Tuesday, January 24, 2006

 

Susan Bee, Diving into the Wreck, 2005, oil and collage on linen

 

Michael & Pam Rosenthal visited last week, bringing with them Pam’s mother, who recently moved here and turns out to be a great gal. It made me realize just how seldom it is that we get to meet the parents of our friends. Indeed, before our wedding, I doubt if many of my closest friends had ever met my mother, the notable exception being Lyn Hejinian (who had come to our rescue once for something – I’ve actually forgotten what) or, for that matter, Krishna’s parents (again, a couple of exceptions).

I met the father of the painter Susan Bee just once, quite a few years ago, but I regret never having met Bee’s mother, also a painter by the name of Miriam Laufer. Laufer (1918-80) was moderately successful during her life – a complicated one, born in Poland, raised in Berlin before fleeing to Palestine at the age of 16, only to leave there thirteen years later when she & her husband moved to New York. While she began presenting her work in group shows fairly quickly, it would be 12 years before Laufer had her first solo show in 1959. After her death, there was a retrospective held at the Phoenix Gallery in New York, her eighth show with the gallery & Asylum’s Press produced a catalog. I regret – since I never got to the show itself – that only its cover was in color.

Regret is the right word here: the images of Laufer’s work that are up now on the M/E/A/N/I/N/G website demonstrate the importance of color to her work. Of the generation that came of age during the Second World War – five years younger than Philip Guston, four years older than Leon Golub – her work fits perfectly into that first generation of artists for whom refiguration emerged from the “pure” painting of the abstract expressionists. In her work, tho, one sees a richness of tone, an intensity, that harks back to Hans Hoffman &, earlier still, to the first generation of fauve-flavored expressionists, such as Chaim Soutine.

Laufer will have her first show in 24 years starting on February 7 at A.I.R. Gallery in New York, at 511 W. 25th Street, part of a dual exhibit with Susan Bee, the first time mother & daughter have been paired. I can tell from the catalog – all of which you can find online, in a piecemeal sort of fashion, including an excellent essay on the two by Johanna Drucker – that it’s going to be knockout show. Drucker addresses the question I think anyone might ask – what impact does the parental connection have on the work of the daughter? Their lives as productive artists have not been as asynchronous as, say, that of Ted Berrigan and his two younger sons. Bee had two solo shows & seven group exhibitions in the decade before her mother died, although the rich hues of her mature work – the connection I think everyone will “get” instantly seeing their work side by side – doesn’t emerge until later.

Yet Laufer’s signature work, a series of oil paintings done on automobile windshields, reminds me of an aspect of Bee’s very early artwork when she was fascinated with the photograms of Man Ray. The one piece of Bee’s that I own is from late in this period when she was taking black-and-white photographs & developing them by brushing the developing chemicals over the exposed image. Not only is the brushwork painterly, but there’s a radical tension between image & stroke that strikes me as not dissimilar from the one I feel from painting applied to a “non-painterly” surface like a windshield. How much, I wonder, did daughter influence mother here? Is there any way for an outsider to know? How much is it like/unlike the tension between using stenciled words on Laufer’s canvases (or windshields)? Or, for that matter, the tension between paint, collage & even poetry (explicitly that of Adrienne Rich), that we find in a work like Bee’s Diving into the Wreck?

Those are the sorts of questions I want to ask, not knowing if I’ll ever have an answer. It’s not clear that I’ll be able to get up to New York to see the show. But if you can, you should make plans to do so yourself.

Miriam Laufer, Stop, 1977, oil paint on windshield





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