Why Do We Only Know Carolee Schneemann the Performance Artist?


Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy, 1964. © Carolee Schneemann, © Bildrecht, Wien, 2015. Courtesy of C. Schneemann and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York. Photo: Al Giese.

Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting

In many ways, Carolee Schneemann may have provided the template for the archetypal feminist performance artist in the popular imagination. Schneemann's 1964 dance Meat Joy is emblematic of the ecstatic excesses of avant-garde performance art, while her 1975 performance Interior Scroll could be considered the original "vagina monologue." As a pioneer of performance and feminist art, her engagement with sexuality and the body pushed art into new dimensions, and inspired cadres of other artists--Kiki Smith, Tracey Emin, Paul McCarthy, Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, and countless others. Schneemann's influence has even been felt in popular culture: most notably in the character of Maude Lebowski, played by Julianne Moore, in the Coen Brothers' cult film "The Big Lebowski." The mythology surrounding Schneemann centers on the canonic aspects of her work involving feminist performance and body art, yet this apprehension of her legacy is, in fact, somewhat narrowly defined.

Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975. © Carolee Schneemann, © Bildrecht, Wien, 2015. Courtesy of Collezione La Gaia, Busca, Italy. Photo: Anthony McCall.

"Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting" at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg contends with the mythology of Schneemann with a thoroughly researched retrospective examining her iconic works and performances as well as those that have rarely, if ever, been seen before. Most importantly, the exhibition engages with one of the more overlooked aspects of Schneemann's oeuvre: its relationship to painting.

Carolee Schneemann, Sir Henry Francis Taylor, 1961. © Carolee Schneemann, © Bildrecht, Wien, 2015. Courtesy of the artist, P.P.O.W, New York, and Hales Gallery, London.

"I've always been a painter. I was trained as a painter; I live as a painter. It's just that men always wanted to get the brush out of my hand." Schneemann fought paint with paint, but as she states in this recent interview in BOMB, while she has continually stressed her self-identification with painting, her work is largely defined by its relation to performance art. Schneeman noted in another interview, "I am always trying to redress the imbalance of the excitement or the drama or the novelty of performance which has overwhelmed my real body of work." In many ways, Schneemann's work has largely been assessed in relation to its influence on younger generations of artists who established and expanded the perimeters of performance-based actions and feminist methodologies, rather than in relation to the canon of (male) painters that Schneemann was responding to (or working against).

Carolee Schneemann, Early Landscape, 1959. © Carolee Schneemann, © Bildrecht, Wien, 2015. Courtesy of C. Schneemann and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.

Carolee Schneemann was born in 1939 in Pennsylvania, and studied painting at Bard College, Columbia University, and the University of Illinois. In graduate school, Schneemann "realized that painting had to turn into something different," to move beyond the canvas and into space and time. Her "painting constructions" of the early 1960s bear an indebtedness to the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg, while demonstrating her interest in unconventional media, and, through the use of motors, movement. These constructions played a part in her early film-based works, as backdrops and environments for the actions she performed before the camera.

Carolee Schneemann, Fur Wheel, 1962. © Carolee Schneemann, © Bildrecht, Wien, 2015, © Generali Foundation Collection-Permanent Loan to the Museum der Moderne Salzburg.

In Meat Joy, arguably Schneemann's most well-known work, first performed in Paris in 1964, paint also played a pivotal role, along with dead fish, chickens, and sausages. Using dancers' bodies to smear paint (and flesh) on canvas, Meat Joy provides a startling counterpoint to Yves Klein's works using the bodies of nude models as paintbrushes. Klein's Anthropométries were formal exercises in formal environments, replete with classical musicians, restrained in monochrome, where the woman's body was wielded and conducted by the artist. Schneemann remarks of Klein's works, "It was all part of something very phenomenal about getting the nude off the canvas, so I had a great respect for it, but I didn't like it that much. The obsession with female form became so mechanized." In Schneemann's Meat Joy, on the other hand, the mood was ecstatic, messy, visceral, and the dancers retained their agency over their own movements. In photo documentation, Klein's models appear subdued, mute, and business-like, whereas Schneemann and her dancers laugh raucously, mouths agape in absolute, unbridled pleasure. The feral, organic, orgasmic energy of Meat Joy, and many of Schneemann's other works from that time, also took aim at the polish and cool detachment of Pop Art: "The male Pop artists' endless depiction of nudes that looked like shiny parts of automobiles--these were all very strong influences that I could work against," says Schneemann.

Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy, 1964. © Carolee Schneemann, © Bildrecht, Wien, 2015. Courtesy of C. Schneemann and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York. Photo: Al Giese.

Portraying the throes of erotic energy and sexual pleasure in women was a radical posture at the time (and continues to be to this day). Schneemann's experimental film Fuses (1965) was unprecedented in its explicit portrayal of intimate sexual encounters between the artist and her partner, James Tenney. Yet even here, Schneemann's devotion to painting is betrayed by the film's washes of color and quick edits, as well as painterly, collage-like, and abstract aesthetics. A reference to art history and painting appears mid-film, with Schneemann splayed out like Courbet's l'Origine du monde.

Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, 1964-67. © Generali Foundation Collection-Permanent Loan to the Museum der Moderne Salzburg. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), and Anthology Film Archives, New York.

In the work Up to and Including Her Limits (1973-77), Schneemann literally enters an "arena of painting" to engage with, extend, and critique the legacy of Jackson Pollock, action painting, and Abstract Expressionism. With her nude body suspended in a rope harness, Schneemann's outstretched arms reach towards the edges of the canvas, laying down a series of concentrated strokes in crayon, occasionally writing phrases or words. Through the duration of the performance, the three-dimensional canvas is filled with the marks of the artist's movements through space. Here, the actions and gestures of painting and the use of the artist's body as medium are rendered of the utmost importance.

Carolee Schneemann, Up to and Including Her Limits, 1973-77. © Carolee Schneemann, © Bildrecht, Wien, 2015. Courtesy of C. Schneemann and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York. Photo: Alan Tannenbaum.

"I'm interested in sensuous pleasure and the power of the naked body as an active image rather than the same old, pacified, immobilized, historicized body," Schneemann remarks, "So for me, to activate and determine the energy of my naked body as imagery was to disrupt all the traditions I had learned--where you belong to the male artist and were passive and sort of splayed out." Schneemann's painting is anything but immobile, passive, or pacified. Whether in her early painting constructions, set in motion by motorized elements, or in her painting performances, where her body becomes the movable element, or in more recent works, such as an installation of rotating sculptures, Flange 6rpm (2011-13), Schneemenn's practice has revolved around the notion of painting and movement. From these simple tenets, Schneemann not only expanded the definitions of what painting could be, but set forth a template for other artists to activate different media, through the use of the body and performance.

Carolee Schneemann, Flange 6rpm, 2011-13. © Carolee Schneemann, © Bildrecht, Wien, 2015. Courtesy of C. Schneemann and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.

"Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting," curated by Sabine Breitwieser, is on view at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg until February 28, 2016.

--Natalie Hegert