The daughter of artist Susan Bee and poet Charles Bernstein and sister of artist and writer Felix Bernstein, Emma Bee Bernstein, was a beautiful, brilliant, and prolific third-generation artist whose mysterious suicide at 23 in the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Italy, in 2008 shocked and saddened her friends and family and the New York art world. Subsequently, there have been three posthumous shows of her photographs and films: Masquerade: A Retrospective (2010) at the DOVA gallery at the University of Chicago, Emma Bee Bernstein: An Imagined Space (2011) at the Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, and Exquisite Fucking Boredom (2012) at Microscope Gallery. Emma has been the subject of many poems and artworks. Her funeral is described in Sunset Park, the novel by Paul Auster. And her work—particularly the photographs she made for the show which was a part of her senior thesis at the University of Chicago now called the Masquerade Series, her Polaroid images, and Emma’s Dilemma, a film she created with Henry Hills as a young girl—has attained cult status. Also two books that she was working on when she died were published posthumously in 2009, Belladonna #4, which features Emma’s writings, interviews, and photographs, and GirlDrive: Criss-Crossing America, Mapping Feminism by Emma and Nona Willis Aronowitz.
It was the warm, late spring of 2012, at Exquisite Fucking Boredom, a retrospective of 200 Polaroid photographs Emma Bee Bernstein made while at the University of Chicago, that I first saw the album she had filled with some of those images. I leafed through it many times.
Clearly intended as an artist’s book, it struck me at first as a little untidy. Some of its edges were frayed. It was as though the person who made it had carelessly roughed it up or perhaps simply neglected it. Perhaps its imperfection was deliberate, or, alternatively, the result of being lovingly poured over many times. I couldn’t tell which. The contradictions inherent in this disarray fascinated me. The album was tangentially evocative of those cheap, old-fashioned “secret” photo diaries—the kind that used to be sold at Woolworth’s as a place to hide the “treasured memories” of young girls—with pastel leather bindings and little gold locks and keys. So I imagined that there was earnestness to the work. Perhaps the right word was “sincerity.” Only, of course, this album was open. And black. And by choosing the slightly blurry incandescence of the Polaroid medium for her album, Emma also managed to infuse the imagery in this book with immediate nostalgia. Also, unlike the five-and-dime diaries, which were intended as repositories of isolated reminiscences, Emma’s book of moments was sequenced. The appealingly spontaneous-looking pictures of what appear to be pretty average kids, the kind every American grew up around, are sparsely peppered with annotations in smeared ink the effect of which is more visual than expository. (Rail publisher Phong Bui, who curated An Imagined Space and Exquisite Fucking Boredom, comments that, to Emma, “the pictorial and the written language are essentially the same. Her portraits are like an alphabet.”) And all is woven together into a hieroglyphically cryptic narrative. In her senior thesis, Emma effectively describes the success of the artistic image in terms of its ability to be “perplexing and strange” and its ability to “generate pleasure along with discomfort.”
So although the work seems documentary, it’s not. It’s more like Emma’s thesis quotation of Jenny Gage talking to her subjects: “We are doing some form of reality and some form of make believe.”
Appropriately, several of the Polaroid images—for example: the brunette whose red lipstick matches her red dress precisely, the young blond leaning against the wall of a pink bathroom wrapped in a flimsy, pale pink lace negligee opened to reveal a deeper, brighter pink satin bra, and Emma herself, embodying young womanhood, chin down, slumped in a chair, eyes obscured by huge, black, film-star shades; dangling a lighted cigarette from the center of her crimsoned lips and, in a wonderfully mixed message, hugging a well-worn, rickety eared, old stuffed rabbit to her tummy (none of the subjects needed to be told not to look at the camera)—echo the more formal work of the Masquerade series and are clearly intended to push the border between the planned and the instantaneous; meaning and form.
Henry Hills’s film Emma’s Dilemma (1997 – 2004), is characterized by rapidly repeated sequences, “stuttering moments” that mimic the time stop of memory. It began as a composite of filmed interviews in which Emma, between the ages of 11 and 15, talks with a group of edgy artists and writers: Jackson Mac Low, Carolee Schneemann, Susan Howe, Richard Foreman, Ken Jacobs, Kenneth Goldsmith, Lee Ann Brown, and Tony Oursler, who remembers her as an “uncannily sophisticated” child. Hills remarks:
I curated the film portion of a program at Symphony Space and Charles brought her there. She must have been around 10 at the time, and she came up to me afterwards and started critiquing the work. I thought woah! This is intense! I’ve definitely got to use you in one of my films.
Susan had always taken her to shows her whole life. In one of the filming sessions she starts talking to Ken Jacobs about a show she saw and he says, “How old were you when you saw the show?” And she says, “Eight! Eight!” She was very smart, totally smart and very advanced in the way she could apprehend art.
She allowed herself to be used by me as an image.
When she was 11 she had a list to make sure she never wore the same thing in any shoot, and she never wore the same thing twice, although she had a necklace that she wore in every single shoot. When she got older she went through many appearance changes. There was a period in her teens whenevery three months or two months or less maybe she had a different hair color. Then she got a job as a fashion consultant for an online teen fashion magazine.
It just became more appealing to me to see her changes than to go interview these artists. So the film became a portrait, a chronicle of her progression rather than an interview in which the words are all important. But what you get is this repetition of gesture, this repetition of expression, and this was very interesting to me actually because when one has an experience with someone, it’s fragments like these that one actually remembers.
It wasn’t until after we finished filming that she actually started making art.
The grand Central Park West apartment of Emma’s muse, her glamorous, nonagenarian grandmother Sherry Bernstein, is elegantly frozen in time. Everything has a place and is in it—as if not a hair of the carefully chosen décor has been turned since the 1950s, around the time Charles was born. Sherry is a fashion icon. She is in Patrick McMullan’s book, Glamour Girls, and was the subject of a Channel Thirteen documentary on fashionable women, which also featured Nan Kempner. She offers me tea, fruit, and cookies in a room overlooking Central Park to Fifth Avenue and beyond, and is polite in a way that makes me feel comfortable and welcomed immediately. Emma, she says, loved to consult her on matters of decorum.
In one of Sherry’s cedar closets, all the negligees and nightgowns Emma used as props are hung like haute couture, exactly an inch apart.Next to the closet, the door to the familiar pink bathroom is ajar. Walls of guest bedrooms are covered with the printed papers against which Emma juxtaposed her “models.” And there, in one of the rooms, on a pastel frill-skirted bed, the old toy rabbit lies, in a huddle of much loved and lovingly preserved stuffed animals. “Why should I get rid of them?” Sherry asks.
Sherry tells me that Emma used to enjoy staging sleepovers in the Central Park West apartment. Everyone would have dinner and discuss adolescent matters: school, boyfriends, parties. Then Emma and her friends would stay up all night, dressing, posing, and taking photographs.
Susan Bee describes Emma’s art as chiefly:
figurative, like my mother’s [Miriam Laufer] and also like my own paintings, it’s all about people, interactions, and relationships. Emma was interested in that. She had this social skill. She’d introduce herself and she’d make friends really easily and always had a ton of friends. And her friends were very loyal. I would say the friends are very much part of the work. ... She was also interested in abstraction and light and color and pattern and texture: the same things we are all focused on in this family.
Antonia Pocock, Emma’s close friend and collaborator, says Emma photographed:
like a French New Wave director. She would dress and place her subjects and then wait to see what happened. The images are staged and spontaneous and cooperative. Many of the photographs are of Emma herself.
Emma loved to work with an extreme, saturated palette and she developed her prints carefully, to reveal fine lines precisely and focus on exquisitely clarified details.
A lot of times for a photo session she would dress each subject as if for a fashion shoot. Outfits and accessories were all very important as was how they blended in with the setting.
“She played with abruptly contrasting colors,” continues Antonia, “and with monochromes as well—that is images where the woman blends into the wallpaper or other surroundings. There was definitely a psychological component. Emma was very interested in facial expressions and the way they communicate. The effect was either of the subject becoming fused with her environment, or a tension between surface and interiority.”
In “Herring Cove Beach,” a video portrait filmed by Charles Bernstein, an unassuming, wind-blown Emma observes:
Fashion and art are not arch opposites. Fashion has always coexisted with art. Fashion represents surface values that translate something of the interior. Art is purely the interior made exterior. Fashion is okay with representing surface things: that’s its purpose.
For the Masquerade series, Emma uses her subject’s costumes in much the same way as most women use fashion. They are in overt reaction to the world around them, an intersection between themselves and their environment or what Emma describes as “the material manifestation of uncertainty.”
By playing with what she defines as “fantasies of self-presentation” Emma connects her images to fashion photography. A girl on a slide—whose green and brown dress and brown boots mirror the colors of the playground around her—looks at herself in a mirror on the slide. Another girl, draped in ivory, is posed as a nymph, facing the camera and leaning back with upraised arms against a fluted ivory column. The green of a seated girl’s skirt reflects the green of the art nouveau poster propped against the wall next to her. In the corner of an emerald garden, Emma stands looking downward in a dress covered with pink and red blooms, and awkwardly contrasting, starkly white stockings. And “hidden” in the corner of one of Sherry’s closets, crammed behind some empty hangers, almost squished against pink printed wallpaper, a blond wears a yellow and blue printed dress.
These images quote Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Francesca Woodman, Katy Grannan, Jenny Gage, Andy Warhol, (whose collective “deep superficiality” Emma notes in her thesis) and then Klimt, the Pre-Raphaelites like John William Waterhouse, and finally Velazquez’s “Infanta.” According to Charles Bernstein, Emma developed a rapport with the famous painting during a family trip to Madrid when she was 9. But it’s not as though Emma has looked hard at these artists and then “added something of her own.” Rather, she has used allusions to their work to inflect and deepen the nuances of her own iconography in which, for her friends playing “dress up,” what they wear represents a “state of mind”—what Emma calls “a continual process of becoming.” And here the medley of model, dress, and background combine in one image where fashion is used as Emma describes it to “engender meaning in the surface of things” and reference “the human craving to be objectified, to be desired, to be seen as a living work of art.”
When Sherry was in her 50s, her husband died and she did not want to remarry. So for the next 30 years, as a diversion, she went clubbing with her neighbor, the famous hat designer Mr. John, and their friends. The last little room Sherry shows me is paper-collaged from ceiling to floor with thousands of newspaper clippings of herself in Mr. John’s chic hats, at various nightclubs with a madly diverse collection of celebrities not limited to Halston, Queen Noor, Dr. Ruth, Elizabeth Taylor, Quentin Crisp, Mayor Dinkins, O.J. Simpson, Joan Rivers, Monica Lewinsky, Bette Midler, Michael Jackson, Divine, Starr Jones, Malcolm Forbes, George Clooney, Roy Cohen, Peter Max, and Andy Warhol. I remark that if Sherry thought of herself as an artist this would be a conceptual work of art. And I’m reminded of a passage in Alan Davies’s prose poem, “I Think I Understand Emma Bee Bernstein”:
by the age of three
Emma had contrived a room of her own—and she may well have been conscious of having (done) that (of owning that) before she began showing it to me (I don’t know). The walls were a matte white color
not at all bright
and there was room also for a small chest of three or four drawers. Already
in that tiny room
were all of those things that Emma would become (really (really) really become). From my first visit onwards the walls were covered with images cut from magazines. I don’t know where she got those pictures
but she got a lot of them. Most of them were of people—it didn’t seem to matter whether they were well known or not
but it was tacitly apparent that it certainly did (did (that it certainly did)) matter to Emma what they looked like
and what they were wearing
and (although their organization on the wall defied easy categorization) also (I think) how they went together. I have a sense of wildness
not only of the collage as a whole
but of the individual pieces of image that fed into that collage of image that fed into that collage and came out of it as something else—the parts created the whole so that it could transform the parts
and in that way there was a unity of form and material
Phong Bui thinks of Emma in the same breath as Alain Fournier who died at 28 and whose single novel, Le Grand Meaulnes, is considered a classic of French literature, or Raymond Radiguet or Rimbaud who stopped writing completely at age 21—as part of a group of artists who made work in their teens and 20s that would change a generation’s way of seeing, and who would become emblems for their generation.
“Her subjects,” says Bui:
are the young, sophisticated, educated middle-class. She’s captured their contradictions, the rebellion, independence, ambiguity, and melancholy all at once. It’s rare to find a photographer courageous enough to allow an epiphany of everyday life to be part of their image making.
There is a subtlety to Emma’s images; almost a throw-away quality, an eerie casualness to her work. That’s probably her brilliance. She believes in everyday life.
For me the portraits of Emma and friends play with serialization, I think of Robert Frank or Bernd and Hilla Becher. But Emma does it in a much more personal way. And like all good artists she gives herself rules and then rebels against them. She doesn’t repeat herself. Each image is part of the whole and also its own moment.
Emma’s work is luminescent. She trusts in the image being a truthful record of what your emotional or intellectual life is. It’s remarkably viscerally, vulnerable and generous at the same time.
Antonia told me a story about Emma pounding on her dormitory door and waking her up to watch the sun’s rise over Lake Michigan:
She literally drags me out of bed. It’s pitch black outside and we go down and sit by the point. And I’m thinking “this is not very safe. We could get mugged or something.” And she is saying, “No, no, we have to do this.” So we sat by the water and it is beautiful. Emma planned the whole thing out. She wanted to listen to particular music while she watched the sun rise. I don’t remember what it was, but she had created an artistic experience. I think that is why people were attracted to her. She appreciated the “now.”
“The perfect projection of the internal imagined self, if it exists,” writes Emma, “only does so for the photographic moment.” This is exactly why Charles Bernstein’s depiction of her Polaroid images as “… sparks of … light in the enduring present” is my favorite description of Emma’s work.