Few artists have had as radical an impact on feminist thought and art than multimedia and performance artist Carolee Schneemann. Born on Philadelphia’s rural fringes in 1939, Schneemann recalled being interested in art and the body’s expressive potential even as a young child. Later, as the first woman in her family to attend college, Schneemann was suspended from Bard College for having the audacity to paint nude self-portraits—although the school had no qualms about her posing nude for her male peers.
When second-wave feminism crested, Schneemann’s body of work was ready to meet it; in fact, some of her earliest artworks prefigured it, like a 1957 nude painting of her then boyfriend, composer James Tenney. She claimed an unapologetically female perspective of desire, one that was relational to men but rejected patriarchal values. (Her heterosexual vantage point sometimes ran afoul of lesbian separatists, who vehemently opposed her film Fuses, discussed below, when it was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1970s.)
As sensibilities changed, Schneemann later felt her work was being met with ambivalence by third-wave feminists. Her output became more elegiac, memorializing friends and colleagues in the avant-garde with whom she collaborated. What didn’t change, however, was her long-held disregard for cultural taboos, whether reading a manifesto extracted from her vagina (Interior Scroll, 1975 and 1977), forcing viewers to confront the horror of war crimes (Viet Flakes, 1962–66), or magnifying the bodies of 9/11 victims hurtling through the air toward their death (Terminal Velocity, 2001–05).
Schneemann died in 2019, two years after receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. Now through January 8, 2023, the Barbican in London is exploring her work in Body Politics, a new retrospective. Here, Barbican curator Lotte Johnson comments on highlights from the show.
1. Aria Duetto Pin Wheel, 1957
Photo : Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022.
Schneemann has often been called a performance artist. While true in the most reductive sense, Schneemann herself insisted throughout her life that she was first and foremost a painter. She was a disciple of Abstract Expressionism; she later recalled that Cezanne changed her life, although she mistakenly believed for years that he was a woman (hence the title of her 1975 book, Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter).
Schneemann’s paintings often took on a life beyond the canvas. Aria Duetto Pin Wheel, an early work mounted on a potter’s wheel, arose out of Schneemann’s melding of painting and performance. At the time she painted it, she liked to warm up by playing music in her studio and dancing before approaching the canvas. Music was essential to Schneemann’s practice, and in the case of Aria Duetto Pin Wheel,it directly inspired the work’s title, which references the soprano and alto duet from Bach’s cantata Jesu, der du meine Seele. To create it, Schneemann twirled the canvas atop the wheel and applied paint while the surface was in motion. Later, when exhibiting the work, she kept the canvas attached to the wheel so it could be spun in a brilliant whirl.
Aria Duetto Pin Wheel’s melding of process and product challenged the boundaries of the canvas and expanded viewers’ ideas of what a painting could be. “Schneemann literally throws the painting. The brushwork becomes kinetic, not only in the process of making the work but in the way you experience it as a viewer,” Johnson observes.
2.Meat Joy, 1964
Photo : Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022. Photograph by Robert McElroy. Copyright © 2022 Estate of Robert R. McElroy / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS).
One of her touchstone group performance pieces, Meat Joy was developed in Paris and debuted there at Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Festival of Free Expression. Speaking hardly a lick of French and put off by what she felt to be arid social mores, Schneemann envisioned a work that would be a “celebration of the flesh,” according to Johnson. “It was meant to be this kind of erotic rite, as she called it.”
The participants wore fur-lined undergarments and writhed with raw chicken, fish, hot dogs, and other foods. The entire bacchanal was slippery with red paint, giving the illusion of a graphically carnal celebration. Unsurprisingly, it was explosively received. When Meat Joy was staged in London, Schneemann reportedly had to be spirited out of the venue by police.
The scene might have seemed chaotic, but it was actually meticulously planned. Schneemann created what she called “scores” for her performance pieces, clearly articulating what was to happen without robbing participants of their agency within the bounds of the performance. As for those participants, Schneemann drew upon her experience as a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater to enlist average people in Meat Joy rather than trained dancers or actors, finding their more naturalistic approach to the work exhilarating.
3. Fuses, 1964–67
Photo : Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022.
Just after making Meat Joy, Schneemann returned to the United States, where she rented rooms in a stone-clad Huguenot house built in the mid 18th century in New Paltz, New York. (She would eventually own the house and live the rest of her life there.) This is where Schneemann documented her intimate life with James Tenney in a short film that she described as a “love fuck.”
Fuses’s three-year-long production was painstaking, as Schneemann’s camera could film only 30 seconds at a time. Those limitations result in a restless montage built by splicing and layering quotidian scenes with footage of Schneemann and Tenney having sex. Schneemann later tinkered with the celluloid to add textural elements to the film: scratching it, exposing it to the elements, baking it in an oven, collaging it, and so on.
“She had this tactile, experimental approach to the film itself, which eventually became so thick she could no longer actually get it through the printer,” Johnson says. “The result is a very poetic and often abstracted film that limits our access to the full experience of the bodies and sex acts depicted. She’s refusing to objectify or fetishize herself; she wanted to show what she called the ‘lived sense of equity’ between herself and Tenney.”
Schneemann and Tenney broke up shortly after Fuses was filmed, but the two remained artistically indebted to each other. As Schneemann later told Hyperallergic, “Jim’s work influenced my considerations of dissonance, fragmentation, repetition—the way when you split two elements there is some incremental energy between them, as with collage. Our love fueled and sustained my art. When people said, ‘This is crap,’ there were the two of us rowing our boat together.”
4. Interior Scroll, 1975 and 1977
Photo : Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022. Photograph by Anthony McCall. Copyright © Anthony McCall.
If you know one work by Schneemann, it’s likely this one. She performed it twice: once in 1975 at the Women Artists Here and Now exhibition in East Hampton, New York, and again at the 1977 Telluride Film Festival. In the performance, the artist stood naked before the audience, gradually drew a long, narrow scroll of paper from her vagina, and read the text written on it.
Schneemann had not planned to present the work twice but quickly organized a second performance when she learned that Telluride had given a female filmmakers’ panel a sensationalist, sexist title. The work does not exist in a single version, with both the Schneemann Foundation and a handful of test scrolls attesting to a variety of texts considered for performance in Interior Scroll.
“Schneemann was fascinated by knowledge received from and within the body, and this work has a visceral, confrontational impact,” Johnson says. “It confronts our own taboos and fears about women’s bodies and has become emblematic of her uncompromising feminism.”
Public discourse around Interior Scroll has tended to deride it for its shock value. However, like Schneemann’s other work, Interior Scroll was meticulously planned. Schneemann had taken great care to present the work only in progressive feminist contexts, where it would be highly unlikely for men and conservative women to see the work and be scandalized by it. Interior Scroll also gestated for several months: A drawing titled The Message and dated June 22, 1974, depicts a woman pulling a long piece of paper from her vagina.
Schneemann later had conflicting feelings about Interior Scroll. “She looked back and said she didn’t want to pull a scroll out of her vagina in public, but she felt compelled to do this,” Johnson says. The artist also believed its reputation both overshadowed and caricatured the rest of her work. “I think it has to be subtracted from the awareness of all the work I have done since,” Schneemann told an interviewer in 2015. “It’s used against the work; it’s used against the complexity of my processes; it’s used to contain and stabilize a much richer and more complex body of work.”
Unfortunately, though the first performance of Interior Scroll was filmed, the footage no longer survives. Scholars today must now extrapolate what these live performances were like through photos and the few surviving scrolls, most of which were never used.
5. Up to and Including Her Limits, 1970–76
Photo : Photograph by Henrik Gaard. Carolee Schneemann Papers, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Copyright © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022.
Schneemann’s nude performance works can be read as a rebuttal of the same squeamishness around women’s bodies and agency that resulted in her suspension from Bard. “I do not show my naked body. I am being my body,” she once wrote to an incredulous friend.
Up to and Including Her Limits was among Schneemann’s most pointed ruminations on these themes. In it, Schneemann suspended herself from a tree surgeon’s harness and swung, twisted, and contorted her body to mark large pieces of paper, often nearly out of her reach, with crayon. Schneemann staged Up to and Including Her Limits nine times over the course of her life. Later, she turned it into an installation that could be mounted in her absence, pairing footage of the performance with the marked paper left behind.
As with Aria Duetto Pin Wheel, Schneemann considered Up to and Including Her Limits very much part of her lineage as a painter, citing Jackson Pollock’s physicalized painting process as a key inspiration. Unlike Pollock, however, Schneemann sought to make her body part of the work itself. As its title suggests, Up to and Including Her Limits did not have a set duration; she performed the work to the degree she was capable of each time she staged it.
“Even for artists like Pollock, [for whom] the body was central, Schneemann felt the body often was absent in the painter’s process and in the work itself,” Johnson says. “She wanted to combine her body with her work. Her life was her art.”
Article BY HANNAH EDGAR