New York

Carolee Schneemann

P.P.O.W./Carolina Nitsch Project Room

Carolee Schneemann is an original, and a nexus. Lissome banshee-progenitrix of Body Art and downtown doyenne whose influences span the New York School, the Judson Dance Theater, and contemporary performance, she can connect, say, Joseph Cornell (she met him when she was around twenty) and Matthew Barney (see Up To And Including Her Limits, 1971–76, her drawing-in-a-harness performance). After fifty years and counting of exhibiting, she remains “Carolee, naked and maenadian,” as Lucy Lippard apostrophized her in 1979. “Painting, What It Became” at P.P.O.W., curated by Maura Reilly, surveyed the development of Schneemann’s work from paintings of the late ’50s to the various media she contends with today. It bespoke an eminence already anointed not as seminal—that would be wrong, of course—but, to quote Jerome Rothenberg, as “germinal.”

Can we opine, then, that Schneemann is at last safely canonized? Not quite. Is it possible it’s best that way? I raise this question not to romanticize historical elision, nor to underestimate forces that might wish to demote her artwork—uneven, fervent, gynocentric as it is—from phenomenon to footnote. But her key performances seem now to occupy a remarkable position as simultaneously unassimilable and classic. These include Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions, 1963, Meat Joy, 1964, and Body Collage, 1967 (recent works in “Painting, What It Became” were mostly new prints of photographs documenting these actions), as well as Interior Scroll, 1975. It’s healthy for the art world to be confronted with conundrums so long lived.

Interior Scroll was not shown at P.P.O.W., but figured prominently in a concurrent exhibition of photographs and other documents, mostly from the ’70s, at Carolina Nitsch Project Room. Aficionados will remember that the text of Scroll, read aloud as Schneemann unfolded it from her vagina, recounts a conversation with “a happy man, a structuralist filmmaker.” “He protested / you are unable to appreciate / the system the grid / the numerical rational / procedures.” But, as demonstrated by the framed grids of tissues blotted with menstrual blood in Blood Work Diary, 1972, Schneemann had already recalibrated seriality into a bodily idiom—call it periodicity. The two exhibitions, taken together, brought such works alongside the early paintings, placing welcome emphasis on Schneemann’s art-historical discernment and foregrounding her career-long interest in extending AbEx gesture off the canvas into time and space.

Thus, shown at P.P.O.W., the diptych Animal Carnage & Kitch’s Dream, 1960, speaks of Pollock, and Krasner. Tenebration, 1961, copes with de Kooning. Fur Wheel, 1962, a fur-lined lampshade fringed with crushed cans (including Ballantine Ale cans) and rotating on a motorized arm, brashly pastiches Meret Oppenheim, Jasper Johns, and Marcel Duchamp. With their gloppy facture and attached detritus—here magazine clippings and underwear, there scrap lumber and snarls of audio tape—Sir Henry Francis Taylor, 1961, and One Window Is Clear—Notes to Lou Andreas Salomé, 1965, both forcefully summon Rauschenberg, though he might not have lionized the Victorian scientist photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, or the psychoanalyst-writer who befriended Nietzsche. Studded with torn umbrellas and a painted hubcap, the freestanding assemblage Untitled (Four Fur Cutting Boards), 1963, is also Rauschenbergian. But when she physically interacted with it for Eye Body, her first insertion of her body into painting’s visual field, Schneemann “Combined” herself.

Schneeman’s aim has always been total and participatory confrontation of all limits, undertaken in the spirit of reverent homage to grand tradition. For her this constitutes no paradox. And so her face, limbs, and torso—like the raw chicken in Meat Joy, the motorized mop in War Mop, 1983, and her cat’s tongue in Infinity Kisses—The Movie, 2008—stand in for the archetypal paintbrush, tool of orgiastic creativity. Such tropes of art as primal expenditure can feel overwrought, but then we have a fascinating problem. Appraising “Carolee” in all her avatars has come to seem metonymic for judging art of a certain kind, or era. 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.

Frances Richard