Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019)

May 23rd, 2020  |  Published in May 2020

I was asked to write this article on one of my favorite women artists. Without hesitation, I knew it would be about the late, great Carolee Schneemann. Carolee activated the female nude with a multidisciplinary practice that spanned sixty years including painting, assemblage, performance and film. She received her B.A. in poetry and philosophy from Bard College and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois. Originally a painter, she turned to performance-based work characterized by research into visual traditions, taboos and the body of the individual in relation to social bodies.

It is perhaps her performance-based art that brought Carolee’s work to my attention.  She was a visionary feminist and pioneer whose work has been exhibited worldwide.  Her comprehensive retrospective called “Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic  Paintings” traveled from Germany to MoMA Ps 1 in New York in 2018. I not only got to see this important and awe-inspiring exhibition in NY; I also have had the pleasure of being in her magnificent presence on several occasions. I have a couple of fond memories but getting to visit her home and studio in upstate NY was a jaw dropping and amazing experience. Carolee is remembered for a number of important creations from painting to films including “Meat Joy” in 1964 and “ Fuses” in 1967. I want to introduce you all to one of her great performance pieces called “ Interior Scroll”. In August of 1975 Carolee first performed at the art show “Women Here and Now” in East Hampton. She entered the performance space wrapped in a white sheet and carrying a bucket of mud. After undressing, she ritualistically painted her body with the mud and read from her book, “Cezanne, She was a Great Painter.” Schneemann then slowly extracted a scroll from her vagina and read a text that was a response to criticism from a male artist accusing her for her ethereal, and therefore traditionally feminine, use of the personal clutter/the persistence of feelings/the hand-touch sensibility/the diaristic indulgence/the painterly mess/the dense gestalt/the primitive techniques.  “Interior Scroll” was performed a second and last time at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado in 1977.

There is so much one can say and talk about in referencing Carolee. I thought it best to end with Carolee’s own words. She said, “I thought of the vagina in many ways, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation. I saw the vagina as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model: enlivened by its passage from the visible to the invisible, a spiraled coil ringed with the shape of desire and generative mysteries, attributes of both female and male sexual powers. This source of interior knowledge would be symbolized as the primary index unifying spirit and flesh in Goddess worship.”

–Sara Vance Waddell

Leave a Response