Emma Bee Bernstein

from Emma's Belladonna book


Lost in Space

Susan Bee

In June 2007, Emma graduated from the University of Chicago with honors in Art and Art History. Our whole family went to Chicago to attend her graduation.  In October 2007, her beloved grandfather and my father, Sigmund Laufer died and Emma spoke eloquently at his funeral. The day after his funeral she and Nona left on the their road trip for GIRLdrive. In November and December of 2007, she and Nona interviewed me for their project. An edited version of that interview is published here.

One year ago, on March 30, 2008, Emma and I appeared on a panel together: “Beyond the Waves: Feminist Artists Talk Across the Generations” at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. What a difference one year can make. Now I am trying to come to terms with the legacy of her too-short artistic life.

Emma was a person of large ambitions and big desires. Even as a baby she seemed like a huge personality—willful, demanding, charming, stubborn, outgoing,  energetic, and vibrantly charismatic. She was a lively baby, so interested in the larger world, that when breastfeeding as an infant, she would attempt to turn her head away to look around. At that young age, she wasn’t even supposed to be able to turn her head by herself.

As a baby and toddler, she was noticeably sociable and loved parties. From age two weeks on, she would come with us to parties often in a little carrier and enjoy hanging out and listening to the adults’ conversation before she could even talk. On the first day of nursery school at age two and a quarter, she walked in the door and introduced herself to the teachers and students. She did not cry as the other children did and she never glanced back at me as I stood in the doorway to say good-bye.

In the playground, I would sit on a bench and, before I knew it, she would be out the door of the playground—on her way to the street or the park—without looking back. Emma was a risk taker and she scared me.

Emma had strong ambitions for her art—she was a talented painter before she seriously pursued photography in Friends Seminary high school and at the University of Chicago, where she had wonderful and dedicated teachers. She was full of restless energy and theoretical zeal. She also wrote poems and many essays and though she always worked hard, she had many natural gifts and a fierce precociousness that was obvious early on.
Emma had relationships with the poets and artists that surrounded Charles and me. At age three, she was in the south of France at a poetry festival. There she was photographed by Charles sitting in Ron Silliman’s lap and surrounded by Susan Howe, Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, and me. She thrived on poetry readings, and she startled us once when she said at about age five, “I think I understand Alan Davies.”

She made friends easily and enjoyed talking with adults. That ability shows in Henry Hills’ interview film—Emma’s Dilemma—in which she starred. At her first filmed interview—at age twelve—she asked Jackson Mac Low, a confirmed vegetarian, why he didn’t eat at MacDonald’s. She was fearless and curious and her subjects reacted with goodwill and generosity in their answers. She tackled Richard Foreman, Ken Jacobs, Carolee Schneemann, Kenneth Goldsmith, Tony Oursler, Julie Patton, and many others, including her parents and brother.

Emma took her own life in Venice, Italy, on December 20, 2008, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in a tragic moment of unfathomable despair and overwhelming depression. This happened despite her being surrounded by the art that she loved, and a lovely staff, and while she was working in one of the many museum jobs that she had always previously enjoyed so very much. Emma had been in a serious car accident in late July and had suffered a concussion, which seemed to affect her whole way of thinking. Her judgment became impaired, along with ability to cope with stress, and she feared these impairments would be permanent.

Since that day, we have been inundated and flooded by incredible, beautiful, detailed letters, e-mails, blog entries, phone calls, visits, gifts of food and flowers, and tributes to Emma. We are so grateful for the outpouring of support from friends, boyfriends, neighbors, family, our students and colleagues, and even people who never met Emma, but were moved to contact us.

The subject of feminist generations and elders, that I addressed artistically in the collages included here, created in November 2008, looks very different to me now than it looked a year ago or even a few months ago, when I was hopeful about Emma and the future.

Rather than having Emma to carry on my legacy and to help me care for my parents’ artworks—as I expected—I am now responsible for her artistic legacy. This huge responsibility is part of the sad legacy that she has behind. As a consequence, my perspective on being an elder has shifted dramatically. I now feel I carry the history of her being in my person—literally, since I bear the scar of her Caesarean birth on my body and figuratively as I deal with her death and her absence in my own family life. In addition, we are have the painful task of going through her diaries, possessions and belongings left behind her room in Chicago. We also in the process of preserving her images, writings, and the files that she left behind on her computer.

We are going to attempt to do her life’s work justice, by presenting a show of her photographic work in Chicago (February 2010 at the Dova Space at the University of Chicago), where she lived for the past five years, and hopefully also in New York.GIRLdrive will continue, Emma completed almost all the photos and some of the writing for that project and we intend to help Nona complete the book, due for publication by Seal Press in October 2009.

We have also been trying to come to grips with the burdens and disturbances of Emma’s last days in Venice. I am not alone in my quest for understanding, but am fortunate to have the support of my community of artists, poets, curators, family, and most importantly, Charles and Felix, and all the people who loved Emma.

Emma’s life will never be complete. Before she left New York, we made many plans to do things together. This Belladonna elders project was one such plan. In one of her last e-mails to me, she sent along her essay for this book for my feedback. I added the Masquerade section to it posthumously. The title of this piece “Lost in Space” refers to the cover painting of this book; it was a work that Emma loved.

Emma talked of having children and applying to graduate schools in photography and art history. We made plans to go together to plays and museum and gallery shows. She wanted to move back to New York and to be closer to her family and to work in a gallery here. She was bursting with ideas for the future. Now all that is gone, I will be always be alone and without her companionship. Over time, the pain of that situation may lessen—but the future will never seem so bright to me without Emma by my side.

January 2009