Interview with American painter and editor Susan Bee

Artist Susan Bee talks about a range of subjects related to the participation of women in the visual art scene in New York, such as the 60s and the 70s context for women, the problems with attitudes towards feminist art, dynamics of the women’s co-operative gallery A.I.R., influence of her mother, artist Miriam Laufer, and differences on commercial terms between male and female artists, among others topics. Susan Bee is an American painter, editor, and book artist connected to A.I.R. since 1996.

More about Susan Bee here
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Isabel Waquil: You said, in the Brooklyn Museum Feminist Art Base, that you decided to follow a feminist art path. How did that happen?

Susan Bee: Well, I‘ve been a member of A.I.R. Gallery, which is a women’s gallery,  since 1996, but before that I went to Barnard, which is a women’s college. I was very involved with the feminist art movement with earlier generations, like Nancy Spero – who was very important to me – also Joan Snyder, Joyce Kozloff, and other people who were role models. Plus, my mother, Miriam Laufer, was an artist. I was also an editor of the Women Art News for a while, so I was very involved starting in 1970 I guess! I was at the beginning at the whole second wave of feminist consciousness, it was just sort of coming into play.

IW: How was this context?

SB: It was very exciting, because it was the late 60s, early 70s, we were at Barnard College and Columbia University, when it was full of political action against Vietnam War. There was also the beginning of the black power movement, gay consciousness, feminism… it was all happening at the same time. It was dynamic. I hardly ever went to class (laugh).

IW: What consequences would you say this decision of being a feminist had?

SB: I don’t know if there was a decision, it was more like a way of life. I don’t know, because even now the feminist movement, in art, does not get the respect it ought to. For instance, at the opening show at the new Whitney Museum – they have a lot of political art, art about AIDS racism, the Vietnam War, the Depression, but they didn’t have any feminist art per se. They have a lot more women in this exhibition that they’ve ever shown before, but they don’t specifically address feminist art. I had not actually noticed, but a friend of mine had gone in the morning opening for the critic’s tour and she said: “Where is the feminist art movement?” I mean, you’ve got pop art, you’ve got minimal art, you’ve got conceptual art, you’ve got all kinds of political movements, but they didn’t address feminism. Because, even now, I think it is discredited in some level. I feel it never gets the respect it should have.

IW: But do you think women’s participation in the art world has changed?

SB: It had some impact because there were years before the feminist movement when there were zero women represented, and now it’s what, 30%? It’s a lot, compared with before. So it makes it feel that way. I’m very gratified but I don’t think it’s enough. I want to see 50 – 50. Or 60 – 40. More women. For instance, I think it’s hard for A.I.R. Gallery to be as respected as it should be.

IW: Why?

SB: I mean, we have been around for 40 years but it doesn’t get as much real status and real sales and real art world credibility. Women’s galleries are accepted – and A.I.R. is the most important of them historically – but I don’t think we get the respect we should. I know because I’ve shown in other spaces. You get a different reaction. I’m not trying to be a pessimist about this problem, I’m just trying to be realistic.

IW: Do you think it is a matter of the outside context?

SB: Well, co-op galleries do not get the same respect as commercial galleries. Even in commercial galleries there is a hierarchy. I’ve shown with smaller commercial galleries, I did ok, but you don’t get that kind of visibility that you get in big commercial galleries. Honestly, it’s a matter of money. We have some really good artists, but even when they made into the mainstream, they rarely mention that they were in A.I.R. Ana Mendieta was a member of A.I.R. and when they did a show of hers at the Whitney Museum they tried to bury her feminist past.

IW: Why do you think they tried to bury her feminist past?

I think because it doesn’t add to her commercial value. Feminism is not a plus in the commercial art world. Even Ana Mendieta, whose work is handled by a very good gallery, however, they don’t want to emphasize her feminist past. They want her work to be seen in the bigger context. I can understand that. They don’t want her to be ghettoized in this feminist art world, which is less valuable. The commercial dealers are very aware of that. There is not a market for feminist art.

IW: But why are you still associated with a feminist organization?

SB: I like to be in an all-women art shows, for example, but I can understand how one wants to be part of the bigger art context. I just had a show in January 2015 on a small gallery in Williamsburg and the dealer told me they sell out men, but they could never sell out women’s work. They are losing money on showing women. For me, this was a good experience. I was also showing my experimental photographic work that I had never shown before because I couldn’t get a show for almost 40 years. So there is a kind of a joke going around with my women artist’s friends that usually you are 90 years old before you can get a really good show, so you have to keep in good health so that you can make it to 90 and have the show. It’s not really funny because people die before they can get shown. I can list you some 90-year-old women having shows today in New York. Women who just had their career started in their 80s. It’s very frustrating. It took me 40 years to show this work that I had done in the 1970s. So, basically, I think you have to be proactive and you have to try to not die too early (laugh). It’s very difficult.

IW: So does this sexist environment still go on?

SB: Oh, yes. People are more aware of it. Like racism in America, it’s very noticeable right now. But it’s not like it had stopped, really. Discrimination hasn’t stopped. It’s just gone underground or it’s mutating. Like a virus, it takes different forms. And one form that it takes is that women’s work sells less and sells for less money, so dealers are less likely to show women. It’s a vicious circle, because it’s very hard to break out of that. That’s why women don’t want to be in all-women shows, because it’s stigmatized. I don’t care, personally. But I see the point of trying to integrate into the larger art world, in terms of having an audience, having real collectors, and getting into museums.

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SUSAN BEE – Doomed to Win. 1983, Oil on linen, 50″ x 54” (Source: A.I.R. Gallery)

IW: You are also a professor. Do you think American art history has been negligent about women artists?

SB: Of course it was. In the 70s, when I was a student at Barnard – I was an art history major – I was trying to write one of the first papers on women artists and I couldn’t find anything! There was nothing! It wasn’t that the women artists didn’t exist, you just couldn’t find out anything. So that was negligent. It’s more like discrimination. It’s very deliberate. I don’t think there is an accident here. We were just not been taking seriously, not viewed, not written about. Once it started to happen, it was snowball effect. A.I.R. started in 1972 and also all of these different groups and publications.

IW: How did you get to A.I.R.?

SB: I went to graduate school with Joan Snitzer at Hunter College. She was the director of A.I.R. They had this program, Monday Nights, where they would have talks and I started to go because she was a friend of mine. So, I was stunned by the whole thing, it was so exciting. I was very enthusiastic. I became friends with Nancy Spero, I met Ana Mendieta, all these women that I had heard about. I was studying at Hunter, which was mostly a male faculty, and was very macho male, minimalists. It was just shocking, because I had been in an all-women’s college before. It was very exciting to be in A.I.R. I was also writing and I was in shows. Years later I had my first solo painting show in 1992 at the age of 40 in a commercial gallery, but the gallery closed just a few months later. So I started looking for another gallery, and that’s when I joined A.I.R. This was 1996. I had to apply three times actually. At that point I didn’t care if I sold work, I just needed a place to show my work because I was a very prolific artist, and they took me in. My first show there was in 1998.

IW: And what’s the role of A.I.R. in your career?

SB: It’s been very helpful because I needed a place to show and the commercial galleries were not interested. It has been a stepping stone for me and the community of women artists is very important too. I met many people through it. I made a lot of connections over the years and it’s been a good space for me to have shows. A lot of people had seen my work, especially when it was in SoHo and Chelsea.

IW: And why do you think an institution like A.I.R. is still important?

SB: Because there’s not enough places for all the women artists. In A.I.R. we have a lot of middle aged and older artists that just can’t be taken to other galleries at this point. So it’s great for them. And we have also the Fellowship Program, which is great for the younger artists, and it’s a great stepping stone for them. We now have some younger members who are wonderful. Actually the group right now is really good in terms of personalities. When I first joined it was hell. People would yell, scream.

IW: Why?

SB: I don’t know, the women artists in the gallery just used to get very angry. I was used to that because of the feminist movement, but I didn’t like it. I’m not like that. Every month I would go to the meetings and I wouldn’t say a word. But the atmosphere has changed. As people come in, come out, it changes the personality of a group. It’s very interesting. Now I have been there for 20 years I can tell you for sure that we are at a very nice period, everybody is very pleasant, they thank each other, they listen, and they talk.

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SUSAN BEE –  Lady Be Good. 2013, Oil, enamel, and sand on linen, 20″ x 24” (Source: A.I.R. Gallery)

IW: Meredith Brown wrote about other institutions that were created in the West Coast and Chicago that were inspired by A.I.R., but a lot of them didn’t survive. Why do you think A.I.R. is such a successful case?

SB: Well, we have had really good members. I consider it the best of the group. And I think it has become historical. But I have no idea how we managed to stay in business so long (laugh). Often I think: “We are about to go down.” There are always money problems. But we’ve got grants, we’ve had very dedicated staff, we’ve had dedicated women involved… I guess it is luck and fortitude. But I don’t know how we managed. And I don’t know how we are going to get past the next few years, honestly. The real estate market in New York has become horrible. Galleries go under all the time. It’s very hard to keep a gallery afloat.

IW: Your work deals a lot gender roles and power relationships. Do you see your work as a political discourse?

SB: Yes, I am concerned with that. But I also deal with a lot of other stuff. I’m interested in the relationship between people and so a lot of my work is about that. I like to have a feminist sub-theme but I don’t like to be too “in your face” about it, so I combine it with other things. I think if you put the message sweetly it comes out better. On the other hand, I do it with humor. One thing that I liked about the feminist movement was when they were funny. I think the Guerrilla Girls have done great because they are humorous.

IW: They are very ironic too.

SB: Yes, they are ironic and sarcastic. And they are obviously poking fun at this sub-level of the art world. And that is more successful.

IW: And humor helps to spread a message.

SB: Yes, because people find them amusing. Two of them are friends of mine. They are funny!

IW: Which women artists with feminist works would you highlight?

SB: Well, I would say Nancy Spero, she is my favorite. I like Ana Mendieta and Miriam Schapiro a lot, Mary Beth Edelson is very interesting… Joan Snyder, Joyce Kozloff are people that I really like and I know. There are just others who would fall into the category of women artists but are not necessarily political artists. Alice Neel, Eva Hesse, Elizabeth Murray, Joan Mitchell, Frida Kahlo,Carolee Schneemann and Louise Bourgeois, for instance, are really great artists. So once you look beyond the narrow focus, you get a broader perspective. There are a lot of abstract women artists who are also feminist, but that doesn’t get talked about that much either.

IW: Do you think that today we have a plural understanding of femininity in the visual arts? Or are stereotypes still as strong as before?

SB: Well, femininity is not a word that is really used anymore. There is still an interest in the word “feminist,” but the word is now a problem with all the issues around transgender identity. Even A.I.R. has wording that indicates now that we don’t take just women but people who identify as women. So far it hasn’t really happened, but the whole definition of women has become very problematic and it has become a big issue. Not so much in terms of the gallery but in terms of feminism. There is feminist day of panels every year at the College Art Association and one year they had a whole day on the question of trans and how trans women fit into feminism. Things have become so different that I think that a lot of older feminists are very shocked by all of this.

IW: But do you think women’s fight have changed? What’s the question today?

SB: Well the main thing is the same as before, which is equal pay. We still don’t get equal pay. It’s pretty much the same fight. Things have improved but nothing has improved that significantly. In the art world, we still don’t get equal pay in the sense that we don’t sell as much as man. And we don’t sell for the money that men are selling for. There is no equity. Agnes Gund, she is an important collector and the President Emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, one of the most powerful women in the art world,  wrote a piece about how she couldn’t understand why women were still so far behind. And if she can’t understand it, who can? (laugh). And she has the power to change it, it would seem like it, but she can’t. She feels like it’s a stubborn problem, like a glass ceiling. It’s not that women are not trying. People tend to say: “Oh you are not trying hard enough.” I really resent that comment, because it’s not that people are not trying. Don’t blame the victim.

IW: The last thing I wanted to ask you is about your mother, Miriam Laufer, because I read she was a big influence on you, right?

SB: Yes, she was a painter too. Both of my parents were artists, so I grew up in an artist family. She was a big influence because she was involved with the feminist movement before I was. I was still a teenager and I had just started to find about the all of this stuff and she was terribly discriminated in terms of her work. That’s why it’s taken me many years to get a museum show for her. The 50s, 60s, and 70s was a very hard period to be a women painter in New York. Very few succeeded, and the ones that did succeed tended to be involved with powerful men. They were married to curators or critics or important male artists. Not that their work wasn’t good, there was very good work, but you couldn’t get there without those connections. And my mother didn’t have those connections. So I think it was hard and I saw her struggle. She didn’t want me to be an artist. She wanted me to do anything else but being an artist. Now, I totally see what she was talking about.

IW: Do you regret it?

SB: No, because I couldn’t do anything else. That’s the way it was. Of course she might have noticed that too (laugh). I started making art when I was 2. She used to drag me with her to her studio, so I was brought up in a painting studio. I think she thought I was going to Barnard and go to law school, get a real job. And I never did any of those things. But it was great to see her work, it was very “in your face” feminist kind of work, with a lot of nude self-portraits. So there it is. Fate (laughs). She was with a co-op gallery also, it was called the Phoenix Gallery. It was on 10th Street, so she was part of the 10th Street scene – which was a very macho scene. The abstract expressionist artists and the pop artists were very macho, and it was very hard. She was discouraged. She continued because she just did. A lot of women would just have given up. It was not an easy life.

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SUSAN BEE – Fighters. 1983, Oil on linen, 64″ x 48” (Source: A.I.R. Gallery)


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