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Carolee Schneemann at PS1
Eye Body, Transformative Actions For The Camera, 1963Courtesy of Carolee Schneemann

RIP Carolee Schneemann, whose visionary feminist art smashed all taboos

Across multiple mediums, Schneeman’s 60 year career brought society nose-to-nose with issues of the body, sexuality, and gender

“My work became a bridge that had to be crossed by young feminists working with their bodies,” Carolee Schneemann once said. Painting, performance art, photography, installation, books, film – across Schneemann’s errant, provocative oeuvre, the artist confronted a conservative world with body politics, sexuality, and gender, paving the way for feminist, personally political art.

Carolee Schneemann has reportedly passed away at the age of 79. From Fox Chase, Pennsylvania, Schneemann started out as a painter, moving from Abstract Expressionism to experimental performance art with the Fluxus movement and her own challenging hybrids, to raw Neo-Dada visuals, exploring the ideals and styles of Beat Generation. Her early work in the 60s anticipated the sexual revolution that enraptured feminism, and moving into the next decade she was a reference for the academic and creative critique of the patriarchy. A visionary at the very teetering forefront, the artist passionately explored the themes and techniques of art movements to push for what is now a universal feminist ideal – celebrating our bodies and our sex.

Betty Tompkins, the iconic, outspoken New York painter known for her confronting Fuck Paintings and multiple series that challenge sexist language and mechanisms, expressed her sadness upon hearing of her contemporary’s passing. “Her vitality as an artist did not diminish with age,” Tompkins tells Dazed. “Her work was always radical, and so was she!” Alongside the likes of Tompkins, Judy Chicago, and Marilyn Minter, Schneemann led a revolution, uninhibited in creating a strong, singular body of work that challenged patriarchy like never before.

“The loss of Carolee Schneemann has hit me hard,” says Cosey Fanni Tutti, a founding member of the pioneering avant-garde electronic group Throbbing Gristle, musician, writer and performance artist. “Her groundbreaking work will always be vitally important to all artists. Carolee’s uncompromising spirit, honesty, and fearlessness is something we should all embrace and thank her for.”

Refusing to be tied to any medium, the multidisciplinary artist produced exploratory work that questioned oppressive, archaic taboos, particularly around women’s bodies with video, performance art, sketches, collage and painting, books, and film. Schneemann always identified as a painter first and foremost, asserting that all of her art reflected ideals of her paper works in other formats.

“Carolee’s uncompromising spirit, honesty, and fearlessness is something we should all embrace and thank her for” – Cosey Fanni Tutti

“The female nude is part of a revered tradition, although she is not to take authority over depictions of her nudity. She is just to be available,” she once said, commenting on the misogyny surrounding women’s bodily presence in art. 

Her radical creative trajectory is most known for works like the 1964 film Meat Joy in which four women and men strip and writhe in paint, paper, fish, and raw meat with an “ecstatic group ritual” that shocked and titillated spectators. Eye Body (1963), in which she was naked except for feathers, fur, and snakes, defiantly stared off with the male gaze. Fuses, her 1964 film, showed explicit and deliciously wild sex between Schneemann and her partner at a time when cinema avoided female pubic regions or saying ‘vagina’. Up to and Including Her Limits (1973–76) sees the artist in a harness hanging from a ceiling as she attempted to paint – inspired by Jackson Pollock’s action-painting, she took his technique and imposed her own body ideals and perspective with entrancing energy. The enthralling 1975 performance of Interior Scroll saw Schneemann stand naked on a table, painted in mud, where she read from a piece of paper an imaginary dialogue with a dismissive male filmmaker, that she slowly removed from her vagina. She utilised her body to smash the clean, neat ideals and stereotypes imposed on the body in extremities, with dirt, blood, and animal matter. 

“I thought of the vagina in many ways – physically, conceptually: as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the sources of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation,” she once said. “I saw the vagina enlivened by its passage from the visible to the invisible, a spiraled coil ringed with the shape of desire and generative mysteries, attributes of both female and male sexual power.” 

The art world would be a little less fearless without Schneemann’s consistent innovating, across a prolific 60-year career. Through the decades, she wouldn’t let herself be pigeonholed, continually experimenting with mediums and style. “Of course, the most important work is what I’m going to do tomorrow,” Schneemann told The Cut in 2016. 

With her works, the likes of Marina AbramovicTracey EminSarah LucasCindy Sherman, and all the pioneering greats who have challenged the feminine and sexual in their work were able to rise to commercial and creative success. Even Lady Gaga’s now-iconic meat dress owes a lot to Schneemann. With her oeuvre, many were able to build on the body not as a vessel for shame, but as an expansive plane of sensuality, emotion, and identity. Art also benefited from Schneemann’s consistent threads of ecstasy and pleasure in her work – forgoing the ‘angry feminist’ vibe, Meat Joy is a rebellious example of joy, a celebration of wild bodies with abandon. “Sensual, comic, joyous, repellent,” she wrote. Schneemann challenged art’s then contemporary confusion with sensuality and pornography, making a case for the female body not as a tool for male desire, but for unrestrained creative vision.

Schneemann rejected the male-dominated scene of the 70s, pushing back against the feeling of being a “cunt mascot on the men’s art team”. Not that her work has always been as readily embraced as it is now, only receiving critical recognition in the 90s onwards – her debut UK solo show came just a few years ago, and just last year, MoMA presented the first comprehensive retrospective of her work. Her first appearance in London at the ICA in the 60s saw her heckled and jeered, while she was suspended from Bard for painting nude self portraits, and specators were shocked more by her bare vagina than snakes that adorned her body in performances. Appeasing critics and a strait-laced mainstream art clique was never on Schneemann’s agenda, though – Schneemann never stopped persisting, prodding for change. 

“I think I’m stubborn,” she said previously in a Guardian interview. “In the beginning, I had no precedent for being valued. Everything that came from a woman’s experience was considered trivial. I wasn’t sure if my work would shift that paradigm or not, but I had to try.”

In an astounding mantra to live by, Schneemann said: “Be stubborn and persist, and trust yourself on what you love. You have to trust what you love.” When critics told her to get dressed, she refused; when other art movements like minimalism emerged, she went full flesh; when many artists stagnate in their own iconography, she exploded her style, and never compromised the sound or her sense of self.