TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 2019

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CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN

I FEEL THAT EVEN a dedicated special issue of Artforum would be insufficient to grapple with the loss of an artist of Carolee’s stature. Despite Kristine Stiles’s proclamation, more than a decade ago, that Carolee represented one of the “great women artists” for whom Linda Nochlin had longed, art history has generally failed to recognize the true breadth of her achievement. As was most clearly revealed to me while working with Sabine Breitwieser on the traveling retrospective “Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting” (2015–18), Carolee’s body of work was as intricately interconnected—recursively developing certain themes, ideas, and motifs over more than six decades—as it was expansive. That so many critics and historians continue to overlook the consistency and complexity of her production derives, in part, from the misperception that just a few major works—Meat Joy, 1964, Fuses, 1964–67, and Interior Scroll, 1975—can effectively stand in for the entirety of her oeuvre.

Scroll from Carolee Schneemann’s performance of Interior Scroll, 1975, at the Telluride Film Festival, Colorado, September 4, 1977.

Such overly reductive assessments of her accomplishments may also be attributable to the fact that Carolee’s artistic and intellectual coordinates differed substantially from those most commonly referenced in the discourse surrounding art made after World War II. She looked far less to the criticism of Clement Greenberg, if at all, than to the poetry of Charles Olson, Rochelle Owens, Robert Kelly, Jerome Rothenberg, and others in their circle. She preferred the liberatory politics of Wilhelm Reich to those of Herbert Marcuse, the ethical philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir to that of Jean-Paul Sartre, and the aesthetic theories of Antonin Artaud and Marcel Proust to those of Marcel Duchamp. Her phenomenology proved closer to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible (1964) than to his Phenomenology of Perception (1945)—though, in her estimation, both paled in importance compared to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form (1917) and Henri Focillon’s The Life of Forms in Art (1934). While the scope of such references may prove daunting (consider the page counts of Reich, de Beauvoir, or Proust alone), they provide some measure of the art-historical labor still needed to address the true depth and sophistication of Carolee’s career.

At the heart of her work was an ethical commitment, a dedication to open herself to the “other”—whether defined by gender, race, nationality, or even species—that encompassed not only the erotic dimension that has largely defined her reputation, but also forms of difference marked by disease, debilitation, and death.

Carolee Schneemann, Vesper’s Pool (detail), 1999–2000, continuous rewind video decks, speakers, Kodak Ektographic zoom lens slide projectors, slide dissolve unit, motorized rotating mirrors, sand, paint, halogen lights, found objects, photographs, diary excerpts, padded bird, six-channel video projection (color, silent, 6 minutes), dimensions variable.

At the heart of her work was an ethical commitment, a dedication to open herself to the “other”—whether defined by gender, race, nationality, or even species—that encompassed not only the erotic dimension that has largely defined her reputation, but also forms of difference marked by disease, debilitation, and death. At a 2015 talk organized by Jenny Jaskey for the Artist’s Institute in New York, Carolee projected an image of her deceased cat from the installation Vesper’s Pool, 1999–2000. Hearing the audience’s audible gasp, she commented, “It’s OK. You can turn away, but I choose not to.” Carolee grappled overtly with her own mortality in the installation Known/Unknown: Plague Column, 1995–96, but such meditations had run throughout her practice since its earliest moments. Carolee’s first performance piece, Labyrinths, 1960, had revealed to her that conventional painting was “dead,” even though she vowed to continue working on its “beloved corpse.” As her art became increasingly political, she began addressing the actual corpses of those killed by war and civil strife in Vietnam, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, and other conflict zones, a form of ethical engagement she pursued to the very end. The last time I visited Carolee at her home upstate, the second floor was littered with harrowing images of mutilated bodies from the Syrian civil war: enlarged, torn, and collaged together as an act of witnessing from which she refused to turn away. 

Branden W. Joseph is a 2018–19 Guggenheim Fellow and Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.