Carolee Schneemann’s Unforgivable Art

Jeff Nagy

There’s this old joke. The set-up is always the same: two guys walk into an exhibition catalog. Here’s one version, as told by Carolee Schneemann to Kenneth White in spring of last year, about Happenings and Fluxus, the Harald Szeemann–curated 1970 exhibition in Cologne:

 

So one morning we were sitting around the lunch table, where I was hoping somebody would buy us lunch, and each guy left the table for a little while and went off in one of the adjacent rooms, and came back smiling. It was like some porno joke. And then the next one went, came back, smiling. [Allan] Kaprow went first. And then [Wolf] Vostell. And then finally Al Hansen went. And I said, what is it if Al is going? I should certainly go too. And I said, Al, what is it? And he said, well we’ve just all signed contracts with the publisher, concerning this exhibit and our work. And I said, oh shit, no one talked to me! And he said, well I think I’m the last one they talked to. So it’s the same old thing. The same old crap. They were all getting intensive documentation for the book project that was underway. And whatever I could put together, John and I had to shoot it ourselves, and we were too busy, or too hungry or something.

 

The catalogue that ensued provided a decade of retrospective grist for the art-historical mill that would eventually canonize Kaprow and Vostell alongside fellow participants Claes Oldenburg and Nam June Paik, while leaving Schneemann in relative obscurity. Increasingly recognized as a key innovator of broad swathes of contemporary production, whose work spans post–Abstract Expressionism and neo-Dada, Happenings, Fluxus, and Aktionism, experimental and expanded cinema, performance, dance, and body art, and a dozen or so other disparate genres and movements, Schneemann is only now beginning to benefit from the careful documentation and critical attention that were bestowed from a back room on Allan, Wolf, and Al.

Schneemann’s own contribution in Cologne, Meat System I: Electronic Activation Room, coproduced with John Lifton, remained largely invisible, although the details we do have about it suggest that it reflected a sardonic ambivalence to movements, like Happenings or Fluxus, that were often content to marginalize or erase her. In a letter to Szeemann before the exhibition, she drily described it as “a simplified auto-documentation environment.” With some retrospective irony in the context of an exhibition that would deny her proper documentation, the installation mashed up past work in such a way as to make it a maximally unfriendly archive. And far from “simplified,” the installation was brilliantly, disorientingly complex: a phantasmagorical miniature solo retrospective in a trailer-sized space.

<i>Carolee Schneemann’s</i> Fuses<i>, 1966</i>. Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York

Visiting it sounds a bit like losing yourself in a Duchamp box-in-a-suitcase portable museum while trying to come down from a bad trip: in a small room made even smaller by the addition of a temporary fourth wall, scattered with transparent inflatables and heaps of dishwashing soap flakes that obstructed the movement of visitors, Schneemann’s autobiographical experimental erotic film Fuses played superimposed on her antiwar quasi-structuralist collage of Vietnam atrocities, Viet-Flakes. Slide carousels projected photographs of three mid-’60s kinetic theater pieces—Snows, Meat Joy, and Water Light / Water Needle—through a motorized mirror box that scattered them across the room’s walls, themselves covered in loosely affixed, peeling white paper that further fractured the images. The system was equipped with motion sensors, so that a spectator’s own stumbling progress through the space triggered the kaleidoscopic fragmentation and recombination of images that made any individual work unseeable, hashed into the general flood of visual information.

Forty-six years after Cologne, Schneemann is in the fifth decade of her pioneering career. Her kinetic theater and performance pieces from the mid-’60s through the mid-’70s, some of which provided the base material recombined in Meat System I, have become touchstones for generations of artists, particularly younger feminist artists. Karen Finley, Cindy Sherman, Tracey Emin, and Marina Abramović, not to mention Paul McCarthy or Matthew Barney: all seem to have taken some inspiration for their diverse practices from Schneemann’s. Although many of the artists she’s influenced have been the subjects of lavish retrospectives in major museums, her own work has often suffered from spotty documentation and institutional neglect.

Aside from a truncated exhibition at the New Museum in 1996, her first serious, scholarly retrospective took place only last year, at the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg. David Levi Strauss has described her influence as “so pervasive that it has become invisible,” while she has been simultaneously tarred as “superficial for having moved among so many different media,” an accusation that, as Strauss points out, would never have been made against similarly wide-ranging male contemporaries. Her interviews from past decades document just how many times she met with “the same old thing”: a crap spectrum that ranges from logistical micro-aggressions like delayed reimbursements and forgotten per diems to full-blown overt misogyny in the art worlds through which Schneemann has traveled since the mid-’50s. The interviews also reveal just how those structural currents contrived to push her to the margins of the grand narratives of Experimental Art in the second half of the 20th century.

If Schneemann, as the title of a 2007 show had it, “Remains to Be Seen,” two new monographs provide a fuller overview of her work from the ’50s to the present than has ever been available before. Kinetic Painting, edited by the Museum der Moderne’s Sabine Breitwieser, stems from the retrospective of the same name and presents a generous selection of images documenting the full span of Schneemann’s career, reproduced alongside her own notes and commentary and short essays from Breitwieser, Branden Joseph, Mignon Nixon, Ara Osterweil, and Judith Rodenbeck. In reprinting Schneemann’s own fascinating and theoretically rich reflections, Kinetic Painting wisely follows the format of 2001’s Imaging Her Erotics, until now the best single volume documenting her work. A complete exhibition timeline and bibliography round out this carefully collected, scrupulous presentation of Schneemann’s prolific career, making it an invaluable resource for future scholarly work.

SCHNEEMANN’S PROGRAM HAS BEEN INSISTENTLY IGNORED AND WILLFULLY MISUNDERSTOOD, BUT THAT IT ALSO PUT HER IN DANGER IS A SIGN OF THE LIBERATORY POTENTIAL OF HER LIFE AND WORK: SHE HAS LITERAL SKIN IN THE GAME.

Unforgivable, edited by Kenneth White, draws on Schneemann’s personal archives to present a wide-ranging overview divided into five overlapping thematic sections: interviews and correspondence, painting, cinema, sites, and technological processes. While it’s not always perfectly clear why a work appears under one heading and not another, the porous boundaries between what White calls Schneemann’s “zones of carnal knowledge” feel appropriate. White also reprints a selection of reviews and essays under each thematic heading, many of which originally appeared in hard-to-get or now out-of-print catalogs and special issues of scholarly journals. Some of these grapple with Schneemann’s body of work as a whole, like Maura Reilly’s consideration of her claim to be always, first and foremost, a painter. Others pay close attention to a single work or group of works. This approach is especially valuable for complex but little-seen performances (e.g., Erica Levin’s essay on the mid-’60s kinetic theater piece Snows) or for quasi-conceptual pieces whose apparent simplicity hides depths of critical insight and feeling (Stéphane Aquin on 2001’s controversial 9/11 “photographic grid as eulogy,” Terminal Velocity).

Ara Osterweil’s excellent essay is particularly sensitive to the fleshy monism and density of thought in one of Schneemann’s most well-known films, Fuses, reading it, in relation to Linda Williams’s theorization of hardcore, as a feminist choice for “sensual immersion over scopic mastery.” Kenneth White’s concluding essay reconstructs two little-seen and poorly documented works, the kinetic theater piece Lateral Splay and Meat System I, described here above, reading them as trenchant critiques of the dehumanization and misogyny inherent in technological, cybernetic regimes ascendant after the Second World War.

The thematic organization of Unforgivable invites a reader to discover the continuities in Schneemann’s career’s disjunctions, the ley lines that have organized the full range of her work. White’s volume presents her autobiographical explorations of female sexuality and erotic taboos, from Fuses (1964–7) to Infinity Kisses (1981–7), alongside pieces shot through with political outrage and meditations on complicity and culpability, from Viet-Flakes (1965) and Snows (1967) to War Mop (1983) and Terminal Velocity (2001). By not drawing any clear demarcations between these two main impulses, Unforgivable repeats Schneemann’s own explicit refusal to separate them—a refusal that, according to David Levi Strauss, has rendered her “perennially unacceptable.”

Schneemann’s unique melding of Dionysian ecstasy and feminist rage has always inspired strong reactions, and critics, members of the public, and other artists have repeatedly referred to her work as narcissistic, exploitative, and obscene. An abridged catalog of reactions to a single film, culled from her interviews and essays: at a 1969 Cannes screening of Fuses, men in the audience nearly rioted, ripping up the seats with razors, apparently disappointed it wasn’t the titillating hardcore they’d been led to expect; Schneeman had to flee the auditorium, alongside Susan Sontag. At the Institute of Contemporary Art, an audience member theatrically took his leave during the question-and-answer session, accusing her, somewhat oxymoronically, of being a “deranged frigid nymphomaniac,” while a young critic spat, “Madam, you have assaulted my sexuality.” Twenty years later Fuses was still incendiary: when Schneemann attempted to show it at the 1989 Moscow Film Festival it was quickly removed from the bill amid all sorts of bureaucratic stonewalling. Mme. Lavritskaya, the director of Soviet Sexual Education Programs, accused her of being a “pornographer and dangerous woman,” in that order.

<i>Carolee Schneemann’s</i> Meat Joy<i>, 1964</i>. Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York

Opposition to Schneemann’s practice creates strange bedfellows, and both feminists and conservative establishment critics have at times found her work abhorrent. Interior Scroll, one of her now most well-known performances, in which Schneemann, nude and streaked with body paint, assumed a series of action model poses while reading a feminist manifesto off a scroll uncoiled from her vagina, divided the audiences of each of its two presentations along paradoxical lines. At the East Hampton Women’s Art Festival in 1975, some women were enraptured, others outraged. Schneemann recalls having been accused of “playing into the most prurient of male fantasies,” and even Agnès Varda, director of feminist New Wave classics like Cléo de 5 à 7 and, later, Sans toit ni loi, “hated the piece” and deemed it irredeemably obscene. On the other hand, an ecstatic banker gushed to the artist that he finally understood tickertape, unwittingly putting a finger on the interlocking patriarchal systems of finance capital and women’s unwaged reproductive and domestic labor that depend on what Osterweil called, in her essay on Fuses, “the instrumentalization of the female body—as both meat and money”—a chiasmus that Schneemann’s career has been largely dedicated to critiquing.

Undoubtedly the most extreme public reaction occurred during a performance of Meat Joy, when a member of the audience leapt on Schneemann and began to strangle her. “Steeped in the writings of Wilhelm Reich, I understood what had affected him, but not how to break his hold on my neck!” Three women, intuiting that the assault was not a part of the performance, pulled the man off of her.

These reactions, from the petty to the murderous, shouldn’t be dismissed as simply bizarre, or indicative of a provincialism we’ve now left behind. They crystallize something about the way in which her work is actively, powerfully political at the same time that it’s intimately, physically personal. Schneemann’s program has been insistently ignored and willfully misunderstood, but that it also put her in danger, provoking disgust to the extent that she was the object of censorship and even violence, is a sign of the liberatory potential of her life and work: she has literal skin in the game. As White writes in the introduction to Unforgivable, her works “center powerfully, and most controversially, on her use of the human body—often her own.” In this she had few contemporaries and almost no predecessors, and the AbEx establishment Schneemann first came up in was notoriously suspicious of women who wanted more in art than to serve as life models, purveyors of domestic and affective labor, or Waspy gallery-owning patrons. Jan Avgikos, writing in 1997 for Artforum, declared that, “prior to Schneemann, the female body in art was mute and functioned almost exclusively as a mirror of masculine desires.” The extremists in her audience understood that her use of her own body was not mere narcissism, and nothing as amenable to the status quo as obscenity. They metabolized, however circuitously, the threat that it presented to who they were and what they thought a woman’s body was for. In her daring to “Combine” herself into her work, she elaborated new roles unimagined for women by patriarchy, and new uses of women’s bodies for women themselves: “I posit my female body as a locus of autonomy, pleasure, desire; and insist that as an artist I can be both image and image maker.” This precisely is an assault on the young critic’s sexuality, insofar as that sexuality depends, as one suspects it does, on refusing autonomy, pleasure, and desire to women.

While MANY ARTISTS she INFLUENCED HAVE enjoyed LAVISH RETROSPECTIVES IN MAJOR MUSEUMS, Schneemann’s WORK HAS SUFFERED FROM SPOTTY DOCUMENTATION AND INSTITUTIONAL NEGLECT.

This crux of her work, obscurely understood by those who censured or censored her, often escaped the notice of her male contemporaries, even those who were early supporters of her career. It was reportedly her discomfort with Stan Brakhage’s use of her body in traditional heterosexual gender roles in Cat’s Cradle and Loving that led her to make Fuses, and Interior Scroll pulls no punches for the “structuralist filmmaker” whose “work has no meaning beyond / the logic of its systems,” who cannot be bothered with Schneemann’s “dense gestalt” of “DIET AND DIGESTION.” For some of these, as Schneemann herself has put it, “my use of the body displaced my body of work. Writing in a letter about Up to and Including Her Limits, poet and sometime Schneemann correspondent Clayton Eshleman asserted that her investigation of temporal processes must “to a great extent hinge upon the necessity for you to show your naked body,” a not-so-subtle neg, as if to say, So, Carolee, you think you’re doing something intellectual, critical; we think you’re fit but you know it. Schneemann responded, understandably exasperated: “You insist you see what you see. I have expended all this energy because you DID NOT ACTUALLY SEE ‘Up to and Including Her Limits’… I do not ‘show’ my naked body! I AM BEING MY BODY.” Instead of finally choosing to see the import of Schneemann’s collapse of artist and medium, body and image in a dense gestalt that does not distinguish mind from meat, Eshleman, not easily daunted, wrote back with a misogynistic poem featuring a thinly disguised Schneemann as its subject. In the same letter, he offers to dedicate it to her, if she’d like.

When even her colleagues displayed such obstinate misogyny, you can understand the cathartic aggression of an auto-documentation environment like Meat Systems I that collaged her work into remains not-to-be-seen. What to do if the body eclipses the body of work, if the work is invisible to even to the most adverted viewer? The piece suggests it might be better to create an environment that substitutes the viewer’s own body, knee-deep and stumbling through soap-flake snow—through Schnee, the ambient remains of a Schneemann, a dispersed snowman—for the matter it was supposed to present. Why continue trying to expose you to what you are unable or refuse to see? It’s our good fortune that Schneemann never did and still hasn’t stopped going too far, hitting us where we least like it, in the meat.