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Carolee Schneemann at PS1
Meat Joy 1964, silver printPhoto by Al Giese. From performance at Judson Church, November 16-18, 1964 New York. Courtesy of C. Schneemann and P.P.O.W, New York

The art work that nearly killed Carolee Schneemann

The artist’s search for truth has resulted in pioneering investigations into the female body, sexuality, and gender – not all of which the public has agreed with

You may remember Lady Gaga’s meat dress as something of a scene – but it doesn’t hold a candle to Meat Joy, the Carolee Schneemann happening from 1964 that inspired it. Where Gaga took an existing idea and transformed it into a publicity stunt, Schneemann invented something that had never been seen or done – and it nearly cost her life.

Picture a group of young men and women clad in their undergarments experiencing the pleasures of the flesh: of the carcasses of fish and chicken, along with sausages, touching their bare skin. Imagine being in the same room as they gathered on the floor to engage in an experience of sensuality the likes of which had never been realised before. Envision a man in the audience becoming so enraged he leaped from his seat, dragging Schneemann off to the side, and beginning to strangle her.

This happened during the Paris edition and went on until two bourgeois women jumped from their seats and fought off the attacker until he stopped. Then Schneemann got back into the happening and continued on with the knowledge that her explorations could unleash a cataclysmic storm. But Schneemann is an unstoppable force – she is freedom incarnate. Uninhibited and unafraid, she has been challenging the patriarchy by virtue of being true to herself.

“Schneemann is an unstoppable force – she is freedom incarnate. Uninhibited and unafraid, she has been challenging the patriarchy by virtue of being true to herself”

Born in 1939 to a country doctor and a farm wife, Schneemann grew up close to nature, embracing the life and death cycle of the earth. When her father refused to support her decision to go to college, she won a full scholarship to study painting at Bard College, in New York, which she attended until she was expelled on the grounds of “moral turpitude.” Where others might have given up, Schneemann persevered, creating a body of work so singular and so challenging that to this day she has no equal in the field.

Her pioneering investigations into the female body, sexuality, and gender have tapped into archaic visual traditions and wrestled with social taboos, transforming Schneemann into a vessel of transgression and subversion in search of truth. In celebration, MoMA P.S. 1, New York, presents Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting (October 22, 2017- March 11, 2018), the first comprehensive retrospective spanning her prolific six-decade career. 

In conjunction with the exhibition, Prestel has released a catalogue of the same name, while the Artists Institute has published Carolee’s Issue 02, which illustrates the ways in which other artists, advertisers, and pop culture figures have drawn heavily from her work. Schneemann speaks with us about Meat Joy as well as her career as “both image and image maker.”

“When a woman (creates a nude self-portrait), it is trivialising the aesthetic, but when a man does it, it is part of his heroic domain or domination of subject” – Carolee Schneemann

BE PATIENT, AND THEN LEARN FROM THAT PATIENCE

“I always deeply identified with the natural forms and aspects of nature. For me, it was a reality apart from domesticity. I felt very overburdened and trapped by all the daily chores that my mother had to do – so I escaped that by going off with my dad in the car while he went to see patients, which often involved long rides and waiting with a woman who was giving birth.

I learned to be very patient. Now I think that that still time has helped me go through various illnesses. I’ve had to be in bed, sleeping and healing, and sometimes just watching leaves drop. The advantage to that was once I started thinking and drawing with some sense of the world outside of me, I started off as a landscape painter.

In the MoMA P.S. 1 retrospective, there are some drawings from when I was four and five years old. They’re very acute. In some of them, the subjects are observed carefully, including one where I must have been four years old. It’s a drawing of my brother in a bassinet. It is crude but very accurate. It’s wonderful to see that there was something implicit always engaging my energies.”

USE YOUR NATURAL RESOURCES

“There were very few girls at Bard in the art department. Only one older girl had the strength to persist and work without being defeated all the time. I think it was something deeper inside.

I had a great father but he wouldn’t send me to college; he didn’t think that was appropriate. I had the incredible good luck that I applied by myself and got everything paid for, which they almost never did. But then I was kicked out in my junior year for ‘moral turpitude.’

No one told me what it was. There was a big froth with the faculty. I didn’t know what it was but I had to leave campus but for some legal reason they were required to extend my scholarship to somewhere else so I was able to go to New York City and attend the New School for Philosophy and Art History and Columbia School of Painting for painting and sculpture, and finally I was able to draw from life. 

At Bard, we had no life models so I painted portraits of my own naked body sitting in front of the mirror in my dorm room. It seemed to me (just two years ago when I got a lifetime award from Bard) that I was kicked out for those nude paintings. They were explicit. They were naked and open legged – and they were stolen from my room so quick. The guys must have just gone in and snatched them away. And the word ‘snatch’ was an inappropriate one (Laughs).”

UNCERTAINTY CAN BE A BLESSING IN DISGUISE

“Working from landscape required tremendous flexibility and acceptance of risk and uncertainty. I would go outside dragging my paints and brushes with me and whatever I was concentrating on was always going to change by the light, by the wind, the weather would change it. That meant I was always learning. I could never possess and control what I was looking at. That was like a dance of flexibility to be responding and accepting the shifts of my own intentions. I think I only understood that much later, studying yoga: to relinquish or adapt my own inclinations.

That’s a large shift that has to take place, acknowledged, and respected. The uncertainty of things changing within your intentions as an artist you learn from that. You serve some intentionality, but the process itself is going to take you somewhere you may not have anticipated. Nothing teaches us that.”

‘HAPPENINGS’ IN ACTION

“‘Happenings’ took different forms. One would be formalised, like journeys and specific relationships to buildings and spaces. Others would be visionary, mystical, magical, overwhelming – an arena of events in a very compressed space that might involve fans, draperies, bodies that were rolling. They were very full of motion and colourful and magic. We never saw any formulation of work like this before. There might have been things related to it in Dada.

‘Happenings’ were a form that later becomes performance. Performance went on to theatre and the artists hated theatre. We didn’t want to have predictability, we didn’t want to have elements that were traditional or recognizable. We wanted to envision a new world that escaped the canvas but still related to visual principles of painting. I would never define myself as a performance artist. I might call my cat a performative artist but it’s not my terminology. For me, performance art became lethal because it is anything – anything that can’t be proscribed or described.”

A STUDY OF THE SENSUOUS – MEAT JOY

“Meat Joy was conceived as momentum, movement, and energy. There is motive, process, and notes surrounding this work. It has been misrepresented as egregious because there is a terrible depravity that rarely shifts between sensuousness and pornography. The culture doesn’t get the difference and it’s critical to sensitivity, ecology, nature, your body, your food, to every kind of physical interchange we experience. 

The same thing with my self-shot erotic film Fuses. There has always been a degree of appropriate recognition for it as a breakthrough that takes us into something higher sensitised and energised but energy in our culture tends to be confined to sports and conflict. Even the energy of painting, which became action painting, has now been subsumed and displaced.

It is similar to the conflict between show and exhibit. I am not having a show. I do not show and tell. There are shows. They are on the radio, the TV, and on Broadway. I’m having an exhibit and no one says that anymore. They wink at me like, ‘A what? Oh yeah, oh yeah. But no, it’s a show.’ The terminology has its own dynamic and I don’t agree with it.

That comes out of the idea of the performative: that it is entertainment. And the museums are certainly susceptible to this digression. When I first went to museums, it was reverent. It was like going to church. You were in such a special place to concentrate, to study, to reach a deeper level of meaning and understanding of what you were looking at. It was never entertainment.”

“Being attractive gave us the possibility of subverting the meanings of our bodies as they were predetermined by male culture” – Carolee Schneemann

WOMAN AS BOTH IMAGE AND IMAGE MAKER

“Many people believe that when a woman (creates a nude self-portrait), it is trivialising the aesthetic, but when a man does it, it is part of his heroic domain or domination of subject. A woman’s self-portrait does not, as far as I can tell, have the initial respect. It might gain appreciation over time as with Frida Kahlo – but initially, it is entering the realm of male authority and it was always considered inappropriate or inaccurate. Something was always wrong with it.

What was awful for me was that feminists felt that my use of my body within my work was salacious, that it was playing into male hands, and that I wanted it both ways. (For them), conceptually the nude female body belongs to a masculine aesthetic. It was exclusionary, as I understood it. They believed that men do it wrong and women better not even bother. It was harsh and gross.

But you had to be attractive, or they would laugh you off your page. I talked with Hannah Wilke and some other artists about this: being attractive gave us the possibility of subverting the meanings of our bodies as they were predetermined by male culture.

That’s changed now. Now, they are open to visual discussions so that women of many sizes and shapes are able to work with self-depiction. I work with younger people for whom any specificity of gender is considered obscene. It’s also gotten its own realm of trivialisation. It’s quite confused proportion and that’s okay.”

THE ARTIST AS A VESSEL

“I never anticipated such a degree of anger, rage, fury – and embracing the issues as well. Everything seemed to be happening at once without my participation to the degree of depravity.

I am asked that often: ‘What was I trying to do?’ But I wasn’t trying to do something, I was trying to explore an arena that was problematic and troubled, and to see if my work could shift anything in it. It wasn’t programmatic or didactic as such. I have this mantra in my mind: ‘This is not about me. This is not about me.’ This is what we are seeing. This is what was considered. This is what offered itself. It is not about me.

I am a conveyance and I am able to use this appropriately disturbing and accepting the body and have the great fortune of living in New York City. Getting a loft was a miracle at the time, where you could have half a city block for $47 a month, because all the manufacturers were fleeing. It was like the Wild West. The electricity didn’t work, the floors were all torn up, the bathroom was in the hall but it was wonderful!”

Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting runs at New York’s MoMA P.S. 1 from 22 October 2017 – 11 March 2018. Prestel’s catalogue of the same name is available now, as is Carolee’s Issue 02 by Artists Institute

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