In 1960s America, when the word “vagina” was still banned in movies, Carolee Schneemann made a film of her and her husband having sex whilst being watched by Kitch their cat. Her aim was to capture the intimacy of lovemaking, without “objectification or fetishization of the woman.” A silent tribute to her sexual and emotional relationship with the composer James Tenney, the work marked a turning point. A layering of abstract impressions that manages more than any other film to capture “the sexual streamings of the body’s mind.”

Fuse won an award at Cannes in 1969 despite the scandal that erupted over its cunnilingus scene—a scene that prompted her friend Andy Warhol to remark drily, that she should take it to Hollywood. But long before that award, Schneemann had been using her naked body to challenge the mechanization of the female form, and to focus on the taboo area of female sexual pleasure and the liberating possibilities of the female body. “Prior to Schneemann,” wrote the critic Jan Avgikos in 1997, “the female body in art was mute and functioned almost exclusively as a mirror of masculine desire.”

On the left Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy, 1964 and on the right Carolee Schneemann, Up to and Including Her Limits, 1973-1977

Born in 1939 in Pennsylvania, Schneemann attended Bard College on a full scholarship in 1959, where there “were never any women teachers”. While studying she found her paintbrushes and art books were stolen by her boyfriends who said they needed them “more than you do.”

She soon rejected the so-called “phallus” of the paint brush to concentrate on being a performance artist—a term she has grown to dislike. “I don’t want to be a performance artist,” she once remarked, “some sexualized person who has to perform.” From this male-dominated realm Schneemann moved to New York in 1961 where she became involved in the avant-garde downtown art scene in film, dance, and happenings, working alongside Yoko Ono and Claes Oldenburg. But the struggle did not stop there, and she once memorably described herself as being like the “cunt mascot on the men’s art team”.  

Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975, Taken from a Suite of 13 gelatin silver prints, Edition of 7

As far back as the 1950s, when she was suspended from Bard College for painting a naked self-portrait with her legs wide open, she has sought to reduce the separation that existed between the artist and what’s made. An attitude that has stemmed from a refusal to “ask anyone else to do what I myself would not do and using myself as subject, as material.” This position was remarkably ahead of its time, producing a hybrid form of performance, painting and photography that cast her body in the main role.

Now after decades of being largely overlooked by the museums and collectors and becoming—in her words—an “artist’s artist”, the announcement that she will be awarded this year’s Venice Biennale‘s Golden Lion For Lifetime Achievement by its curator, Christine Macel, cements her place as “one of the most important figures in the development of performance and body art”.  

Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, 1967. Via: YouTube

Why it has taken so long for her to be recognized as a trailblazer is at least partly due to her having been written off as “just a feminist artist”, without gauging the influence she has exerted over performance art. The writhing orgy that was her film Meat Joy may not have the shocking power it once possessed, but even today the eight barely attired men and women cavorting on the floor, biting raw chicken and dead fish is still startling. Man Ray and Eugène Ionesco were in the audience for its sensational first live performance in Paris in 1964.

What singles out such performances from the work of most other feminist artists is her focus on liberation and sexual expression—there was no negativity or attention given to the victimization of women. Meat Joy, probably her most famous work, “was simultaneously erotic, disgusting, comic, choreographed, and spontaneous. Meat Joy was a celebration of the flesh that verged on ecstatic ritual.”

Carolee Schneemann, Parallel Axis, 1973, 4 gelatin silver prints

It is surprising to think that her groundbreaking performances once put her at odds with many feminists who labelled them “narcisstic” and criticized her for “playing into male fantasies”. But it is just these performances which are being lauded by a new generation of feminists, especially her performance Interior Scroll, 1975, which saw Schneemann adopt a squatting stance, pull a rolled-up scroll from her vagina and read it out loud. The work located the source of the female artist’s imaginative and creative force within their own bodies. It is a milestone in the history of performance art, and one that gave women’s bodies “back to ourselves.”

In the press release to Christine Macel’s announcement of the award she states that Schneemann used the “naked body as a primal, archaic force that can unify energies.” Regardless of these accolades you can almost imagine Schneemann wincing with displeasure. Despite her efforts to the contrary, “people will be walking around wondering where that nude image is, it’s such a dominater.” But these pioneering performances made a huge leap forward, helping to liberate the female body from the fixation of male desire. Be prepared to hear a lot more about her in the coming months.  

Carolee Schneemann Kinetic Painting” at the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main can be seen from the 31st of May through to the 24th of September 2017. 


Duncan Ballantyne-Way – Senior Editor