The life story of my mother, Miriam Laufer, has many elements shared by Jews of her generation caught between the violent dissolution of an old world lifestyle and the adoption of a new diasporic one. Personal changes were mirrored in political changes, and vice versa, and her journey from childhood to adulthood traced a voyage through nations also in transition, crossing borders and territories whose identities were also shifting. Born in Poland in 1918, Miriam Ickowitz (later Laufer) grew up in Berlin. Her grandfather was a Torah scribe. Her father deserted the family in the 1920s and became an actor in Yiddish theater in Uruguay, leaving her mother abandoned and jobless. Miriam and her brother, Leo, were put in the care of the Ahava, a progressive Jewish children’s home in Berlin. At Ahava (the name means “love”), art became an important part of Miriam’s life, and she designed stage sets for theater productions and worked in the art studio. With the rise of Facism in Germany, the entire orphanage relocated to Palestine in 1934, thus saving the children from Nazi extermination.
In 1938, Miriam entered Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem on a scholarship, beginning her formal art education. She studied graphics with Joseph Budko, the head of the school, and painting with the painter Mordecai Ardon, who had been a student at the Bauhaus. Miriam worked as a painter for the occupying British Army, honing her drafting skills, while lettering signs in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Polish, Greek, and Urdu.
While in Palestine, Miriam met Sigmund Laufer (1920–2007), a fellow artist and designer, and dedicated kibbutznik and activist in the Labor Party, and they married in 1941. The two left for New York in 1947, settling in the German enclave of Yorkville on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where they had two daughters: me and my younger sister, Abigail Laufer. Miriam worked as a calligrapher, illustrator, and graphic designer. She illustrated children’s books, technical manuals, designed cocktail napkins and greeting cards, and made elaborate diplomas and fancy certificates for awards.
During the early 1960s, she taught painting and drawing at New York University, and, in the late 1960s, she became involved with the women’s movement and was an early supporter of feminist art and its core concerns. During this period, she continued to paint and developed a unique and striking style. Critics of an earlier era wrote that she “follows her intuitions rather than reason” (ArtVoices, December 1963). Rackstraw Downes put it this way: “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” (ARTnews, February 1968). 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). At age fifty-two, she returned to school at Brooklyn College and received a BA, magna cum laude, in 1973.
My parents were lifelong summer residents of Provincetown and their circle of dynamic, mostly Jewish, artists, writers, and musicians were a part of my childhood. I grew up knowing Victor Lipton and Helen Duberstein, Resia and Ilya Schor, Chaim and Renee Gross, Arthur Cohen and Elizabeth Rogers. In addition, my parents’ close friends Laura and Marvin Speiser used to visit us here. Their son, Robert Speiser, and his partner, musician Anthony Brackett, now live in Provincetown year-round with their children and are major collectors of my parents’ art.
I went regularly to their exhibits at the Provincetown Art Association, Bellardo Gallery, Paul Kessler Gallery, and other venues. Many of my childhood memories are of openings and parties, or of sitting in a corner of the studio or print workshop at the Pratt Graphics Center (in Manhattan), while my parents worked at their art.
My parents appreciated the bohemian atmosphere of Provincetown (and the reasonable rental rates!). In our early visits, in the 1950s, we stayed in the back of town near the neighborhood occupied by Portuguese fishermen and their families. I played in the summer on the streets and beaches with the local kids. My mother would go to the wharf to buy fish from the boats as they came in. Both of my parents painted and drew in the summer months, my mother’s watercolors, mono types, and oil paintings displaying the lush color that would typify her later work. She painted the Self-Portrait that accompanies this article in a house in Provincetown that we rented from Edward Giobbi in the summer of 1968. My father created drawings, watercolors, and etchings, many in black and white; later his prints became colorful and were influenced by Pop American culture.
As my parents became more settled in America and successful, they were able to afford to rent a place on the water, closer to the bay side of Provincetown, but the colorful figures and lifestyle did not mask deeper realities. For instance, I remember visiting Arthur Cohen when he was painting in the dunes in a shack. Always poor and hungry, he was a frequent dinner guest, along with many other younger artists. My mother was an excellent cook and host and our home was an endless coffee klatsch. Radical politics and art were discussed in various languages at all hours. Socialist issues, race questions, the role of unions, European, American, and Israeli politics were all important to them at the time. They were associated with magazines such as Commentary and Dissent, which were vital to my parents and their friends. They were also very involved in discussions about aesthetics and art topics with the writers, academics, artists, and psychiatrists who inhabited their milieu.
I still spend my summers in Provincetown, now with my husband, poet Charles Bernstein, and see the children of my parent’s friends — Irene and Jackie Lipton, Mira Schor, and Mimi Gross, as well as other friends such as Eileen Myles, Leopoldine Core, Richard Baker, Elizabeth Fodaski, and the late filmmaker George Kuchar — carrying on a legacy of intellectual and artistic life nurtured by the community and connections made in those summer months. My connection with Mira Schor has been particularly strong and generative. I first met Mira as a child in Provincetown; we met again as young adults on the beach in Provincetown in the late 1970s and found we had a great rapport. We then started working together in 1986 on a publication, M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A Journal of Contemporary Art Issues, which continues today as M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online. M/E/A/N/I/N/G has been a collaboration between two artists, both painters with expanded interests in writing and politics, and an extended community of artists, art critics, historians, theorists, and poets, whom we sought to engage in discourse and to give a voice to. Over the years we created a community of M/E/A/N/I/N/G with over 150 individual contributors.
My mother was also very involved with other artists in the 10th Street cooperative gallery scene. She had seven solo shows of her paintings, prints, and drawings; most were at the Phoenix Gallery in New York, beginning with group shows in 1951. Two posthumous exhibits provided the occasion for critical review and assessment of her unique body of work, a retrospective held at the Phoenix Gallery in NYC in 1981, with a catalogue essay by Diana Morris Manister, and Seeing Double: Paintings by Susan Bee and Miriam Laufer, in 2006 at A.I.R. Gallery in NYC, with an essay by Johanna Drucker.
“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. . . . Suddenly the world seemed to come into the studio, bringing with it a whole new set of possibilities and questions. . . . The women in Laufer’s canvases of the late 1960s and 1970s have. . . an aggressive, confrontational self-assertion 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. . . . 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. . . . But . . . at this distance . . . the strongest of the works, those portraits and self-portraits, show how intensely engaged she was in trying to make images about the way women come to terms with artistic identity.”
Miriam gave me a vital example of how you can make art the center of your life, while continuing to function as a wife, mother, feminist, and wage earner. I profited immensely from experiencing her artistic processes, as well as seeing her many struggles, firsthand. I was raised in a household where art was the main mode of expression. I was given paper, crayons, pencils, and paints and was encouraged to draw as much as possible. Also, I was taken to museums and galleries a lot as a child and continued this mode of living when I had my own children. Art was a way of life for my mother — not a choice, but rather a gesamtwerk, a whole way of interacting with and comprehending the world.
I feel I am following in Miriam’s footsteps, even though she died many years ago suddenly from a stroke in 1980 at age sixty. The influence of her personality and legacy of her work have been carried on through her family as well as in the critical reception of her art. Writing about Miriam in The Forward, Joshua Cohen said, “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 had a daughter, Emma [Bee Bernstein], a young photographer [1985–2008]. Culture is the family business.” Our son Felix Bernstein (born in 1992) continues on with the family tradition as a filmmaker and performer in Kuchar’s films and his own works.
Last fall, I was in Berlin for the first time since I went with my parents in the 1970s. I visited the site of the Ahava Kinderheim. Situated in the former East Berlin, in the Mitte, Berlin’s old Jewish quarter, the Ahava building is war-scarred, dilapidated, and heavily graffitied, but still standing. I made a painting, Ahava, Berlin, (2012) based on that visit about which Raphael Rubinstein observed,
“Unexpectedly, Bee transforms a snapshot situation (tourist daughter standing in front of orphanage where mother lived as child) into a powerful image of hope and renewal, albeit one that acknowledges the heavy price of history. The ultimate message of this painting is legible on the sign placed just above Bee’s head: ‘Ahava,’ the Hebrew word for love.”
In this painting, I address my complex feelings about my mother’s artistic journey and her difficult life story and show how her journey, and my own, have come full circle.