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I was born into trauma. My middle name, which I use as my last name and nom de peinture is Bee. I was named for my great-grandmother Bella, my father’s grandmother, who died in a death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland along with my great-grandfather and 17 other relatives, who also died in the Holocaust. My parents had only been in New York for five years when I was born. They were refugees from Berlin and then Palestine. In the meantime, over the course of my life, I have suffered many other losses, most tragically of my daughter Emma, as well as the early death of my mother, and more recently my father, friends, and relatives. In every case, art making and experiencing art and poetry have brought me some solace from grief.

Susan Bee, "Threadsuns," 2015, oil and enamel on linen, 40˝ × 50˝

When my husband Charles Bernstein was invited to read his poetry and lecture in Germany and Poland last November, I really didn’t know if I wanted to go along. I was afraid of the feelings that might be awakened, especially going to Warsaw and the Łódź ghetto, where my mother was born. It was an emotionally draining trip, drawing many sad realizations of the missing ones and visions of ghosts everywhere. When I returned I wondered how to translate into painting these feelings that surrounded me like a black cloud. At first, I didn’t feel like making art at all. Then I thought to make a painting that reflected the gray and cold chill and nightmares that overtook me in Poland: a painting in just tones of black and white to reflect on the destruction of the Jews and the ruins of Warsaw and Łódź and the flames of the concentration camps. To me it seemed like all of Poland was a graveyard.

But when I started to sketch out the painting, it took on color and unanticipated energy through the brushstrokes and layering of oil and enamel paint, so that out of the ashes of the burnt-out buildings and structures, life began to sprout. This was unexpected and I felt that I was rescued by the process of painting and by the intensity of the colors: bright orange, spring green, lavender, blood red, sky blue, and warm yellow. The two lead figures who go forward on the path to the open doorway were based on a black and white woodcut by Edvard Munch that I saw in Berlin. It interested me to show how they lean on each other, in death and in life. The woman is naked and the man is clothed but they are embracing as they walk together. I call this painting, “Threadsuns” (after “Fadensonnen”) in homage to the poem by Paul Celan. To me, he is one of the greatest artists of transformation, where pain and anger and loss become poetry.

above the grayblack wastes.
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond

—Paul Celan, “Threadsuns,”
translated by Pierre Joris


Susan Bee

Susan Bee is an artist, who lives in Brooklyn. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014. Her current solo show, The Challenge of Painting, is up at the Mid-Manhattan Library through August 20, 2015.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

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