This is undeniably Carolee Schneemann’s year. More and more historians and curators are discussing about and writing on her works and legacy, her retrospective is travelling the world and the 57th edition of the Venice Biennial has just awarded her the prestigious Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award.
In the past her name and work have been kept primarily in the dark and either rarely crossed the US borders. But now it seems that she is finally getting the recognition that she deserves as an avant-garde artist of the New York scene during the 1960s and 1970s, and as a pioneer of performance, video and feminist art. Closing in just one week times is a large scale retrospective on the artist at Frankfurt MMK (Museum Für Moderne Kunst).
But who is Carolee Schneemann? In the first room of the Schneemann retrospective, among paintings half way between abstract expressionism and ‘combine’ experiments (reminders of Rauschenberg’s 1960s works), there are a series of 18 photographs of a woman in black and white. It’s Schnemann’s work from 1963 titled Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera. In each image she poses with a lascivious and provoking demeanour around her New York studio, exhibiting her naked, slim body and fierce gaze.
Like a raunchy and modern Venus, she is immersed in those same wooden, furry and metal materials that construct the painting-sculptures in the museum’s room. There are paintings and drawings in the background; a rope, a broken mirror, a mannequin, fur, snakes – she is wearing these materials and objects, handling them as both props and extensions of her body, her skin marked with thick paint brushes. Looking at these pictures it is easy to catch some fundamental aspects that recur throughout the exhibition: performance, sculpture, painting, objects, film and photography converge, all equally plausible mediums for expressing her bodily and material position in the world as an artist, woman, worker, lover. In fact, her works are imbued with subjectivity – her subjectivity.
In Schnemann’s vibrant and energetic early sculpture-paintings created between 1954 and 1965, we see the exuberance of Schneemann’s personality. In a writing of 1974, she revealed that when little she told her mother that she would become an artist. Once she decided her future career, she started searching for a role model in the history of art. Rather than a style to copy, Schneemann was looking for a ‘spiritual’ guide whose symbolic presence was reassuring, comforting, energetic, in order to fuel her studies and personal experimentations. She picked Cézanne, sure that the ending ‘–e’ denoted the feminine gender of the artist.
With such vibrant colours, strong brushstrokes, how could Schneemann not be attracted to Cézanne’s vitality of painting? But her favourite thing of Cézanne, was the fact that she was a woman. Such a famous and respected modern artist, and she’s a woman! To be a woman and an artist in 1960s New York was a challenge against the art world, against the normative conceptions of who and what is an artist and a woman and against herself. With Cézanne held high as her model, Schneemann started exploring herself as a woman and artist through different mediums, and sometimes more than one medium at the same time.
Schneemann studied painting at Columbia University, Bard College and later at the University of Illinois. In 1961 she made the move to New York joining the downtown scene where Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and many others were already active. Some years later she completed what is now her best-known work, Meat Joy (1964); a performance caught on video of 8 people swirling in paint, rolling in small paper balls, playing with raw chicken and fish, pulling and painting each other in an ecstatic sensual joy celebrating the raw carnal bodies.
The carefully choreographed scene is accompanied by pop songs and Schneemann’s voice reading out her notes. She recounted that while performing Meat Joy in a Paris, a man in the crowd stood up and attempted to strangle her; the rest of spectators paralyzed unsure whether the act was part of the performance or not. Meat Joy presented to the public something fun, absurd, surreal and yet dangerous, challenging what people thought to be an appropriate theatrical performance and pushing the boundaries of women and men’s behaviour and identity in public.
The MMK exhibition beautifully presents others of her well-known videos such as Fuses (1965) showing footages of the artist with her partner James Tenney both naked in moments of sensual and erotic intimacy, juxtaposed with layers of painted brushstrokes. The eroticism of the naked body – naked rather than nude, so to exclude any idealization – is energized by the same force that drives her creative and artistic impulses: art is bodily and the body is an instrument of art; both are erotic in a carnal, material, quotidian, joyful and un-sublimated way.
If art and the body share a common everyday and material place, then woman and artist are two categories that are inseparable. Half way through the exhibition appears a corpus of work that confronts feminist issues head-on: pictures and notes show the legendary Interior Scroll (1975), a complex performance in which Schnemann reads out a text from a scroll that she slowly pulls out from her vagina, red paint staining the room and he body; long sheets of framed paper show annotations on her recent sexual encounters (Sexual Parameter Survey), an exploration of sexual pleasure only from a woman’s point of view; a series of already found images, drawings and photographs that explicitly or implicitly portray different vulvas. These works make visible new ideas of the female body and of female pleasure. This was, and still is, groundbreaking work, a crucial moment of the ‘feminist history of art’. Woman and artist are two categories that are inseparable for Schneemann the same way art and life are inseparable because of the same restless energy and joy.
Words by Victoria De Zanche
Carolee Schneemann. Kinetic Painting, at MMK Frankfurt, until 24 September 2017.