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Carolee Schneemann, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera, 1963/2005. Photo: Erró and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Carolee Schneemann, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera, 1963/2005. Photo: Erró and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Carolee Schneemann (1939–2019)

Pioneering American artist, feminist, and filmmaker Carolee Schneemann, known for her multidisciplinary practice that spans more than six decades, has died. She was seventy-nine years old. While best known for her performance and body art that challenged notions of gender and sexuality—as well as for her expressive paintings, installations, and photography—Schneemann considered herself first and foremost a painter. “I’m still a painter and I will die a painter,” she said in an interview in 1993. “Everything that I have developed has to do with extending visual principles off the canvas.”

Schneemann was born in 1939 in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania. She studied at Bard College and earned an MFA in painting from the University of Illinois. In 1961, she moved to New York with the composer James Tenney and participated in the Judson Dance Theater, becoming the first visual artist to choreograph for the group. There she produced her earliest performance pieces, including Newspaper Event, 1962; Lateral Splay, 1963; Chromelodeon, 1963; and Meat Joy, 1964, a seminal performance, which she described as “kinetic theater,” that featured nearly nude performers convulsing on the ground with raw fish, chicken, and sausages.

“I was drawing constantly, extending the energies of my own kinetic movements, which became the sequences that I brought to the Judson dancers,” Schneemann wrote on her involvement with the Judson group in the September 2018 issue of Artforum. She also performed as Édouard Manet’s Olympia in Robert Morris’s Site, 1964, a collaboration she said both “historicized and immobilized” her. 

The personal and political inflections of Schneemann’s practice continued over the entire course of her career. She created a schizophrenic cinematic vision of montaged images in protest of the Vietnam War in Viet-Flakes, 1965, and unfolded a scroll from her vagina for Interior Scroll, 1975, recounting a conversation with a male filmmaker that read, in part: “He protested / you are unable to appreciate / the system the grid / the numerical rational / procedures.” The “Lebanon Series,” 1983–91, addressed the destruction of Beirut, and in the last decades of her life her work took on 9/11 and the conflict in Syria. 

Schneemann’s first museum retrospective was staged at the New Museum in New York in 1996. In 2015, the Museum der Moderne Salzburg in Austria took on the artist’s extensive career in “Kinetic Painting,” which traveled to MoMA PS1 in New York in 2017. The same year, she won the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award.

Over the years, Schneemann published various books, including Cezanne, She Was a Great Painter (1976), Early and Recent Work (1983), and More Than Meat Joy: Performance Works and Selected Writings (1979, 1997), and taught at a number of institutions, such as New York University, the California Institute of the Arts, and Bard College.

Her works can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, among others.

“Appraising ‘Carolee’ in all her avatars has come to seem metonymic for judging art of a certain kind, or era,” wrote Frances Richard in the May 2009 issue of Artforum. “If we fail to contend with her, we cannot understand it. Which art? ‘Expressionist-performative,’ ‘second-wave feminist,’ ‘multimedia-transgressive,’ ‘politico-erotic’ . . . We’re still asking what she became and will become.”