BELLADONNA ELDERS SERIES #4: Tribute to Emma Bee Bernstein

Emma Bee Bernstein, Susan Bee, Marjorie Perloff, and Nona Willis Aronowitz
Belladonna Books ($15)

by Ellen Kennedy Michel

Rarely has a book been published with as immediate and tragic a backstory as the fourth in the Elder Series published by Belladonna Books, now titled a “Tribute to Emma Bee Bernstein.” Daughter of poet Charles Bernstein and artist Susan Bee, Emma Bee Bernstein took her own life, at the age of 23, on December 20, 2008, inside the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the day after sending her mother her contribution to the book.

Conceived nine months earlier, the concept for this Belladonna selection grew out of a panel presentation at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, “Beyond the Waves: Feminist Artists Talk Across the Generations.” There, Emma held her own among artists and critics Carolee Schneemann, Mira Schor, Brynna Tucker, and Susan Bee. Having grown up at the epicenter of the contemporary American avant-garde, with parents who disrupted fixed boundaries between visual arts and language, it’s no wonder that Emma became a collaborator with elders. She also became a defender of her own generation, wondering what is left for it to do and what forms its feminism will take.

Emma’s closest collaborator was journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz, who is also the daughter of intellectual, critical-minded parents, the late Ellen Willis and Stanley Aronowitz. After the death of Ellen Willis from cancer in November 2006, Emma and Nona began to imagine a project that would let them take “responsibility for the legacy we inherited: to keep the memory of our mothers, and feminism, alive.” Motivated, too, by the desire for “change, discovery, travel, and adventure,” they set out from Chicago in a ’98 Chevy Cavalier shortly after graduating from college, with laptops, lists of names, and money saved from waitress and hostess jobs. (“We worked all summer at crappy jobs to do this,” Nona explains in the book. At the GIRLdrive FAQ she puts it more bluntly: “we worked our butts off at shitty jobs for almost a year in order to hit the road. No book deal, trust fund, or doting parent picked up the tab. Just sayin'.”)

For two intense months Emma and Nona interviewed and photographed over 200 women—most of them young and urban, some of them mentors—and recorded their journey at Their aim was to write a book containing answers to four (“appropriately Jewish”) questions: “Do you consider yourself a feminist? Do you see your life through the eyes of being a woman, or does gender figure into your daily experience? What issues are the most burning or pressing for you, whether in your life or in the world at large? What would you like to see for the future of women?”

Belladonna Elders Series #4 has a swiftness and immediacy, and not only because it was hastened into print in Emma’s memory. It stands out boldly from others in the Belladonna Elders Series, white text artifacts also designed by HR Hegnauer, marked with cover photos of the “deadly nightshade, a cardiac and respiratory stimulant.” As an object, it demands attention—its cover, a brightly colored painting by Susan Bee titled “Lost in Space,” depicts a black leather-clad superwoman resisting the grip of a one-eyed octopus. The back cover, Susan Bee’s “Future,” features an altered vintage image of three girls in short black skirts, sweaters, ties, and butterfly wings. They stand under a banner proclaiming Emma’s dictum: “Let feminism be an amorphous cloud that floats over women’s ideation and visual experience—and that brings us together instead of partitions us off from one another.”

This tribute volume also invariably serves as an interim introduction to the GIRLdrive book, due in the fall of 2009 from Seal Press. In her own contribution to Belladonna #4, “Emma’s Poetry,” Nona Willis Aronowitz writes: “Emma was always disappointed that ‘GIRLdrive the book’ could not possibly embody the headiness of ‘GIRLdrive the experience’. . . She wanted us to be more conspicuous characters in the story of GIRLdrive, more than just the talking heads of the odyssey that forged connections between hundreds of women across thirty-five cities.” Nona’s prose, both here and elsewhere, conveys the energy and intelligence of GIRLdrive. The two women knew how to seize the moment, identifying the gaps and the overlaps between their forebears and feminists (or “not”) of their own generation.

Especially in its aftermath, it’s possible to wish GIRLdrive had also been a film project or even a reality show, capturing its on-the-road headiness. Its ambition was vast, leaving Emma wanting more. In an essay on her loss, Susan Bee reveals that a serious car crash after the GIRLdrive trip left Emma with injuries that may have contributed to a sense of desperation in her final moments. She was also in an artistic space charged with notoriety and intergenerational drama: the Guggenheim houses some of the works of artist Pegeen Vail, daughter of Peggy Guggenheim and painter Laurence Vail, who killed herself in 1967 after more than a dozen attempts—a fact that couldn’t have escaped Emma’s attention.

There is something undeniably heartbreaking about this book. Poets, artists, feminists, friends and relatives of Emma, her brother Felix, and of course her parents, have been sharing memories and collective grief, trying to come to terms with the implications of her death. Charles Bernstein’s blog has a prominent “In Memorium” link that includes words from her funeral service. Mourners note that Emma held a place of unusual privilege and promise in the art world, having been recognized as precocious while still young. Her remarkable elders encouraged her, finding value in her observations and images. And yet she sensed acutely the double bind of her own generation, arguing that they have been robbed of the time to reflect: “These are not the good ol’ days and we know it . . . That reality check followed our whole road trip . . . ‘They had it so easy’ is a popular refrain of Gen. Y. We are bitter and jaded. The idea of carving out time in your youth for self-discovery and exploration is as outdated as rainbow ponchos and love-ins.” Later, she writes: “ Many of us no longer are given a chance to make moves in life that aren’t documented, that don’t only function as a stepping stone to something else. We couldn’t even think of taking this road trip unless it took the form of an ambitious project!”

Like Mary Shelley before her (crossing the Alps on a donkey with Percy Bysshe Shelley and half-sister Claire, the three of them reading aloud from the works of Mary’s parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin), Emma’s work spins from a fascination with the social pioneers of her parents’ generation, as well as her sense of aesthetic entitlement, urgency, and legacy. She wanted to be meaningful too, and knew she had it in her. In a piece Emma contributed to Feminist Art: A Reassessment (edited by Susan Bee and Mira Schor) she argued for

Griselda Pollock’s plea for sustained creativity rather than novelty for novelty’s sake, non-Oedipal models that cause respect rather than rebellion in genealogies, for a feminist future that we live beside not below, ‘the right to say WHO I am, not WHAT I am,’ to have feminism conflated with the feminine, for the feminine and masculine to be understood as metaphors, symbols, tools, that create positive dimensional action in all sexes, that the symbolic gesture of maternity be an art world ethos where artists can rear the next generation without having to claim anything in return.

That breathless, theoretically compressed sentence actually goes on: the plea above begins and ends with semi-colons. It demonstrates how cognizant Emma was at an early age of the issues and specifics of American feminism, within broader social, philosophical, and artistic efforts. In Belladonna #4 you can imagine her frustration during a conversation with poetry critic Marjorie Perloff, whom she and Nona interviewed on October 27, 2007, in her Palisades, California, home. “Chatting with Marjorie in her huge living room, surrounded by books, there was a voluminous weight to her contribution before she even began,” Emma explains. The young women bristle when Perloff claims that middle-class women are plagued by “endless side issues, boutique issues.” “Are body image and self-image issues boutique?” they ask, fresh from conversations that unsettled that perspective.

The Perloff interview—which has the immediacy and familiarity of an argument among affectionate, exasperated relatives—dramatizes the paralysis and discomfort a young person might feel while trying to chart her future on the basis of advice from elders. At one point Perloff, who is now in her seventies, says:

When I got my PhD you could get jobs just like that because there weren’t all these people competing . . . it’s probably not a good idea to encourage young people to become artists. Why does everybody need to be an artist, and what shall we do with all these artists? There are too many artists, too many poets. Sometimes I think that if I hear about yet another new poet, I’ll shoot myself, even though I’m the one who writes on poetry. What does this glut of so-called poets and artists do for society?

This is from someone who, in theory, is rooting for these girls. (Perloff offers a written-in-hindsight postscript in the book.)

“Nothing tires a vision more than sundry attacks,” it says on one of Susan Bee’s collages illustrating the text, where recontextualized phrases mark the ambivalence roused by its subjects. Nona and Emma also interviewed Susan Bee, who speaks openly about her own struggles with artistic identity; as the daughter of artists Miriam Laufer and Sigmund Laufer, Bee also inherited the challenge of artistic differentiation and succession. She reflects on her new role as bereft mother: “Rather than having Emma to carry on my legacy and to help me care for my parent’s artworks—as I expected—I am now responsible for her artistic legacy.”

In her own prose contribution, Emma notes how difficult it is to settle comfortably into “one ideological zone.” When recounting her interview with Perloff, she writes: “Her answers threw us for a loop, and my eyes widened with delight at her frankness and willingness to go against the grain. ‘I am a feminist practically speaking, but I have no interest in feminist art or literature,’ she told us.” This is one of many moments I wish I could see on film, the better to decode the irony, ambiguity, and inflection of the younger women’s discomfort and “delight.” It’s the delight—and now the despair—in Emma that may have thrown her elders for a loop.

Untitled, color photograph, 2004. Photo by Emma Bee Bernstein.

It is clear from Belladonna #4 that feminism, photography, and artistic expression have lost a fierce, articulate, forthright, inquiring practitioner, the voice and vision of a young adult who was romantic, idealistic, impetuous, talented, and knowledgeable beyond her years. Her pace was fast, eager, and self-reflective. Emma’s photography (for which she earned a degree with Honors, with images such as the one here, of a friend) played with the notion of masquerade: “In all of the photographs, a set of elusive and unknowable eyes peers out from the layers of artifice, trying to see and be seen. There is a tragic element, as despite all the attempts at engendering an image that matches a mental picture, the woman underneath the clothes and behind the skin remains a mystery to us and to herself.” That Emma suffered so much at the end of her life confers a harder look at the issues that consumed her.

The final essay is by editors Emily Beall, HR Hegnauer, Erica Kaufman, and Rachel Levitsky. They note that Emma raised “critical and urgent questions through her vivid, pointed expression of the dire effects the speeding up of time and the narrowing of space (despite the expanding virtual field) have had on her own generation.” Their hope is that the work will “provide a way to pick up the challenging matters Emma testifies to—of continuity and disruption, speed and anxiety, and the communal limits of virtual life.”

Meanwhile, Nona Willis Aronowitz continues to push GIRLdrive forward, inhabiting the virtual world, twittering, visiting cities, giving talks, and calling for more time to expand and diversify the project: “As soon as I finish the manuscript, I plan to start plotting a,” she writes. “I would love for GIRLdrive to have mentoring programs, funding for women doing similar projects, or anything else that seems right.”

And then there are these words—Emma’s—belying her now posthumous fame: “Retrace your route in reflection, but look only as far as the blur of the passing yellow lines to see the present. Race your future to the finish line.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009