensions of feminism, and of women's capability with regard to professional life and artistry, show in the lived history of these two women as well as finding expression in their work. Much has changed and much has not in the fifty-year span of activity represented in this exhibition. Women still struggle with an art world rooted in ageist, gendered politics, but women have also made their own place and legitimacy, their own authoritative discourse and sites, within that world.

Miriam Laufer's career as a painter spanned several continents and epochs, and her richly abstract treatment of representational forms shows off its indebtedness to the full range of movements within European modernism. Born in Poland in 1918, raised in an orphanage in Berlin and Palestine, she studied at the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem and in New York City, where she worked until her death in 1980. Cosmopolitan and international, her work shows the influence of that first generation of modern artists for whom the Bauhaus was formative. Her teachers included figures who had been part of the founding moments of modern art, and for whom the visual methods of abstraction retained an allegiance to figuration even as they stretched the terms of reference. Matisse, Nolde, the artists of die Brucke as well as the Fauves, all contributed to the elements of abstraction and vivid color, nudes floating dancing and disposed in attitudes of voluptuous leisure in her canvases of the 1950s, where haunting traces of figures hover just on the edge of recognizability.

But if that was the beginning, then Laufer's mature work was forged in another crucible: the pop-influenced and vividly aggressive first wave of feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Autobiographical subject matter and a ruthless spirit of confrontation charge her canvases in that period. Her joyful landscapes with luxurious display of flesh and idle seeming pleasures, so prevalent in the 1950s begin to be invaded by collage elements. Photographed faces with sunglasses appear alongside men with guns and women with their own agendas. Suddenly the world seemed to come into the studio, bringing with it a whole new set of possibilities and questions.

In Laufer’s paintings, intense women, driving nude, behind the wheel, eyes wide, hair done, stare at us in stark confrontation while in the background, other nude figures persist whose gestures show off their origin in the modern paintings of Arcadian idylls. Dancers and bathers, these nude women are the essence of abandon. They are the fantasy image of sensuality, of unbridled desire. They are the archetypes created by an early modern desire to recover some kind of "nature." They have stepped out of the modern cultural frame at that turn of the (earlier) century moment when mechanization, urban life, and rationality all conspired in such a way that only a dream of imagined primitivism (fictive from the very outset) seemed to answer the age's ennui.

But if Laufer's earlier canvases show those figures in their more formulaic disposition, nudes on a couch, in a studio, in standard poses, then in later images her critical edge displaces the older models. The women in Laufer's canvases of the late 1960s and 1970s have shoved those passive figures off the platform. Like biker chicks or women of the underground Comix, tough and aggressive Grrrls, her figures have an aggressive, confrontational self-assertation that is marked. All the skills that the painter has acquired come into vivid play. A gesture of "take this" lets loose with mature spirit and energy. Not every critic knew quite what to do with such an attitude. Brian O’Doherty framed his response in terms of art historical references: “Light-hearted bacchanales full of sack-shaped nudes painted with a big, careless abandon in light rococo colors show the influence of both abstract and nonabstract expressionists” (New York Times,1963). But John Canaday was clearly overwhelmed: "Well there is sex and there’s sex. In these paintings, running riot, it makes you wish that it could be a little less tumultuous…..Some superior ink drawings…are like time off between orgies” (New York Times, 1966).

Thematically and formally, Laufer's work shows the struggles of a mid-century woman artist formed in the legacy of modernism and then participating in first-wave American feminism. By contrast, Susan Bee's work builds on that legacy. Born and raised in New York City, Bee is a first-generation American. She is an urban and urbane artist whose migrations map onto the grid of Manhattan and all its nuanced semiotics of upper West Side, East Side, and Tribeca studio spaces. However, she is also the daughter of Jewish immigrant artists, who escaped the Holocaust that engulfed many of their relatives in Europe. Her father, Sigmund Laufer, is also a graphic artist, printmaker, and book designer. Growing up in NY, Bee had many more sources of inspiration on which to model her work and approach than just that of her mother. Her peer group shared a sense of self-definition that women a generation earlier had to struggle to find on their own. The shift from individual struggle to collective effort was significant. In the 1970s, Bee was a young artist and the battles of an older generation had already broken the once total barriers to professional recognition for women. Bee came of age as the women's movement swelled a tide of progressive energy. The work of feminist groups around the country brought an active discussion of women's aesthetics to the fore. Bee's own work challenges some of the received legacy of that first-wave sensibility, particularly by its enthusiasm (however critical) for the cliches and images of women in popular culture. But she also partakes of the permissions and entitlements gained by the women of her mother's generation. In her painting and her publishing, Bee was able to begin from a foundation others struggled to achieve. In the generic, generational sense, Bee benefited from her (collective) mothers’ work and efforts.

Laufer's work in the late 1960s and 1970s shows her overturning art historical legacies, casting off the modern historical mold in an expression of feminist sensibility within a pop-influenced, figurative idiom, but Bee has a wholly different relation to that modern history. High modernism's mid-century mythology had made the opposition of high and low culture a tenet of faith. The binaristic divide went unquestioned, to be crossed only with certain protections in place. Laufer’s titles betray her connection to that earlier vocabulary—Tondo (1965), Abstract in Yellow (1963), or New York Arabesque (1975), as well as the many “compositions” and “counterpoints” with their clear musical analogies. As a late modern artist, Bee seems equally at ease appropriating from historical inventory and mass culture artifacts, without any sense that a set of rules proscribes her choices of style, iconography, or origin. Bee's collagist orientation makes use of painterly means as an element, while Laufer was clearly a painter for whom the occasional collaged element was meant to register as an act of radical inclusion.

Both are artists for whom the dialogue of world and art is registered by what falls inside and outside of the frame, what is allowed onto the surface. But Bee seems untroubled by acts of radical heterogeneity. She can begin with a composition from Courbet add a paper doll, plastic flowers, and a painting of a pilgrim, and let all of these elements talk to each other. Her titles are narrative, provocative, suggestive. The canvases are filled with stories. They have plenty of hints of personal connection. If her mother's painting of My Daughters (1965) is clearly a studio study of two young girls, one in action (Abigail Laufer) and one in revery (Susan), then Bee's tangled tales of young children, parents, teens, and lovers reveal plenty about her life—but through the mediating effects of borrowed imagery and signs. And her titles have a tell-all sensationalism that echoes the tawdry, kitsch, and wild aesthetic range of the imagery: Buster and Sis, Miss Dynamite, and Bound and Unbound. Laufer's work was large in scale, consistent with the ambitions of its era, while Bee has opted (generally) for smaller dimensions, compressing her complex compositions into opportunities for more intimate viewing.

These are cosmopolitan painters, sophisticated and complex, filled with acute consciousness about self and history. They are both painters fully aware of art history and of their own places within its forms. They both know (or knew, in Laufer’s case), what it meant to make the choices of style and subject matter that they made, and at the time they made them. Such astute relation of approach and idea drew critical notice. For instance, Holland Cotter observed that: “…Laufer’s finely attuned sense of color and line (hard and soft) [is] as visually exciting as it is conceptually intriguing” (New York Arts Journal, Feb.-March 1979).

For both artists, these choices have had determining effects on their later reception. Who knows the work of Miriam Laufer? Unlike others of her generation, Grace Hartigan or Joan Brown, she hasn't been "recovered" for this age. She never achieved the level of visibility or recognition of these figures. Her work is perhaps not sufficiently unified as a corpus, or distinct as a signature oeuvre, or perhaps her career trajectory was more a matter of timing and circumstance. But its strengths seem apparent, at this distance, and the strongest of the works, those portraits and self-portraits, show how intensely engaged she was in trying to come make images about the way women come to terms with artistic identity.

Bee's aesthetic is anarchic rather than resistant or strident. Bee is wildly eclectic and inclusive in her work, sticking plastic toys, shiny buttons, rubber snakes and bugs, glittering objects, paper dolls, pulp imagery, and animal cut-outs, among the many mass produced five-and-dime sensibility items onto her canvases. Her painting is eclectic, filled with drips and spatters, the broad brushstrokes of abstraction, color field and expressionist, as well as winding organic forms out of a classic surrealist dreamscape. What unites her work as a body is the vivid, colorful juxtapositions of painterly surface and culture industry objects into a playful, edgy mix. Bee is a late-century dreamer, a pop-culture surrealist making waking dreams in an attempt to rescue lived experience from the flood of the monoculture. She looks at all the stuff of contemporary life, and rise to the challenge of shaping an individual "take" on the mass of material stuff and imagery. In our era artists rarely begin in a studio mode, and hardly imagine the exercise of drawing from a model, painting the opulent nudes and bright furnishings that male modernists took so often as their subjects. Now women artists have a different set of decisions to make about how to figure their relation to gendered practices both within the realms of art and for art in the culture.

Bee's recent works extend many of the pastiche-collagist sensibilities that have led her work to be characterized by some critics as "painting after painting," though as always, the painterliness of her work is conspicuously present (“Painting After Painting: The Paintings of Susan Bee,” M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism, Duke, 2000). The working theme of the current series, "Philosophical Trees," refers to the organic motifs of branches, trunks, and vine-like organic forms that structure relations in the elements of the whole. Diving into the Wreck is exemplary by its wry humor and light ironies, as well as for the curiously combinatoric assemblage of "things" and "pictures" in and on the canvas. Hardly surprising to find that Thomas McEvilley described her work as a "triumph of contradiction"(Art in America, Dec. 2000). We may easily imagine, in our current cultural context, what the "wreck" might be, and the abandon with which the swimmers dive provides an obvious visual commentary. As in all of Bee's works, the idiom(s) on which she draws put her into an eclectic relation to popular visual culture, even as the painterly structures and forms she introduces suggest both a historical connection to surrealism in its dreamlike reveries and improbable logics and to certain folk-art and religious/mystical traditions, such as the Kabbalah, with their "tree of life" metaphors and diagrammatic depictions. As critic Jonathan Goodman noted, Bee’s work; “suggests that America’s history is itself a collage….This work is a … comic and lyric interpretation of memory and meaning” (Art in America, Oct. 1998).

Bee is whimsical, an artist of impulse and eccentric decisions, whose skills and experience provide the sustaining structure of her work. And if critics of an earlier era wrote of Laufer’s approach that it "follows her intuitions rather than reason," (ArtVoices, Dec. 1963) then Bee's work shows how far we have come from needing such oppositions. Bee follows her intuitions as a mode of reason. Both artists seem at times to be a bit too much for their critics. One found Laufer’s paintings "somewhat overwhelming for their vigorous combination of wild strokes and bright sensuous color" (Manhattan East, Dec. 1963). The sheer energy and variety of expressive impulse rushed the senses and flooded the carefully guarded categories critics sometimes cling to as a ways to assert decorum in the face of unruly imagination. And women's unruly imagination seems still to pose the same kinds of problems it offered nearly four decades ago, not surprisingly, and the phrases Rackstraw Downes used in response to the work of Laufer could have been provoked by those of Bee as well: " In her voluptuously painted and highly colored compositions with figures and sections of figures, she contrasts various plastic elements while juggling with symbolic motifs, sometimes sinister, and sometimes lascivious"(Art News, Feb. 1968). If mother and daughter shared nothing else, they shared this capacity to trouble the critical status quo. And that capacity remains, in the end, the strength of both of their works as individual painters, expressed in this description of Laufer’s paintings, in their "ability to pack real excitement, power, and love of color into a painting" (Wolf von Eckardt, The Washington Post, April 19, 1964).