An Interview with Carolee Schneemann
I first became familiar with the late Carolee Schneemann’s work in a 2015 undergraduate survey of twentieth-century art at Bard College, where the artist herself had studied in the late 1950s and early ’60s. We watched a clip of her wildly exciting, iconic performance from 1964, Meat Joy. In the recording, naked bodies writhe around on the floor, raw meat and fish between their thighs: it’s a funny scene of strange, erotic mayhem. Until that point in the survey, I don’t think we’d seen any work in which people were laughing. The image of joy was striking.
Throughout her sixty-year career, Schneemann (1939–2019) made radically feminist work dealing with issues of language, the body, and female sexuality. While many of her fellow women artists were determined to make it into the boys’ club of abstract expressionism (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell), Schneemann focused on carving out a space for herself within the discipline of painting and beyond it. Always interested in movement and motion, she was more inclined to work in performance and video, involving herself with Happenings and Fluxus, the midcentury artistic movement that emphasized situation-based performance art and process rather than object. By experimenting with the new media of the avant-garde, Schneemann freed herself from the rigid aesthetic conventions of traditional painting and sculpture.
Schneemann was ahead of her time, which makes placing her in art history complex. Schneemann’s career is representative of the generation of female artists who were making groundbreaking feminist work, often using their own bodies as material. For better or worse, Schneemann has become an avatar of feminist revisionist projects conducted by later generations of writers and curators who have recognized her significance. She was not embraced by traditional art historians or feminist critics until figures like Marcia Tucker1 championed her work in the ’90s. Her only retrospective exhibition in the US happened in 2017, two years before she died, almost as if she had been waiting for it. In the catalog for her 1996–1997 exhibition at the New Museum, organized by Tucker, Dan Cameron writes of her delayed reception:
The urgency of this need is perhaps an authentic example of those rare occasions in art history when an artistic development that challenges accepted practice and has thereby been deliberately and systematically confined to the margins of collective discourse is suddenly rushed to the forefront decades after the fact, carried aloft on the shoulders of a new generation eager to identify with the purported act of transgression that led to the earlier artist’s exclusion in the first place.
In the 1970s, Schneemann was already imagining this new generation, anticipating her work’s late appreciation. In her manifesto “Women in the Year 2000,” first printed in 1972, Schneemann writes to a future, twenty-first-century student of art history:
The negative aspect is simply that the young woman coming to these vital studies will never really believe that we, in our desperate groundwork, were so crippled and isolated; that a belief and dedication to a feminine istory of art was despised by those who might have taught it and considered heretical and false by those who should have taught it. That our deepest energies were nurtured in secret, with precedents we kept secret—our lost women. Now found and to be found again.
The term istory reflects Schneemann’s ongoing interest in the act of self-recording, the discourse of abstraction, and the project of feminist historical revision. In the mid-’70s, Schneemann self-published a book comprising letters and writings about women’s relationship to the history of art and how she sees herself as a female artist. Titled Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter, the text is a kind of history book. In it, Schneemann is the creator of her own history, recording and documenting her work and life instead of expecting someone else to do it for her.
She begins with her origin story as an artistic prodigy, writing that as a child she was drawing before she could talk and that she wanted to be like the “great artists” she had heard about. She’d assumed these great artists were women, that the “-anne” of “Cézanne” connoted female. In the innocence of childhood, she’d wondered why Cézanne was not a woman: “If Cézanne could do it, I could do it.” She discusses language and the gendered amendments we make to categorize women—the “-ess” suffix on the “neutral” male title. In the piece, Schneemann wants to break down this language and the sturdiness of these categories. As such, she consistently writes “art istory” instead of “history,” altering the “his” in the word.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Ms. Schneemann in 2018. We discussed her early career, her days as a Bardian, and the bittersweetness of her overdue reception. I like to think of myself as the young woman of the twenty-first century that Schneemann imagined back in 1972, aiming to uncover the work of artists like herself, and to recognize that their “istory” was so often negated and neglected.
THE BELIEVER: You began making paintings around the height of abstract expressionism. What was your relationship to that kind of work?
CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN: From the time I was a child, the images in my work have always been involved with motion and movement. When I make a line or a stroke, it’s a physical event for me that changes my temporal experience, re-creating the definition of time and space or space as time. Joan Mitchell2 was really important to me. I was searching for what I call “missing precedents” when I was in college. I got a scholarship to Bard, then I got kicked out for moral turpitude, but you knew that.
BLVR: Oh, no, I didn’t!
CS: That was my junior year, 1959 to 1960. They never explained to me what that “moral turpitude” was. I was hoping it was “moral turpentine.” I didn’t realize until about twenty years later, when I got an award from Bard, that [that characterization] was about my naked self-portraits. Bard had no life drawing course, so I would pose as my own model. It was a very explicit kind of study I was doing. They were stolen very quickly. I think the guys got hold of them. All my naked self-portraits disappeared, and I think that was the moral turpitude. I had to leave, but they told me I could come back and graduate. So I had an amazing junior year living in New York City.
That’s when I began searching in the art world—when I learned there was an art world—for women artists. I found there was always one anomalous woman that might be accepted into a strong-male-artist group. Well, each one that I discovered had an affiliation with a male publisher, writer, or producer who fought for his sweetheart’s work. Other than that, they seemed to be trembling on a branch that was about to be cut off at any moment. And that’s consistent with my understanding of art history until feminist principles readapted my thinking.
BLVR: Did you ever take art history at Bard?
CS: They didn’t have art history, but there was a little library in the basement of one of the dorms that had every book on the subject. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I found the European tradition of invisible women painters. I found a whole realm of women painters in foreign textbooks. I looked for the female names in German, Dutch, and Italian. As my research increased, I saw that all these women painters were also always affiliated with a father, a brother, or an uncle who recognized their talent and who let them weave lace collars or make paintings of flowers in a vase.
BLVR: You were sort of building your own lineage and finding your own precedents.
CS: Yes, that’s right; it was very radical. I would change the genders when I believed the attributions were incorrect. I went to the Brooklyn Museum and saw all the Egyptian miscalculations. I said, “No, this is not a dancing girl; this is a pregnant woman sculpting her body; this is a woman artist doing time-factored elements.” I reaccredited the art history that I began to study.
BLVR: That’s great. That’s what feminist art historians were doing in the early ’70s. Reformation and reattribution became the most important methods regarding art history.
CS: Yes. I was very influenced by Simone de Beauvoir. Her book The Second Sex was like a bible for me, one of exclusion and reattribution. At the same time, I was studying [Antonin] Artaud. His writings radicalized my ideas of image-making and action, as did the political and sexual theories of Wilhelm Reich. [James] Tenney and I were sharing all these studies with each other. These texts helped me when I was constantly dismissed and advised not to make work. My Bard professor said, “Don’t set your heart on art. You’re only a girl,” and he was the sympathetic one!
BLVR: Did you find a group of women artists or peers in New York?
CS: They would become peers, but when we first met one another, we sat around in our little dresses, smoking cigarettes while our boyfriends talked. I was in groups with Eva Hesse3 and women who were going to become recognized for their work, but in the early days we hardly knew what one another was doing. And Lucy Lippard4 wrote about only male artists at that time.
That’s sort of weird history, right?
BLVR: Yes. Well, she sort of shifted her thinking once she was able to recognize her bias.
CS: Yes, she really did shift, but in the beginning, it was really harsh for me because I would be excluded. I’d be walking up the stairs to a loft gathering she was hosting, and Lucy would say, “It’s just the guys tonight—sorry.” It’s hard to believe now how extreme it was.
You know, my best friends at Bard were the boy painters. I was in love with an amazing artist, who was really an inspiration to me, named Wayne Battelle, a wonderful, insightful, steady painter. Steve Burr too. These were my best friends, but they would steal my brushes and books. They would say, “We need this more than you do.” They would ask me to sew buttons on their jackets.
BLVR: I’m wondering what you think about your own reception, and if there are certain periods of your work that haven’t gotten as much attention as you expected or felt they deserved.
CS: Well, it has been horrible and really difficult. I struggled with painting; it was never easy. I had a very rigorous expectation of perception and materiality, but it had to be keenly articulated. I was always clear about that from the very beginning, and that was appreciated and supported. But my appreciation has really happened this year. This is big appreciation time, and, you know, they wait until you’re nearly dead. Suddenly there is a whole resurgence of appreciation for women artists—not only myself, but a whole series of generations.
BLVR: It seems sort of bittersweet, this recognition.
CS: Yes, exactly: it’s very bittersweet. I’ve had only one commission to produce work in all these years, and had my work been more appreciated, I would have been realizing so much more. I have—I had—so many plans and designs and fabrications that I couldn’t afford to realize. In the early days, I certainly couldn’t afford the best quality of paint, and I could never afford matting and framing, and I kept a lot of work in boxes I found on the street. So when curators came to see the early work, they thought it was a mess and that I didn’t have good production values. My generation of artists was very influenced by the city, because New York would throw stuff out and leave it out. And then I was living up here in the countryside for all those years, going back and forth. So I’ve always had the country in my vision.
BLVR: What are you working on now?
CS: [Laughs] I’m trying to organize more than three hundred of my works that were used for the [MoMA PS1] exhibit. There is no archive of my work in galleries, so I’m trying to sort things. It’s chaos and crazy chaos!