The Female Power of Carolee Schneemann

Carolee Schneemann, a detail from Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera (1963/2005)

Any attempt to neatly sum up the work of Carolee Schneemann, the painter, filmmaker, writer, and performance and installation artist who has passed away at the age of seventy-nine, will likely be a futile exercise. But in 2016, in a piece for the New York Times on Schneemann’s influence on artists as varied as Matthew Barney, Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, and Lena Dunham, Hillarie M. Sheets gave it a go, arguing that the “essential question her work posed early on was, Can a naked woman be both image and image-maker?”

Schneemann aimed to reclaim the female body, starting with her own, from the objectification ingrained over centuries of art history. Her father was a doctor, and as a young girl, she not only pored over his anatomy books but also drew bodies in motion on his spare prescription pads. While studying art at Bard College in the 1950s, she was free to pose nude for the male students but was suspended for painting herself without clothes on. By the early ’60s, she was hanging with Yoko Ono and other Fluxus artists, dropping in on Andy Warhol’s Factory, and taking part in performance works by Claes Oldenberg and Robert Morris, while her partner, the composer and music theorist James Tenney, introduced her to the likes of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. She began to create her own happenings and performance pieces, though as late as 1993, she declared, “I’m still a painter and I will die a painter. Everything that I have developed has to do with extending visual principles off the canvas.”

In 1964, Schneemann made one of her defining works, the film Meat Joy, in which four men and four women, stripped down to their underwear, celebrate their fleshiness by performing with wet paint, paper scraps, sausages, and raw fish and chickens. “The culture was starved in terms of sensuousness because sensuality was always confused with pornography,” she later told MoMA curator Thomas J. Lax. “The old patriarchal morality of proper behavior and improper behavior had no threshold for the pleasures of physical contact that were not explicitly about sex but related to something more ancient—the worship of nature, worship of the body, a pleasure in sensuousness.”

That same year, she began work on Fuses, a film not completed until 1967. Shot on 16 mm, Fuses captures Schneemann and Tenney having sex while their cat, Kitch, looks on and purrs approvingly. Schneemann treated the celluloid with stains, burns, drawings, and paint. As a record of what Quinn Moreland, writing for Hyperallergic, has called an “egalitarian erotic experience,” Fuses is a direct response to the work of Stan Brakhage, particularly his 1956 film Loving. Brakhage and his wife Jane were close friends with Schneemann and Tenney, and while the relationship was often productive, it was also, as art historian James Boaden has pointed out, fraught with negotiations over the dynamic between four strong personalities.

For decades, Schneemann was shunned not only by male artists and critics but also by first-wave feminists. One of her most famous responses was Interior Scroll (1975), a performance in which she reenacted the poses taken by models in figure drawing classes, then painted the outlines of her body while reading from her book Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter, and then drew from her vagina a long strip of paper. The text addressed a “structuralist filmmaker” who’d refused to watch her films, and as Moreland has noted, while many have assumed that her addressee was a man, Schneemann revealed in 1988 that she was actually secretly speaking to the formidable art and film critic Annette Michelson.

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