PRINT May 2019



Carolee Schneemann, Eye Body #26, 1963, gelatin silver print, 14 × 11". From the series “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera,” 1963.

“WE ARE GOING TO WORK TOGETHER,” she would tell me self-assuredly, whenever we met on various occasions. I often ran into her in New York, whether on the streets or at Electronic Arts Intermix, where she was perpetually, or so it seemed, editing the video of her 1964 performance Meat Joy. In the 1990s and 2000s, when I was a young curator beginning to explore experimental cinema and radical art by women, and later during my time as director of the Generali Foundation in Vienna, Carolee Schneemann was always on my mind. My earliest exposure to her work was Fuses, 1964–67, a silent 16-mm film shot over three years whose footage (singed, collaged, painted on, and acid-drenched) featured Carolee and her longtime partner Jim Tenney lolling, caressing, and having sex—that, and the legendary Interior Scroll, in which she reflected on the underrecognition of women artists. The latter work’s inaugural 1975 iteration produced some of the most enduringly iconic performance images of the late twentieth century. I quickly sensed the impact of her art and its myriad aftershocks.

But I also grasped how Carolee’s oeuvre was much more complex than was widely understood, that it had yet to be preserved and adequately contextualized. These concerns linger, and yet she did end up gaining due recognition late in life. How? One reason was her stubbornness, which she exercised constantly when dealing with the ignorance of curators and scholars. Her obstinacy forced her to become her own “istorian” and led her to self-publish artist’s books, such as Cezanne, She Was a Great Painter (1974), whose cover bears the inscription UNBROKEN WORDS TO WOMEN—SEXUALITY CREATIVITY LANGUAGE ART ISTORY laid over one of her childhood drawings. But it was primarily her intelligence and insightful critical reflections that persuaded me to immerse myself in her work and embark on a large exhibition project with her, an enterprise that, of course, somehow continued what other colleagues began. I was struck by her visionary writings on performance and its representation in various media in regard to Up To and Including Her Limits, in which Carolee suspended herself in a tree surgeon’s harness and drew in crayon across papered surfaces, first staged in 1971 in London at an event organized by the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. “How many video screens would it take to replace the living acting body with documentation of its action?” Propelled by this question, Carolee performed the work ten times at festivals and museums in Europe and the United States, eventually turning it into a multimedia installation over three years, from 1973 to ’76. Or rather, it matured into the form that had been there all along, according to Carolee, hidden in its DNA.

She exercised her stubbornness constantly when dealing with the ignorance of curators and scholars. Her obstinacy forced her to become her own “istorian.”

When I moved to New York in 2010 to head the Museum of Modern Art’s department of media and performance art, I immediately reached out to Carolee to discuss acquisitions; there was not a single major work of hers in the collection. From then on, I often visited her upstate home in New Paltz, where many of her works were created. Entering Carolee Land was magic. While she and her art are often described as being messy, she was extremely organized, though she did leave some works and [h]istories behind her. I’ve experienced this before with her female peers—that certain disappointing experiences make them want to stow things away, to try to forget.

“Can I be both image and image-maker?” Carolee asked when she made her momentousEye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera” in 1963, in which she attempted to “bring the canvas to life with dynamic brushwork, investing it with both substance and motion.” She decided to become part of her paintings, to wrest control of her own image, to pose herself against the history of the representation of women. “Of course you can do it / don’t you dare,” Carolee concluded. 

Sabine Breitwieser is a Vienna-based curator and a former director of the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, where in 2015 she organized “Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting.” The show traveled to the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, in 2017, and to MoMA PS1, New York, in 2017–18.