New York

Carolee Schneemann

New Museum

The modest, low-budget retrospective accorded Carolee Schneemann by the New Museum, and squeezed into the front half of its space, spanned four decades and ranged from early gestural paintings and boxlike assemblages to multimedia performance, films, and recent installation pieces. It was a first. Never before has a museum acknowledged Schneemann by presenting a comprehensive exhibition of her work. Never before have we had an opportunity to experience the breadth of Schneemann’s artistic activity and to consider the complexity of her “transformative actions,” which chart a path from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism, from Assemblage to “real-time” art grounded in the manipulation of the body. And never before has it been so apparent that Schneemann’s oeuvre constitutes a big chunk of the core histories that inform much of the body art and identity politics—based work of the ’80s and ’90s, a link that has been obscured by an art establishment interested in maintaining decorum at all costs.

While we grumble that art has become thoroughly domesticated and is in danger of losing its soul, the truth is we are willing to dismiss a vitally important artist because she broke unspoken gender-based codes to present a picture of feminine desire that, to this day, remains beyond the scope of the art-historical canon. In the early ’60s, Schneemann’s “action” paintings, some embedded with images of nude female figures, literally moved from surface to environment, and her staging of work from static objects to interactive events. Along with her colleagues in the Judson Dance Theater, she pioneered crossovers from music, theater, and dance to art. Transferring the orgiastic qualities in her art from paint to the performance of “her own body,” Schneemann broke ground in charged Dionysian extravaganzas that yielded some of the most memorable and challenging images of the period: serpents writhing over her nude body (Eye Body: Thirty-six Transformative Actions, 1963); an erotic flesh fest of entangled bodies, chickens, sausages, and fish (Meat Joy, 1964); a lecture-performance in which she discussed her work and posed questions to an audience such as “Does a woman have intellectual authority?” as she dressed and undressed (Naked Action Lecture, 1968). In Up To and Including Her Limits, 1976, Schneemann, nude and suspended in a harness, made enormous drawings by swinging in the air and swooping to mark the paper panels. In Interior Scroll, 1975, she unwound a scroll from her vagina and read a text about “vaginality.”

For many, the problem with her exuberant, Reichian-influenced, utopian-tinged abandon, lies in her “performance” of her own body. We need only glance at the historical record for proof that prior to Schneemann, the female body in art was mute and functioned almost exclusively as a mirror of masculine desire. (Think of Yves Klein’s manipulation of nameless female models as voluptuous paintbrushes for the production of his “Anthropométries” series in the early ’60s.) We have done a terrible injustice to ourselves in continuing to marginalize Schneemann as an “angry woman” or “bad girl.” To pigeonhole her art as aberrant is to risk reducing her oeuvre to sensationalism. To hem its complexities within the field of radical feminism puts a choke hold on our understanding of the precedents she established that inform a wide spectrum of contemporary practice, whether we look in the direction of Cheryl Donegan and Janine Antoni, or Sean Landers and Matthew Barney. Schneemann’s blanket of protection from decades of neglect and misrepresentation has been her sheer exuberance and focused search for the real through uberphysicality. I’m not sure that we, the audience, have fared so well.

Jan Avgikos