New York

Carolee Schneemann

Max Hutchinson Gallery

In the back room here, in an exhibition without announcement or opening, five works by Carolee Schneemann were shown, works ranging in date from 1960 to 1983 and constituting a kind of mini retrospective. These pieces have all been seen in New York before, but perhaps without enough perspective on their position in art history. Schneemann’s niche in the history books is assured on the basis of Meat Joy alone, a classic performance work from 1962. And her film Fuses, 1965–68, with its explicit sexual imagery presented with profound respect and sensitivity, is both a beautiful lyric and a devastating critique of pornography.

Yet a major thread of Schneemann’s oeuvre has been consistently neglected for twenty-five years. In the early ‘60s she was making paintings incorporating real objects, as do the contemporaneous works of Jim Dine and others; boxes in the tradition of Joseph Cornell, but with a distinctive sensibility of her own; and collages of media imagery, with loosely worked paint, which relate closely to Robert Rauschenberg’s works from the same period. It was not, I think, considerations of quality that caused Schneemann’s works to receive virtually no attention while those of her male contemporaries were spotlighted. In the early ‘60s women artists were by and large excluded from exhibiting in New York galleries, regardless of the quality of their work. By the time that climate had changed, Schneemann’s reputation as a performance artist had rigidified to the point where it was difficult for the art public to regard her as a maker of images and objects.

Today it is not difficult to see that this work was both beautiful and intelligent in its time. The three early works shown here—Quarry Transposed, 1960, Native Beauties, 1962–64, and Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1966—are moving relics of those years when assemblage, collage, and the use of found objects and materials were being so deeply explored. In two of the works, a wild variety of tiny objects savagely fill boxes with interior compartments. Small bits of broken glass are embedded in splattered paint that looks like natural-erosion trails; media images contend with splashes of tachistically applied paint; the frank presence of roughly worked wood asserts both nature and the naturalness of human feelings. The use of electricity and of mirrors is especially appealing and personal. Sometimes the motions of tiny motorized elements can be seen only by way of small mirrors set in place for that purpose; in one place a mirror throws one’s gaze through a tiny hole in a wooden frame to focus it on a secretive movement in an adjoining space. These charming microcosms are redolent not only of the art discoveries of their time but of the ‘60s feeling that a kind of primal closeness to nature was being regained through the instrumentality of culture.

Schneemann’s newer work here, while clearly descending from the earlier pieces, has a hard or sharp tone lacking in the more optimistic works from the ‘60s. Yet it is softer and more delicate in its feeling for materials and images. In Salvaged from Wreckage, 1983, pale colors and faint, almost lost images appear on a delicate ground of gauzy cloths, like flashes of a dream of life cast onto a filmy screen of time. The tragic center of this piece—a newspaper image of Lebanese families salvaging what they can from the wreckage of their homes—is muted by the dreamlike surrounding matter, while at the same time it is made more horrifying by the lightness and softness of that surround.

Schneemann’s newest works were not included in this tiny retrospective; when they do reach exhibition, they will deserve some of the attention these works have gone without.

Thomas McEvilley