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Carolee Schneemann Pioneered the Way Women’s Bodies Were Seen

The multidisciplinary artist, who died this month at 79, used her body as a canvas to produce works that celebrated female sexuality

Carolee Schneemann, "Eye Body #11," 1963 (The Estate of Carolee Schneemann, Galerie Lelong and Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York)
smithsonian.com

You likely had an opinion on Carolee Schneemann, the 79-year-old multidisciplinary artist whose work made her a key figure in the emerging feminist art movement. Schneemann, who died earlier this month of breast cancer, centered her art around the body as a nexus of power and sensuality, exploring boundary-pushing concepts that foreshadowed many of the mainstream feminist tenets popular today.

As Oliver Basciano writes for the Guardian, Schneemann’s career is perhaps best encapsulated by the 1964 piece “Meat Joy.” An hour-long, bacchanalian celebration of the flesh, the performance found men and women cavorting around in various stages of undress while slathering each other in paint and exchanging slimy handfuls of raw fish, chicken and sausage.

“I thought of 'Meat Joy' as an erotic ritual for my starved culture,” Schneemann reflected in a retrospective held by Manhattan’s New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1996. The work as a concept emerged out of a frustration that sensuality had become synonymous with pornography; she added: “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.

“Meat Joy” even managed to shock Marcel Duchamp, who declared it the “messiest” work of art France had ever seen. At one Paris performance, an audience member reportedly grew so riled up that he flung himself into the melee and attempted to strangle Schneemann. But for fans, “Meat Joy” was a high-octane thrill of messy, joyous, violent, comical, erotic and off-putting entanglements. It also typified, as Anna Cafolla of Dazed writes, “what is now a universal feminist ideal—celebrating our bodies and our sex.”

Schneemann's most controversial piece was perhaps “Interior Scroll,” a 1975 performance that rendered the term “vagina monologue” startlingly literal. In it, the artist stood nude atop a table, pulling a piece of paper out of her vagina and reciting a rebuttal to a filmmaker who had derided her work as “diaristic indulgence.” At the time, many assumed the critic in question was the artist’s then-partner Anthony McCall, but as Quinn Moreland reports for Hyperallergic, Schneemann later identified the addressee as female film critic Annette Michelson.

Michelson was far from the only woman to criticize Schneemann: The New York Times’ Holland Cotter writes that some self-proclaimed feminists deemed her “body-positive, pro-sensual art” exploitation rather than an assertion of agency. Others, artist Marilyn Minter told Hilarie M. Sheets of The New York Times in 2016, accused her of using art as a narcissistic excuse to show off her body. At the same time, artnet News Julia Halperin points out, “Fuses”—a video performance featuring obstructed footage of Schneemann and then-partner James Tenney having sex—attracted male critics’ ire for not showing enough clearly pornographic material.

Carolee Schneemann, "Meat Joy," 1964 (Carolee Schneemann, Black Dog Publishing, London/PPOW Gallery, New York)

Schneemann always believed her nudity subverted, not catered to, an intrusive male gaze. As she wrote in a 1991 essay, “I didn’t want to pull a scroll out of my vagina and read it in public, but the culture’s terror of my making overt what it wished to suppress fueled the image.” Instead of perpetuating society’s fear of the vagina, which Schneemann once described to the Cuts Catie L’Heureux as “detested, denied religiously,” she aimed to celebrate it as a “source of extreme pleasure and sensation and power.”

Throughout her career, Schneemann always emphasized the importance of finding female role models, both in terms of predecessors and inspiring future generations.

“If I don't have a realm of precedence, then I'm anomalous and my experience is constantly minimized as being exceptional, in that there is no tradition, there's no history, there's no language,” she explained in a 1995 interview published in Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video. But there is history, tradition, and language.

As the outpouring of reminiscences and reflections that followed Schneemann's death attest, she certainly succeeded in creating a bridge for modern creators. Cotter of The New York Times counts Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney and Pipilotti Rist amongst the artists who later built on Schneemann's corporeal performances, while artnet News cites a selection of friends, colleagues and admirers who commemorate her as a “determined artistic visionary, a generous friend,” and, touchingly, “a doting, dedicated cat owner.”

Still, for the majority of her career, Schneemann’s accomplishments were ignored by the art establishment. According to the Washington Post’s Harrison Smith, while the New Museum spotlighted her in 1996, it wasn’t until 2015 that she headlined a major exhibition. The show, first on view at Austria’s Museum der Moderne Salzburg, traveled to Queens’ MoMA PS1 in 2017. That same year, Schneemann received the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award.

Reflecting on her legacy in a 2014 interview with the Guardian’s Steve Rose, Schneemann said, “I never thought I was shocking.”

“I say this all the time, and it sounds disingenuous,” she continued, “but I always thought, ‘This is something they need. My culture is going to recognize it’s missing something.’’’

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