Monster Mitt, Oil and Collage on Canvas 1990, Susan Bee
Susan Bee: Monster Mitt
107 Norfolk St,
New York, NY 10002
Press Release by Alex
Cooley is pleased to announce Monster
Mitt, a presentation of canvases by Susan Bee. For the past 40 years, Bee
has worked as a fine artist as well as a book artist, writer, teacher, and
editor. During the late 1970s Bee collaborated on the design and production of
the influential L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E journal
together with Charles Bernstein. As co-founder of M/E/A/N/I/N/G magazine, Bee’s prolific work as an editor
situated and created a context rich with discourse around artists and themes
unrepresented elsewhere. In her own practice as an artist she has produced
prolifically, moving through photography, collage, and—most centrally since the
works from the early to mid-1990s exhibited in Monster Mitt represent an earlier phase in Bee’s investigation of
painting, one in which the canvas is treated as an uneasy stage set for an
array of collaged textures, motifs, and ready-made characters. Figures
represented range from cartoon decals to Bee’s own children and are arranged
amidst a variety of other (two- and three-dimensional) activities enacted on
the surface of each canvas. Collaged elements bring together mass-produced
vernacular with an expressive painterly landscape of gesture and mark-making.
finds Bee’s characters relocated from their cheery origins to psychologically
complex dramas, hovering in indeterminate, emphatically flattened surfaces.
Combined with these figures are artifacts from Bee’s own personal life.
Narrative fragments from her family appear, emphasizing a characteristic
tension in the artist's work between personal archaeology and pop culture
the titular work, Monster Mitt (1990),
a nightmarish abyss threatens to consume three cartoon figures whose languid
expressions hover in a hazy, dark landscape. A hand-like form, emerging as if
belonging to a bandaged burn victim—or presumably a monster clad in lace gloves—interrupts
the foreground. The jarring but hypnotic effect created through these tableaux
relates to Bee’s longstanding intellectual engagement with themes of
psychoanalysis, motherhood, and the politics of painting.
other paintings in the show:
Interviews Susan Bee
Fleming: I’d like to start by talking about your relationship to painting…. How
did you start and when? Can you give us a context of how you came to the
paintings that are in the exhibit? About how long were you producing work in
Bee: I started painting as a child. My parents, Miriam and Sigmund Laufer, were
artists and went to their openings and shows as a child. My mother had a solo
show on 10th street in 1962 and continued to paint her whole life. She died in
1980. In elementary school, I went with her to her studio and painted in the
corner with oil paints. My father was a printmaker and graphic designer and I
would make etchings with him on weekends at Pratt. I also studied in a painting
class for children at the Museum of Modern Art. I grew up in a bohemian
atmosphere in Manhattan and in the summers in Provincetown. You could say that
painting is in my blood. See this interview:
Miriam Laufer: http://writing.upenn.edu/pepc/meaning/Laufer/
Sigmund Laufer: http://writing.upenn.edu/pepc/meaning/Laufer-S/
works that are in the exhibit are mostly from 1990-1996. I went through a time
of doing abstract paintings and photograms, during the period that I studied
with minimalists and conceptual artists and theorists at Hunter MA from
1975-77. My most influential teachers there were Robert Morris and Rosalind
Krauss. Some of that work was recently exhibited
at Mitchell Algus Gallery in Concept,
Performance, Documentation, Language:
returned to painting figurative works as I came into the orbit of the early
feminist artists. After my mother died in 1980, I felt a need to paint again. I
was working on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E then
and being influenced by the work of the poets that I knew. I started to add
collage to the paintings in about 1989. My daughter, Emma, was born in 1985 and
I started to be inspired by her childhood toys and her playfulness to return to
a spirit of play in my work. The pop imagery that I used in the 1980s paintings
that were derived from film stills morphed into this search for a decorative
and humorous approach to painting. I wanted stuff from everyday life to come
back into my work.
the same time, my husband, Charles Bernstein and I moved to Buffalo for a year.
This was a place full of wonderful kitsch and crafts stores with trinkets and
decals and to amuse myself, I went to thrift stores and shopped for odd items
to put into the painting. I was hoping to disrupt the purity of the surfaces
and to create an uncanny space, which could accommodate little bears and
Raggedy Ann and Andy and postcards and paper dolls within a painted surface.
During that year, I got pregnant and had a miscarriage and this work turned
darker. However, the work in the show, Twinkle
Little Star, from 1996, has a self-portrait by Felix (age 4) and a photo of
both of my children together. It also has pom poms and pages torn out from my
children’s nursery rhyme books that they liked to scrawl on. I was also
experimenting with different textures and surfaces including dripping in enamel
in a Pollack-like manner.
What kinds of concerns did you have in the early 1990s as an artist and person?
What were you reading or thinking about at the time and how did this inform the
evolution of this body of work?
SB: I was very involved with feminist theory and discourse. I had started my
magazine M/E/A/N/I/N/G with Mira
Schor in 1986. We were looking to get away from the orthodoxies of the art
world of that time. See the introduction to our 25th anniversary issue:
reproduce the flyer for our first issue. We wanted to emphasize social issues,
but also reintroduce the concept of pleasure to painting. In 1992, we published
a groundbreaking issue on motherhood and art making at the time that my son
Felix Bernstein was born and was still an infant. That same year, I had my
first solo show of these collaged paintings at the Virginia Lust Gallery in
Soho. The motherhood issue had contributions from many women artists about the
problems and joys of motherhood and art making. In other issues, we also
examined racial issues, problem of longevity and meaning in artmaking, as well
as gender issues. We wanted to address art theory in terms of poetic and
personal discourse and move away from the accepted formulations of that time.
We emphasized the importance of publishing artist’s writings and writings by
poets and others about art in a nonstandard format.
You are also known for your work in other fields, though you are not a poet you
are well known to many through your connection to poetry, as well as your
photography, collage, graphic design and book arts, how or did your other
activities come to bear on this particular body of work?
I was working as a designer and editor for commercial publications as well as
poetry books during this period. I was the designer for Roof Books, a small
press poetry book publisher, during that time. I designed L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and M/E/A/N/I/N/G.
I was also started doing a lot of book covers. My first artist’s book, Photogram, came out in 1979, and then I
started to work with poets on various book projects. I often used collage in
the books, for instance, in The Nude
Formalism with poems by Charles from 1989, I collaged various pictures and
used a variety of typefaces to make up the imagery. I liked the poets’ use of
collage in their work. They would take a line from a text or recast a text like
Kathy Acker and Hannah Weiner and I found their approach very inspiring. They
had whimsy and freedom in their work and the idea of the cut-up still seemed
vital to me in that period. In 1995, I did my first book, Talespin, for Steve Clay of Granary Books, which was all made up of
collaged pictures from 19th-century magazines and antique children’s books and
drawing manuals I had collected.
What would you say was your intellectual and artistic context, you had a
relationship with the infamous A.I.R. gallery, we’ve discussed briefly, but can
you give a context of who your peers were and who you were thinking about or
engaging with in terms of other people’s work?
Well, I went to A.I.R. Monday events in the 70s and 80s and was friends with
Nancy Spero, Carolee Schneemann, and other women artists. I was involved with
poets, painters, and the people around the magazines I edited. Arakawa and
Madeline Gins, Johanna Drucker, Mira Schor, David Reed, Susan Howe, Richard
Foreman, Jackson Mac Low, and Mimi Gross were some of the people, who I knew
and whose work I was seeing then. If you look through the names of authors in
those publications, I knew practically everyone associated with those various
groups. Poets and other artists were the ones who supported my work during that
period. They bought the early paintings and gave the paintings titles as well.
was not supported at all by the commercial art world and could not get the work
shown during this time until Virginia Lust showed it. In Buffalo, I was told by
dealers and curators that my work was too original to be shown there. It didn’t
look like anyone else’s work, so it couldn’t be absorbed into the discourse. I
was very frustrated that these works were not exhibited then. I remember that
people were puzzled by these works, even when I finally showed them at
Virginia’s, although I got enthusiastic notes from Barbara Guest and Miriam
Schapiro. My collectors and supporters of this work at the time were Ann Lauterbach,
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Richard Tuttle, Johanna Drucker, Erica Hunt, and
other poets and artists. I was also looking at the work of Joe Brainard and
Jess, who I knew and who worked with collage in wonderful ways. In addition, I
loved Mexican art, folk art, and the work of outsider artists. Other influences
were Florine Stettheimer and Marsden Hartley and the work of the Abstract
Expressionists, Surrealists, and the Fluxus group, especially Alison Knowles.
first issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G contains
a piece by me: “Running on Empty: An Artist’s Life in New York” with all the
rather cutting verbatim remarks made to me at studio visits up till that time:
I also lost shows in alternative spaces when I became pregnant with Emma in
1985. Remember that my friends the Guerrilla Girls started their mission in
1985. I am listed by name on one of their posters from 1990 as a member along
with many other women artists in my community:
M/E/A/N/I/N/G also grew out of an artists and
critics group that met in the 1980s before the AIDs crisis and our first issue
featured a tribute to a member of the group, Rene Santos, a wonderful young
painter, who died in 1985 at the beginning of the crisis. This was a terrible
time, and many of our friends passed away then.
a fuller list of my friends from that period and background see my piece for
the Feminist forum:
Susan Bee website: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bee/