Ice Cream Sunday: Paintings and Works on Paper by Susan Bee

Ben Shahn Galleries at William Paterson University of New Jersey

October 22-November 30, 2001

 

 Susan Bee: The Only Empress in a Dark Time

 

by David Shapiro

 

 

“Are you for or against ice cream?”

 

“The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream”—Wallace Stevens

 

 

Susan Bee is an antimetaphysical painter in the line of such wits as Hogarth, Peto, Picasso, Johns, and Salle. She is capable of yoking together without difficulty, to pervert Samuel Johnson's dicta against Donne, wildly dissimilar images. She tells a story that is as flat as Raymond Roussel, and yet she can also explode maximally with a full narrative that is as golden as a Mughal miniature of Eros and dust. She plays with a marginalia that is indeed a bestiary of some unrecoverable palette. Her intelligence links her with the painter-poets, such as Trevor Winkfield and Joe Brainard, who resolutely use a modest humor to spell out certain temptations in the bombast and false affirmations of our day. While she is capable of work in large scale, her work is intimate and full of three-dimensional quirks and charges. Meyer Schapiro referred to the levels of reality in the chair- caning collages of Picasso from l9l2, and Bee's work has an encyclopedic series of flows, switches, and relays. But just as I believe Picasso's collage finally emerges from something as normal but intent as Van Gogh's oval basket-filled onion still life, so Bee's work is finally not as eccentric as Roussel’s hero, Master Canterel's rule-obsessed inventions. Her syntax, as it were, becomes as resolutely sexual as a Gertrude Stein song of repetition. (The point being that there is no absolute repetition, "but persistence.")

 

In her drawings and in her new work of exploding maximal roses and Bosch-like temptations, Bee induces in us a mesmerized reflection on the Lucretian pleasures of a universe seemingly abandoned by any transcendental term. Thus, the critical or skeptical edge to her non-illustrational illustrations or "profane" margins. It's her own One-Way Street, and Walter Benjamin the collagist poet reigns here in urban frenzy. A student of minimalists, she concludes with a potlatch of restless life.

 

Once, Kenneth Koch tempted the poet Francis Ponge with a question about whether the prose-poet admired New York for its tall buildings. Ponge instantly demurred. But he went on to say that he noticed a red light on the top of a Riverside Church and also a cherry on the tops of American martinis. He concluded by telling the American poet "You Americans seem to have a mania for cherries on the tops of things." Koch told me that after that conjunction or insight or fusion he knew Ponge was a genius. It was the zero degree of provinciality and the height of surrealist fusions. This is the kind of combinatorial intelligence radiating in Bee's work at its best: celebrations like Joseph Cornell's boxes of the "highest and lowest reaches of the human spirit," in Fairfield Porter's accurate if humanist phrase. She may start with a three-dimensional doll, seashell, or photograph, but instead of the de Stijl mania that made Cornell so chaste, she then begins to create with very painterly strokes a manic depth that, after all, becomes her almost pointillist surface. This relay between Americana of the humblest variety and an early Mondrian-like reiterated mark makes her work full of a responsible joy.

 

She may seem to be playful, but actually there is this "supplemental" and almost globalizing fusion in the comic strippings here. Some have wondered about whether she can synthesize these paradoxes and disunities, but I would suggest that her forte is at leaving disunity alone, and in vexing the very question of unity. She drastically pierces her narratives, and raises (or razes) the semiotic richness to the stage at which Schapiro enunciated Cubism's multiplicity: I is a pronoun, I am Meyer Schapiro, I is a straight line. The variety of visual resources is not used merely to "synthesize" but to flaunt the necessity for anything but an inexhaustible cornucopia of parodies, homages, and the strange cancellations of all strategies. This suggests, as Bakhtin did of Dostoyevsky's dialogic novels, that we must seek an end to the calculus of these curves and floating figures.

 

I too have dreamt of an end to the wars between figuration and abstraction, and with Lucio Pozzi, I have underlined pluralist strategies for getting beyond minor iconomachias of our day. Bee's style of anti-puritanical polystylistics  within  a single work seems to me to be one of the valiant efforts at a dissolution of dogmatic. (I found this to be the central strategy of parody and homage in John Ashbery's “The Skaters,” and I also believe in the long sequence as a divertimento in many tempi.This is not a nostalgia for narrative but a fierce and intimate rejoinder to nostalgias in a parade of nostalgias.)

 

Her eroticism reminds one of the postcards of Rudy Burckhardt with its insistence on a sudden destruction of any pretense: a nude slicing across a Rothko. This is the carnival, moreover, in Bee's best panels, and while it can be melancholy as Salle, it is normally bumptious, hedonistic, and strangely dense. It is fairly fearless work. She has a preference for excess, and thus a lot of her work is more dangerous than the purism we may associate with certain reductions in minimal American art. The "fear of desire" is not a problem here, and her refulgent works bear a bizarre similarity to the sexual narratives of Julio Galan. But when all is over, Bee's voice is unmistakable and her choices are various but recurrent enough to establish a canonic constellation. In the single maximal contradiction of her paintings, one seizes on the triumph of her anti-naturalistic naturalism. The joy of cinema's relative dynamizing of space and time is here, and her narratives give us elastic vignettes as Romantic as the Pompeian frescoes or those of Herculaneum.  Her use of folk idiom is countered by the learned brush. It's  courageous in a low dishonest decade, and it is at the furthest remove from the idea of painting as either political exhortation or patriarchal preening.

 

Like her mother, Miriam Laufer, who was also a painter, she is in a sense an "abstract" painter, because all of these ladders and Sundays in no park, and sundaes without time, and gardens of mad  margins finally create a series of "chord clusters" in which imagery, by overload, nears illegibility. In this, her work resembles those Indian miniature paintings of which Francesco Clemente once observed that the "whole world" is attempted. Frank O’Hara praised the nuptial globalism of Ashbery in "marrying the whole world." Clemente spoke to me once of this as a danger, but it is also a high, impossible standard. This love of complexity may emerge from the intersection of  Bee’s experience as the daughter of artist parents with an Eastern European, Jewish background and her own experiencing of popular culture as a first-generation American. I am impressed, moreover, by the unity of all of the work and its development as another kind of sequence. After the death of her mother some years ago, she abandoned more minimal modes and immediately limned a haunting lighthouse amid ruins. The work has been accumulating its unities ever since, and its oxymorons.

 

I cannot conclude without saying how difficult it is, as Koch once observed to reject the elegiac mood and sing a complex human and even communitarian happiness. The tone of Bee's paintings, and her marvelously intelligent collaborations with Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, and others, is the tone of a double pun on the uncanny, in a time of homelessness. We are at home with her Americana, photographs, erotica, dolls and toys, but we are also frightened by their nearness and by their imbrication in narratives that are so discontinuous and multiple. For this reason, like the simultaneous radios of John Cage, she gives us a full concert. Her drawings, lean, elegant, more than charming, are perhaps one of the most fitting  triumphs, by deletion, of this multiple artist, for whom painting is an implacable language without words.

 

During the worst years of the Vietnam War, when most poets were writing melodramatic propaganda about horror, Koch told me that he was perversely interested in listing joys and pleasures of peace rather than lashing out dogmatically against the Empire. Wallace Stevens, also, opposed the notion that poets become soldiers in a reduction of content.  In another dark time, just as we will observe opportunistic jingoism and false militancy of every stripe, in this time it is perhaps sufficient that Susan Bee's works remind us of the peaceful enumeration of what, after all, we are used to affirming in a minimal mode, like hopeless prayer.

 

                     — September 2001, New York City