To mark her passing, we commemorate the great artist's life through her own quotes
In a 2007 Spike Art Magazine interview with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, radical performance artist Carolee Schneemann was asked her definition of the future. “Menace,” she replied. “The future is… menace.” Backing her foreboding statement was an entire career devoted to changing the world for future women, each year producing new conceptual works that chipped away at the art world’s deeply embedded misogyny. Schneemann defied her societally predestined fate by being a female arts student in the 1960s; in the 1970s, she pulled a scroll from her vagina to report sexism in the art world, and she almost died when a man was so enraged by one of her performances “Meat Joy” (1964), that he tried to attack her. Every single inch of her being was in the name of future women.
Aged 79, yesterday Schneeman sadly passed away. Today, over 10 years since her prediction of the future, her words to Hans Ulrich Obrist feel as pertinent as ever – the future feels slightly more uncertain with the loss of such a force of social and political power. But where we can find resolution and comfort in this moment is in the fact that Schneeman was an artistic earthquake whose tremour will undeniably be felt forever, like the all great disruptors before her.
In commemoration of the great artist herself, below we honour and remember Carolee Schneemann: one of art’s most somatic provocateurs.
"I grew up doing farm work, and there's a deep connection between the demands of farming and the demands of art creation"
Carolee Schneemann was born on 12 October 1939 in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania to puritan parents who would never come around to her artistic provocation. Her father was an on call doctor and her mother was chained to duties of the home, something Schneemann could never understand or connect to. Unwilling to be around the domesticism of her mother, in the above quote (to Interview Magazine in 2017) the artist discussed how, from a young age, she started spending more and more time outside. This was the start of her fascination with the link between divine femininity and mother nature, as well as the perpetual cycle of life and death. “My sense of space and material has a lot to do with having been a chicken-killer and working with cows,” Schneeman added.
“Drawing and masturbation were the first sacred experiences I remember”
The sexual power of Schneemann’s work derives from her experiences with pleasure at a young age. Her earliest memories were as a four or five-year-old and the ecstasy she felt from exploring her body through drawing – a sensation so powerful, she likened it to the intensity of masturbation and remembers both on equal planes. Through the self pleasure of both, she claimed she found god. Her most recent MoMA PS1 retrospective Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Paintings hosted a selection of these young drawings, demonstrating how fundamental her childhood was to the themes of her work. “They’re very acute,” Schneemann explained to Dazed in 2017. “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.”
By the time she was six, Schneeman was playing kissing games with the Catholic boy across the road. “Growing up in the country was very important,” Scheeman reflected in the book Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties. “The animals were sexual creatures and I identified that part of my nature with them. Nudity was also clear and direct. We turned hay as adolescents. In the afternoon, after working, we would take off our work clothes to swim naked in the river.”
"My teachers always said, ‘You're very talented, but don't set your heart on art. You're only a girl.’"
Growing up in a small town where the only artist taken seriously was painter Norman Rockwell, Schneemann’s provocative disruption of gender norms started when she was the first woman in her family to attend university. When at high school, her teachers told her she would never go far in life and largely censored her work. “I was inspired by Virginia Woolf in 1960, but they wouldn't let me write about her. They said she was a trivialiser. I also wanted to do a paper on Simone de Beauvoir, and my philosophy teacher said, ‘Why would you write about the mistress? Write about the master.’ That was Sartre."
Despite her teachers and the fact that her father wouldn’t send her to college because he didn’t think it was appropriate, Schneemann rebelliously applied for, and won, a full scholarship to Bard College of Arts in New York. But sadly the embedded discrimination of pedagogy in the 1960s wasn’t finished with the artist yet. In her first year at Bard, Schneemann was kicked out for ‘moral turpitude’. “No one told me what it was,” Schneemann reflected on the incident to Dazed in 2017. “There was a big froth with the faculty. I didn’t know what it was but I had to leave campus for some legal reason.” When thinking about her use of nudity during her time at Bard, Schneemann attributed her forced removal to her set of nude self-portraits. “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.” Defying the obstacles at each stage of her learning, Schneeman graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois in 1962.
"The way I understand composition and form and my ability to enter into material all comes from my disciplines and my commitment as a painter – my energy, my arm, my eyes, my sense of space and form and time. It's a wonderful realm for me. I never leave it."
Rarely known to common categorisations of Schneemann is the idea of her as a painter, and the great influence this had on her work. “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,” she once told BOMB Magazine in 2015. Since she was a young, Schneemann was fascinated with the work of painter Paul Cézanne, who deeply influenced her work. Funnily enough, growing up Schneemann always thought Cézanne was a woman, proving just how inherently personal social framing is. In 1976, she went on to publish a book of her paintings and drawings and playfully titled it Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter. She writes in the introduction: “Around 12-years-old I knew a few names of ‘great artists’... I decided a painter named ‘Cézanne’ would be my mascot; I would assume Cézanne was unquestionably a woman.”
Schneemann’s earliest works were abstract expressionist paintings made in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In this era, she borrowed elements from the neo movement that drew upon the same conceptualism of the Dada movement, and supplemented it with use of popular image and modern materials. “J + C”, 1961 is a prime example of this. The painting is a soft, beautiful mess of paints that appear what to be airbrushed, tied in with elements of basket weaving and slogans like ‘bite her’ – fitting for the title’s painting which refers to the first letter of the names of both her and her then-husband, composer James Tenney. Like all of Schneemann’s works, this painting holds beautifully sexual energy. During her masters, Schneemann concluded that the paintbrush was too phallic, and that the Abstract Expressionism movement was too much of a boy's club.
Painting’s influence went on to inform Schneemann’s entire career, the gestural brushwork and the action of the medium adding energy to her future theatre.
“The body may remain erotic, sexual, desired, desiring, and yet still be votive – marked and written over in a text of stroke and gesture discovered by my creative female will.”
It was after she finished her masters in Illinois and moved to New York that she started to expand her practise into what we mostly know it as today. Arriving in the Big Apple in 1961 meant there were a lot of small industrial spaces becoming available to artists because of the small manufacturing industry was in decline. Schneemann moved into a studio on West 29th and started to gravitate towards the downtown experimental avant garde theatre scene after which she made some of her first, and some of her most monumental performances. As she reflects in More Than Meat Joy: Performance Works and Selected Writings, in New York she had become “a painter who had in effect enlarged her canvas.”
One of her first performance productions was “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions” (1963). Using an installation of her previous 1962 work “Four Fur Cutting Boards” (comprised of paint, feathers, fake garden snakes and plastic), Schneemann made “Eye Body” by merging her body (an important decision in the progress of her work) with the environment of the installation while her Icelandic artist friend Erro took black and white portraits of her. She covered herself in chalk, grease, and plastic while also using props like mirrors: all of these movements artistically subverted the traditional perception of the female form.
Schneemann decided she wanted to use her body as an integral material to add another dimension to her art. “Covered in paint, grease, chalk, ropes, plastic, I establish my body as visual territory,” Schneeman reflects in the book Carolee Schneemann, Imaging hererotics. Essays, Interviews, Projects (2002). “Not only am I an image-maker, but I explore the image value of flesh as material I choose to work with… I wrote ‘my creative female will’ because for years my most audacious works were viewed as if someone else inhabiting me had created them.” The someone else Schneemann refers to here is men, with society not willing to accept such brashness and aggression, could come from the ‘passive’ woman. The symbolism of her body in Eye Body is a dominant assertion of herself as a woman inextricable from her creations. “Using my body as an extension of my painting-constructions challenged and threatened the psychic territorial power lines by which woman, in 1963, were admitted to the Art Stud Club, so long as they behaved out by the men.”
“There is a terrible depravity that rarely shifts between sensuousness and pornography”
“Meat Joy” (1964) takes the prize as one of Schneemann’s most well known, and societally provocative artworks. Performed first in Paris, the piece featured Schneemann with a troupe of men and women in their underwear orgiastically rolling around with one another with substances like raw fish, chicken, sausages and wet paint. “Meat Joy” was the ultimate celebration of flesh and the ecstasy of body to body contact, as well as being an overt assertion of female sexuality. This show was so provocative that it enraged a man in the audience so much so, he leaped from his seat and dragged Schneemann to the side to strangle her. Luckily, two women from the audience fought him off until he stopped, and Schneemann resumed the performance.
“Meat Joy” and the happenings of the Paris show were a bold statement of the little control women had over their bodies in the 1960s, and how society really struggled to grapple with nudity as a form of freedom. “(Meat Joy) has been misrepresented as egregious because there is a terrible depravity that rarely shifts between sensuousness and pornography,” Schneemann explained to Dazed in 2017. 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.”
“I called it being the image and the image-maker. 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.”
Liberating the human form through nudity is a running theme throughout Schneemann’s entire career. She was so devoted to nudity that it was even the reason why she was expelled from Bard University. As she explains: “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 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.”
Nudity in art has been around since antiquity, but through societal oppression, with modernity, it became heavily stigmatised with shame. Through Schneemann’s boundary-pushing practise, and those of her female contemporaries, the body (especially the female form) began shedding its shame. These artists retrieved it from the passive oppression of misogyny and reclaimed it with active subjectivity.
“I thought of the vagina in many ways – physically, conceptually: as a sculptural form, an architectural referent” – Carolee Schneemann
Schneemann’s 1975 performance “Interior Scroll” at feminist exhibition Women Here and Now was one of the artist’s most political uses of nudity. With an audience keenly observing, Schneemann undressed under two dimmed lights, wrapped herself in a sheet, and climbed onto a long table. She then announced that she would be reading from her soon to be published book and dropped the sheet to reveal she was wearing nothing but an apron underneath. The artist then proceeded to paint her naked body while continuing to read aloud. She then removed her apron and began to draw a narrow scroll of paper from her vagina, reading loudly from it. As she continued to pull the scroll out from inside her, she read a story from a super 8 film Schneemann had begun in 1973 titled Kitch’s Last Meal, which detailed a conversation with a ‘structuralist filmmaker’.
When reading from the scroll, Schneeman set traditional concepts of rationalism and order associated with masculinity against the intuition of the female body. “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.”
“I think I’m stubborn. 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.”
The tremour of Schneemann's legacy can be felt through many aspects of the female experience today. They’re found in the powerful work of her contemporaries, the radicalism of 1970s feminists, the liberation of the female form today, the way art has expanded to welcome conceptualism, and the contemporary embrace of the nude body.
Yesterday, Dazed asked some of her contemporaries to reflect on Schneemann's impact. Outspoken feminist painter Betty Tompkins, who was creating alongside Schneemann, stated that: “(Schneemann’s) vitality as an artist did not diminish with age. Her work was always radical, and so was she!” Founding member of avant-garde electronic group Throbbing Gristle, Cosey Fanni Tutti, added that “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.”