Serpents, Scrolls, Swinging Chandeliers: How Carolee Schneemann Transformed Art | Art

VSArolee Schneemann was born in 1939 in Pennsylvania, USA. His father, a doctor, gave him a first introduction to the body and its viscera. She obtained a scholarship to Bard College at 16 and went to study in New York to finish at Columbia. “I had never found any precedent for female artists in the art history books that were available to me,” Schneemann said in 2017.

Schneemann worked for many years to perfect his multimedia practice. This included performance, film, photography and painting, exemplified by the 1963 photo series Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for the Camera, in which she photographs herself naked and covered in paint, glue, fur, snakes and feathers, both seer and seen.

Despite a comprehensive body of work and writing, gallery representation and recognition eluded Schneemann for much of his life. Yet she never stopped creating, always engaged in politics, challenging the limits of the physical body and the mind’s eye. On Thursday, Body Politics, the UK’s first investigation into Schneemann’s work, opens at the Barbican in London. Below, novelist Stephanie LaCava remembers his friendship with the artist.

A the painting comes to life. Daphne, almost 20 years old, dressed in black with a white skirt-apron. Her manager is Carolee Schneemann, a home-based post-op in New Paltz, upstate New York. There are actually two Carolees: one in the bedside mirror. The young woman tends to the other, wrapping her leg in mummy gauze. There are flowers; a transistor radio plays in the background. On the duvet, surgical scissors and open squares of hospital dressing.

This is the scene where I first met Carolee in March 2017. I had come from New York with a friend to start recording an oral history, an interview which will be released at the same time as the American retrospective of her multimedia works. The second session took place four months later. I took the bus, raspberries having appeared in the yard and a copy of the collected works of Clarice Lispector on the covered nightstand. Her tablecloth had belonged to artist and writer Kathy Acker; it was one of her skirts.

Carolee Schneemann, Four fur cutting boards, 1963. Photography: Courtesy of the Estate of Carolee Schneemann, Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery and P•P•O•W, New York

My relationship with Carolee quickly became personal. I don’t know why she loved me – or even if she really loved me, but we would remain close until her death two years later. For a while, we spoke on the phone every two weeks. Even when she was frustrated with me, she would ask me, “And you write? It wasn’t a courtesy, but a reminder of priority.

I went to Venice when Carolee received the Lifetime Achievement Award. He was cavalier; I really didn’t belong there, but she welcomed me. The morning after the ceremony, we sat in his hotel room with a painted Venetian lion mask. She said she preferred it to the hood ornament they gave her – the Golden Lion statuette.

A year later I would have a small celebration for the publication of a book of uncollected texts by Carolee edited by art historian Branden W Joseph. She liked that it was set in a loft like the one she shared with her first partner, composer James Tenney, in New York in the 60s. When she moved in, she organized what she called its “debutante party” downtown. It ended with holes being knocked out in the walls. Soon after, she performed in one of Claes Oldenburg’s performances on the Lower East Side. His role: to stab a wall for entire nights.

It was no feat for Carolee. She was not an actress, but rather an active creator, an agent in her own right. Living in New York, she founded the Judson Dance Theater alongside other artists such as Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown. Her pioneering kinetic theatrical performances took shape as she honed a practice that included filmmaking, photography, sculpture and writing. Yet she always considered herself a painter.

Carolee Schneemann.
‘Pushing the boundaries of earth energy’ … Carolee Schneemann. Photography: Courtesy of Canyon Cinema

“Schneemann’s unique contribution to the history of art and to painting in particular was literally to to draw the eye returns to the body that sees: both the body’s inextricable connection to what is seen and its role in determining the nature of what is seen,” writes art historian Kristine Stiles. Carolee’s workspace was off canvas and included her real life.

And that was also a trick. Image and image maker, Carolee was hyper aware of creating her own art history dossier. That’s, in part, why Carolee welcomed me into her home on that first day, just a week away from leg surgery; she was a live painting waiting for me. After Daphne was done working, Carolee pointed to the trash can, smiling, her head tilted downward. She alerted me to the name of the medical dressing: “before gauze”.

Carolee moved from New York in 1964 to the 18th century farmhouse in New Paltz where I visited her. The house would become inseparable from much of his work. Her studio and refuge is where she made her famous exploration of the outside-in, the egalitarian exchange of intimacies in a heterosexual relationship, the experimental film 16mm Fuses. For three years, she would film herself and Tenney having sex from different angles, one particular shot achieved by hanging the camera from a chandelier. The camera is meant to take the point of view of one of her beloved cats, Kitch. Carolee painted and baked the film herself, so it’s full of color and stripes. It is sensual and erotic, showing its creator engaged in a very human shared love.

Plug it in… Schneemann in Fuses.
Plug it in… Schneemann in Fuses. Photography: Courtesy of LUX

It is not, however, hardcore pornography, which caused outrage among male critics when it was screened at Cannes. They couldn’t understand why it didn’t include the predictable titillations. Carolee wanted, she said, “to see this fucking her is, and locate that in terms of a lived sense of fairness. It will be part of the Barbican show.

“It must be remembered that throughout the 1960s, only men maintained creative authority: women were muses, partners,” Carolee writes. It distills how she first appears in my first book, The Superrationals, as a feminist inversion of the male artist/muse relationship. She and the fuses hover over my most recent book, I’m Afraid You’re Interested In My Pain. The network of cultural workers, the woman hypnotized by her body and her needs. Its traffic in the haptic, the sensual. The experience of having been devalued by the male gaze. Writing as performance – the awakening of politics.

Carolee is perhaps best known for her first two kinetic plays: Meat Joy and Interior Scroll. joy of meat created in Paris in 1964 – Marcel Duchamp called it the most disorderly work of art that France had ever seen. Eight nearly naked men and women, including Carolee, roll around with paint, paper, raw chicken and fish. “Developing physical energy – off the canvas” is how Carolee explained living sculpture.

Womb scrolling: Schneemann's Interior Scroll, August 29, 1975.
Womb scrolling: Schneemann’s Interior Scroll, August 29, 1975. Photography: © Anthony McCall/© 2021 Carolee Schneemann Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London. Photography ©Anthony McCall

A decade later, she stepped out in front of an audience in East Hampton, New York, wrapped in a sheet, which fell to reveal only an apron. She was to read an excerpt from his book Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter. After painting her body with black pigment, she removed a roller from her vagina. (She also read a piece that seemed to be addressed to a male critic, a “happy man/structural filmmaker.” This text would become the scroll for the second version of Interior Scroll, shown at the Telluride Film Festival in 1977.) condensed selection reads as follows:

(From scroll 1:)

To have your wasted time
Your twisted intentions
The simplest relationships in your thoughts

They will hang out with you
Try to sleep with you want to turn them
With your energy
They will berate your energy

Carolee’s work has always focused on energy: its exchange, its creation, its circulation. A haptic, sensual, very feminine universe.

(From scroll 2:)

You’re lovely / but don’t ask us to watch your movies / we can’t…
The sensitivity of the touch of the hand / the diaristic indulgence / the pictorial mess…

Carolee was also known for her poetic correspondence. She wrote me many e-mails. After the party at my house, she sent me the following, mentioning my son who was present at the event and who was only five years old at the time: “Tell Max I loved his dance… it was truly memorable and full of danger. But as an adult, I haven’t given it the best appreciation it deserves. In another note, she displays her wits, perhaps playing with the online colloquialism all around. “VRWTB”, she writes, inventing her own acronym: “Very rushed with the Breeze”.

Carolee Schneemann, Up to and including its limits, June 1976, Studiogalerie, Berlin.
Carolee Schneemann, Up to and including its limits, June 1976, Studiogalerie, Berlin. Photography: © 2021 Carolee Schneemann Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London.

It reminds me, in part, of the work of Nora Turato. Her recent performances of self-generated scripts at MoMA in New York borrow something from Carolee. In critic Philippa Snow’s new book on self-harm as entertainment, which as you know means violence, she quotes Carolee speaking of female performance as indelibly tied to cultural pleasure for a male (dancer, stripper, teaser, actress), while male performance challenges the body in a physical way. She writes: “It’s climbing a mountain instead of lying on a glacier in your underwear.” Carolee understood the menacing nature of a woman who subverts all eyes. The viewer is bewildered and somehow changed, but unable to fully respect the ever-attractive agent of the message.

Post-mortem, accolades come fast for Carolee. They were never so open when she was still pushing the boundaries of earth energy, inhabiting her body.

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