Because she did not have access to life models in art school, the first nudes Carolee Schneemann painted were the bodies she knew well — friends and lovers. Her hand held the brush but also the knowledge of intimate touch. These early works taught Schneemann that painting was not just for representing flesh but also for experiencing it. Even in the passage of Cézanne’s pastorals Schneemann felt the invitation to set the body into lurid motion. Still, art history books tried to tell her the opposite about her own body, namely that a woman’s beauty belonged on the far side of the picture plane. And so she chose to verse herself in her own sensual intuition, materializing the female nude in actual space. Schneemann, then, became the consummate auto-didact: subject and object of her process.
FEB. 13 – MAR 29, 2015
Carolee Schneemann’s best-known works include Meat Joy (1964), an orgiastic celebration of flesh featuring raw poultry, fish, wet paint, and human bodies, and Interior Scroll (1975), a twice-performed work that involved a series of life model “action poses” followed by a reading of feminist texts from a scroll slowly pulled from the artist’s vagina. These are now iconic touchstones of the artist’s oeuvre, in part because of the prominence of their photographic documentation in art history textbooks, where the works are typically cross-referenced in appendixes under feminist art or performance. And yet Schneemann has for years insisted that she is a painter, suggesting that some of her earliest intermedia works from the 1960s, including Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions and Glass Environment for Sound and Motion, can be traced back to her lifelong fascination with Paul Cézanne. While it’s now common for artists to claim that they’re painters — namely that they work in a variety of media “as painting” — Schneemann isn’t interested in destabilizing the term as such, but rather relates to the medium’s kinaesthetic pressures, to the ways in which an artist who paints becomes sensitized to light, motion, and how a body processes perception. This might be why Schneemann howled like a cat when I referred to her “art practice,” rejecting the term’s clinical, prescriptive and professionalizing associations. Doctors and lawyers have practices. She has a process, one that draws on morphologies of form and structure in biology and in musical composition; on the history of art and throwing the I Ching. It is a response to menstrual dreams, and to the way a brushstroke makes her whole body feel its motion. And so I was curious: what process enabled Schneemann, an icon of feminism, to both love Cézanne and to radically rethink the body as a tactile physical and imaged subject?
A clue appeared in the title of one of Schneemann’s early artist books, Cézanne: She Was a Great Painter. Published in 1975 at the apex of second-wave feminism, the book contains a selection of her writings up to that time, including letters to artists, poems, and prose that detail Schneemann’s struggles to work and make a life for herself amidst deep structural inequalities for women. The gender-bending title of Schneemann’s book was inspired by a poignant and hilarious story recounted in its introduction, about how she had, at the age of twelve, misidentified Cézanne as a woman — the “anne” seemingly of the feminine declension. Finding a famous woman artist that she could look up to had proven difficult until then, and so, heartened by the great woman painter Cézanne, Schneemann said to herself, “If Cézanne could do it, I can do it.”
It turned out that Schneemann would need the encouragement, especially after she was given a full scholarship to study art at Bard. Not only was she the first woman in her family to attend college, she had committed to a major that hardly seemed practical. There she eagerly took up painting and drawing alongside classes in French literature and art history. Works from this time demonstrate her interest in the all-over abstract compositions of contemporary Expressionists like Pollock and de Kooning, but she also experimented with painting from life, engaging flattened perspective and affecting colors in ways that signaled the influence of the post-Impressionists.
Painting from life, however, presented its own difficulties. Being an art student, Schneemann wanted to study the nude figure, to train her eye and hand to follow its curves and capture its dimensions. But according to Schneemann, Bard was a literary place where novelists like Saul Bellow held court, and the administration was not interested in investing in life models for the art department. So she improvised, doing what female painters in nineteenth-century art academies might have done when denied access to the nude models enjoyed by their male counterparts: she waited for her lover to sleep so she could paint him. In these works, her eye follows the contours of his reclining figure and painting invariably becomes a kind of touch, her gaze caressing his resplendent torso in shades of emerald, ochre, and alizarin. There are dozens of paintings and drawings like these from the late 1950s of her longtime partner and artistic collaborator James Tenney. Looking at these works now, their youthful passion and unselfconscious eroticism is undeniable, qualities that Schneemann would draw out again a decade later in Fuses (1965), a film that merged structuralist aesthetics with genital pleasure.
When Schneemann finally shared her sensual watercolors and drawings with her professors in a critique, she was told they were narcissistic and unacceptable. (One wonders whether the bigger problem was the works themselves or the sexual relationship to which they alluded.) Schneemann responded in a subsequent crit by presenting a life-size nude self-portrait — if a man couldn’t be painted naked, perhaps a female artist could? An expulsion letter arrived shortly thereafter, and although the college did not provide an explicit reason for her forced leave of absence, it was clear that women were expected to work within certain limits.
Schneemann continued to paint, and after a conciliatory stint at Columbia — where, to her delight, they had life models — she was invited back to Bard and graduated in 1959. She went on to get an MFA from the University of Illinois, and finally settled on 29th Street in Manhattan in a large loft-space previously occupied by a furrier. Letters and performance notes from the early 1960s indicate that Schneemann was becoming more sensitized to the body, and working towards what she called an “empathetic-kinesthetic vitality.” She had arrived at that idea through painting landscapes and figures, and via the writing of thinkers like Wilhelm Reich, who likened the body to an “investigating living plasma feeling out its environment.” Schneemann was pursuing a synesthetic understanding of seeing-as-touching, not unlike how Euclid and Hipparchus believed the eye emitted a substance that felt what it saw; illumination as a grasping, haptic dance across surfaces.
Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions is one of the first works that Schneemann completed in her New York studio and, in its examination of how the body becomes attuned to images and feels them visually, is the culmination of this early period of questioning. It is also an important artistic document of how a woman artist identified, or did not, with the history of image-making, and with being the object of the gaze while rarely doing the making — or the gazing back, for that matter. The work foreshadowed future performances in which Schneemann’s body was presented as both material and subject. A year after her 1961 performance in Claes Oldenberg’s Store, where she stood on a shelf amidst oversized cakes, lamb-chops, flags, and shoes — an excessive painterly environment if ever there was one — Schneemann was in her studio experimenting with her body in front of a large painting made of four fur cutting boards with moving umbrellas and Christmas lights. The scene was visually overwhelming: there were piles of fur scraps, desks overflowing with painting supplies and collected junk, stored artworks, easels and sawhorses, and Schneemann contributed to it by covering herself with paint and garden snakes. For a painter whose eye was acutely attuned to the tactility and motion of the dimensional picture plane, this was a sensual pleasure palace.
Schneemann invited at least two artists to photograph her entanglement with this environment. In December 1963, she encouraged her friend Erró, a painter, to photograph her physical transformations for the camera, and thirty-six of his shots became the work now known as Eye Body. Before this, however, the first person to photograph Schneemann amidst the furs, lightbulbs, paint and broken mirrors was A.V. Sobolewski, a photographer whose 1962 images were only discovered a couple of years ago tucked away in a flat file in Schneemann’s studio. These images lack the aggressive frontal quality of Erró’s pictures, but they recall the ambiguity of looking at a painting, when the eye vacillates between the intricacies of a work’s abstract brushwork and its overall composition. In one picture, Schneemann’s kneeling twisted torso nearly blends in with the large gestural marks surrounding her, her body both literally and metaphorically merging with the painterly environment. This is in no small part a return to Cézanne, a painter she admired for the way his broken planes of color sent the eye roaming around the canvas, creating a sense of destabilizing motion. Here, the metonymic excursions of the eye are reconnected with the sensuous body. The work also performs the difficulty of Schneemann’s bifurcated process, and gestures at the problem it poses to historicization: pictures scanned too quickly are read as “feminist,” overlooking the phenomenological nature of the work. In reality, however, something far more complicated is taking place.
This material symbiosis of the painted environment and the self operative in Eye Body and in many of Schneemann’s intermedia performances approaches what Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls “flesh” (chair) in his late essay “Eye and Mind.” In it he posits that the intimate reciprocity of subject and object — or in Schneemann’s case, maker and material —precedes the identification of particular beings. This reciprocity intensifies the body’s connection to a carnal “anonymous visibility,” as Merleau-Ponty puts it, something felt when the body switches between looking and being looked at, touching and being touched. In fact, Merleau-Ponty thought painters were particularly attuned to this animistic merging with their surroundings, speculating that because Cézanne gazed so intently at the trees, he not only saw them but began to envision the world from their perspective. Schneemann’s writing about her work reflects a similar affective intertwining with her environment: “I say ‘I use materials’ but I often sense that they use me as vision from which they re-emerge in a visual world which could not speak without them.” Her work uses and concretizes this field of vision as “horizontals, verticals, pressure, tortion, pulse and color move to sustain an image as a habitation.”
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that when Schneemann entered the Artist’s Institute for the first time, she was immediately taken with its idiosyncratic architecture––low-slung heating pipes jutting out across the ceiling, the underside of a dusty staircase hidden behind a bookshelf, the sensation of compression that comes with stepping down into a Lower East Side version of an English basement. We took a hammer to the fireplace, whose brick interior had been temporarily drywalled over, creating what we considered to be the perfect nook for a cat. This process of feeling-looking gave way to a vision: since the Institute’s landscape of uneven surfaces and odd architectural features produced the very kind of stretch and motility Schneemann sought in art, why not intensify its impressions on the body, and juxtapose colors that would “grind in on the senses” (as Schneemann once described her love of motion)? Colors were selected for their vibrancy, and as the artist remarked, the Benjamin Moore names were so delicious you almost wanted to eat them: Mandarin Orange, Passion Plum, Pineapple Grove, and Lemon. The floors would be a deep purple — Her Majesty — a fitting foundation for Schneemann’s creation.
Walking into this painterly environment brings one physically closer to Schneemann’s territory: it denies the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, and the related binary of concept versus materialist process that was especially pronounced at the beginning of Schneemann’s career and continues to attend discussions of art. As with so much of Schneemann’s work, the prescribed formal conceit, the institutional limit — here, the white box — is broken open, its conventions dismantled so that it can be felt from the inside, so that it moves. This, of course, is not a fixed strategy or practice, but rather part of Schneemann’s continuing exploration, her desire to feel as she sees. — Jenny Jaskey
FEB 27, 6:00 – 8:00 PM
POETRY PARADE FOR HORTENSE FIQUET AT THE MET
Organized by A.K. Burns and Katherine Hubbard. A complete schedule of readings will be posted online prior to the event.
As a young girl searching for female painters in the pantheon of art history, Carolee Schneemann mistook Cézanne for a woman’s name, “Céz-Anne.” Later, in the early 70s, she re-appropriated her childhood confusion as a banner for exploring how women had been misrepresented in the arts, publishing a collection of writings titled Cézanne: She Was a Great Painter. On the occasion of the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition Madame Cézanne, The Artist’s Institute revisits the significance of Schneemann’s alternative readings of art and artifacts with a new iteration of the live reading series Poetry Parade by A.K Burns and Katherine Hubbard. Moving through several of the Met’s galleries, the parade will present readings by nine artists and thinkers who have paired texts with works in the museum’s collection, engaging them, either as homage, confrontation or companion. Taking Madame Cézanne’s maiden name, Poetry Parade for Hortense Fiquet, reconsiders the contributions of women in the arts, not as muses, props, wives, or possessions but as active participants.
MAR 20, 7:00 PM
CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN PERFORMATIVE LECTURE
205 Hudson Street, Hunter Studios Auditorium, 2nd floor. Sponsored by the Kossak Painting Fund at Hunter College.
There’s a certain recursive logic underlying the fact that Carolee Schneemann remains her own best historian. Her artwork is always in part a study of the body that produces it. Still, the various meanings of Schneemann’s works often only reveal themselves to her years or even decades after the fact. In this way, her embodied practice — guided by dreams, visions, and coincidences — also makes her like the historian who can only search for meaning a postiori. In this performative lecture Schneemann she will discuss the symbolic and associative links that she continues to uncover amongst her varied works.
Color Palette Environment, 2015. Site-specific installation
Reclining Nude, 1956. Acrylic and crayon on rag paper. Courtesy C. Schneemann and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York
Figure, 1958. Ink on rag paper. Courtesy C. Schneemann and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York
Summer Landscape, 1958. Ink on paper. Courtesy C. Schneemann and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York
Untitled, 1962. Gelatin silver print. Photo by A.V. Sobolewski. Courtesy C. Schneemann and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York
Untitled, 1962. Gelatin silver print. Photo by A.V. Sobolewski. Courtesy C. Schneemann and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York
Beautiful Women in Art, Vol I & II, trans. H. Twitchell (Boston: L.C. Page Company, 1902) From the library of Carolee Schneemann