Carolee Schneemann by Coleen Fitzgibbon

BOMB 132 Summer 2015
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Flange 6rpm, 2011–13, foundry-poured aluminum sculptures, motors 6rpm, and projection, 48 × 28 × 36 inches. Images courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.

Carolee Schneemann’s extensive artistic oeuvre spans performance, film, painting, and sculpture from the 1960s to the present. After studying painting at the University of Illinois, Schneemann quickly embraced Fluxus happenings and performances in New York and expanded her work to include objects and media. I met Schneemann at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 1971, when she arrived as a visiting artist in the film department. Her screening of Fuses and her lectures on goddess mythologies caused protests among the all-male SAIC faculty but were eagerly attended by the entire student body. In the 1970s, when Schneemann lived in New York City with artist Anthony McCall, she introduced me to visual artists and filmmakers of the downtown scene. In 1974, I shot the film Trip to Carolee with Marjorie Keller while housesitting for Schneemann and taking care of her cat in New Paltz, New York.

Marielle Nitoslawska’s film Breaking the Frame (2012), a thoughtful and absorbing montage about Schneemann’s life and work, partly filmed in New Paltz, made me want to revisit some of the experiences and changes in the perception of women’s artwork that Schneemann and I have lived through over the past few decades.

— Coleen Fitzgibbon

Coleen Fitzgibbon Pat Steir once said that your problem in the male-dominated art world was that you were too beautiful. A recent Psychology Today article talked about the “beauty paradox”—how women are not accepted as leaders if they’re beautiful because they are expected to be “feminine.” And feminine women cannot be leaders because they’re not masculine.

Carolee Schneemann Well, it’s more complicated than that. If women are beautiful, they’re a source of arousal, and that distracts male purpose. Beauty is adhesive, it’s sticky. There’s also the traditional mind-body split. In order to be intellectually dependable, you can’t have a voluptuous, luscious, erotic body, because the split is between intelligence and sexuality.

CF As in Greek mythology, Athena is the goddess of wisdom and war, and Aphrodite the goddess of beauty and love. The Roman Vestal Virgins, priestesses of the goddess of the hearth Vesta, cultivated and guarded the sacred fires that protected Rome. Vestals took a vow of chastity and were free of obligations to marry and have children while they secured the continuation of Rome. They were virgin guardians, likely beautiful, but no sex.

CS That’s another demand—beauty was a requirement for sacred spirituality.

CF Your performances show the liberating effects of female sexual ecstasy. Your films FusesMeat JoyUp To And Including Her Limits, and Interior Scroll reveal, for me, the positive energies of sexuality and intelligence in women, and how they don’t have to be severed.

CS Well, I wouldn’t say it that way. I’d say that, in my work, the relationship between the performers, male and female, has an ecstatic, erotic aspect. It has nothing to do with female liberation as such, or women performing in a certain way. It has to do with a sensitized situation in which the participants practice relational spontaneity. It’s not about spontaneous expressivities; all participants experience a set of rigorous and intense exercises that sensitize us in terms of moving, shifting, handling bodies, and the taboos in regard to smells and being touched.

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Meat Joy NYC, 1964, kinetic theater. Photo by Al Giese.

CF One of your earliest pieces was Meat Joy in 1964, in Paris. Had you seen Yves Klein’s performances with nude women being dragged through blue paint?

CS I couldn’t have seen those performances, he died in 1962 and my first time in Europe was for the Festival of Free Expression, organized by Jean Jacques Lebel in 1964. But Klein’s widow, Rotraut Uecker, was my really close friend, a sculptor herself, and I lived with her in Paris. I always thought that Klein used the women as kind of activated puppets. The performances had this Baroque elegance with musicians in formal clothes playing French classical music, and naked women marking canvases with their nude bodies in a beautiful blue color. It was all part of something very phenomenal about getting the nude off the canvas, so I had a great respect for it, but I didn’t like it that much. The obsession with female form became so mechanized. The male Pop artists’ endless depiction of nudes that looked like shiny parts of automobiles—these were all very strong influences that I could work against.

CF The men and women in your performances are working together, equally sharing the burden, and it’s much messier than with Klein.

CS He’s a traditional male director who stands outside of his creation and directs it—he doesn’t get paint on himself. He’s in charge of where the paint goes.

CF In your case, you’re the director but you also join the group. You’re stained all over like everyone else.

CS That’s the premise of the work, always. I never have anyone enact anything that I wouldn’t do myself. There’s no separation between me and the performers. There’s no hierarchy except that it’s my vision, and the participants must want to be a part of it.

CF Stan Brakhage said that you started out as a dancer?

CS No, I’m a painter! I’ve always been a painter. I was trained as a painter; I live as a painter. It’s just that men always wanted to get the brush out of my hand.

CF When you were in school at the University of Illinois, your partner was James Tenney, the composer. I read that the male faculty were outraged and considered it obscene that you painted Tenney naked, showing his genitals.

CS That was at Bard actually, and they took that painting out of the senior painting exhibit in 1960.

CF But you continued to paint?

CS I couldn’t give up. Since I was a child I was being told to stop painting. I remember my father one night yelling at me to “drop the brush.” I was in high school and I was painting a watermelon and some fruit in my bedroom, and my parents were so bewildered by and fearful of this artist business. You know, my dad wouldn’t send me to college.

CF That’s dreadful. But you’ve inspired so many artists since then—artists like Kiki Smith, Paul McCarthy, and Marina Abramovic are very aware of your work. And so was Mike Kelly. Your performances and films with James Tenney seem quite relevant to Jeff Koons’s Cicciolina.

CS I don’t know, maybe Matthew Barney with the rope suspension too. Paul McCarthy was one of the artists who got me my first teaching position in his department at UCLA. This brought me to California for the first time and I’m forever grateful to him for providing this opportunity.

CF James Nares also painted for a while by rope suspension.

CS Yes, we all pick up energy and ideas for material from each other.

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Up To and Including Her Limits—Blue, 1973–76/2011, Giclée print with hand drawing, 39½ × 52 inches. Photo by Henrik Gaard.

CF I want to bring up Breaking the Frame, Marielle Nitoslawska’s film documentary about you. The film is very sensitive to your method of artmaking.

CS It was just a remarkable confluence that our sensibilities are close; it’s not imitating or following. The film has integrative power, because of her amazing editing. It’s a collage of time and event, using James Tenney’s music as the only sound. His sound structures deeply influenced my own visual editing and Marielle responded to the rhythms and dissonances. The music is beautiful and deeply affecting and it’s not literalized—the sound structures enter and depart. It’s not prescriptive in any way.

Breaking the Frame begins with a moon that’s spinning. Marielle brought it into her footage, and she also used my underexposed, pale, pink footage of driving through the snow in 1962 with Jim. I love that material, there’s something so historic and dreamy about it. It’s from that other lifetime.

CF The film was shot in New Paltz.

CS The house is a muse, and Marielle uses the shots of the house as a line through time the way I use the train in Kitch’s Last Meal. The camera keeps returning to the house, which is where my spirit always is.

CF You used your cat Kitch in a performance after she died.

CS I had to give her a little formaldehyde so she could be in Up to and Including Her Limits.

CF You find ongoing inspiration in the behavior of cats and in other animals. Your fur paintings are also part of Breaking the Frame.

CS It goes back to when I was a chicken farmer in Pennsylvania, my home. I had to slaughter seventeen chickens every Friday at a local farm. They would then be served over the weekend—not by my family but by other farmers.

CF You had to clean them yourself?

CS Yes, it was an entrancing experience. I had my own chopping block and my own little axe, and then I steamed them, plucked them, eviscerated them, and I loved to go inside and get the warm heart, the little tiny eggs, the liver, and the gizzard.

CF Much of your work relates to bodily fluids. Your father was a rural doctor when you were growing up.

CS My dad always provided a motive to let me see what was going on with the body.

CF One realizes from your art that you’re incredibly strong—physically, mentally, and emotionally when you perform in front of an audience. In many of your works you’re naked and often you are alone. Most people, including myself, would be terrified to be so exposed, but you seem confident in your visceral integrity.

CS I’m interested in sensuous pleasure and the power of the naked body as an active image rather than the same old, pacified, immobilized, historicized body. So for me, to activate and determine the energy of my naked body as imagery was to disrupt all the traditions I had learned—where you belong to the male artist and were passive and sort of splayed out.

CF An object to be examined—

CS —for delectation.

CF I think Interior Scroll [performed in 1975] is still shocking; you pull a small scroll with writing out of your vagina while reading its text. There’s a sense of contemporary humor in the text as well as references to primitive symbolism.

CS I didn’t expect this work to have such a dynamic life; it was a simple gesture that had occurred to me in a dream. I never wanted to do that in public, but then Anthony [McCall] helped me fold up the scroll, and he also took the photographs.

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Interior Scroll, 1975, performance, gelatin silver print. Photo by Anthony McCall.

CF It’s too bad that there wasn’t a video or film of the performance.

CS There is a video, and it was excellent, but it was withheld—by Dorothy Beskind. We thought she was a feminist friend. She withheld other videos—of Hannah Wilke’s, Eva Hesse’s, Lil Picard’s, Judith Bernstein’s, and my work. She just went from one feminist activist to another, and she’s hidden all the work away. At one point I was trying to figure out what was going on, and she said, “Well, maybe it’s like wine—it will get more rare and precious, or it will turn to vinegar.” Beskind passed away last year.

CF If she was counting on the content becoming more valuable, she was correct! Interior Scroll is still a great piece even if only remembered in photos. Seeing Marina Abramovic years later, in the ’90s, sitting on a block of ice with boa constrictors, I thought of your performances with the snakes and the Minoan goddess image.

CS Charlotte Moorman performed playing the cello on a block of ice.

CF You have produced an enormous amount of work; you’ve had numerous shows, published several books (one of my favorites is Imaging Her Erotics), and have given many interviews. You’re about to fly to London to show Breaking the Frame and talk about the film with Marielle. After that you’re doing a series of shows and discussions in the US.

CS Interestingly though, while all these wonderful things are happening, there’s almost no museum representation, and collectors are rare. It’s a hard path; my work is just not an easy form to support.

CF Selling the work and having it placed in museums is difficult. But you’re having a retrospective at the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg this fall and one coming up in Spain.

CS But if the work doesn’t hit a certain strata in New York City, you’re always in this margin. I loved the exhibit I had at the Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz in 2010, but I think it’s important to accept the paradoxical proportions here.

CF What do you mean?

CS That there are many aspects to defining your success as an artist. Some of them are economic, and some of them have to do with representation in major institutions, and some of them are about being an artist’s artist—I think the latter is more my situation.

CF You’ve said that you are “a painter who has left the canvas to activate actual space and live time.” Most artists think of making objects, not activating space and time.

CS I was heartbroken when I realized that painting had to turn into something different. That was in graduate school. I wanted to shoot myself in existential despair, but I realized I had to extend the principles of Abstract Expressionism into real time. Of course, I saw what Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg did, and what my cat did—going through the broken window from inside to outside.

CF You were in Oldenburg’s Store Days and his Waves and Washes in ’66, performances now on film.

CS That was a very important step. When Jim and I moved back to New York from Illinois in 1961, he got a job working as Composer in Residence at Bell Labs. There he met Billy Klüver, the founder of Electronic Arts & Technology, who suggested that I meet a friend of his who was doing some events on East 2nd Street. That was Oldenburg’s Store Days performance. In graduate school I’d been studying Antonin Artaud and The Theatre and Its Double and was going through this painful transition, which was pushing me into live action. Then, suddenly being in Store Days, it offered psychic power, magic.

CF The 1967 performance Snows included five films such as Viet Flakes.

CS My work went from ecstatic, visionary imagery to the dire and dark, to war and destruction. That became a pattern over the next twenty-five years. Disasters started to invade my psyche, displacing and disrupting the sense of blessing, fortune, and expressive freedom I thought I had. Vietnam was as if smelling burnt bodies in my stove. I was hallucinating and collecting all these atrocity images. And then, in the ‘80s, came the destruction of Palestinian culture. I did a lot of research on disaster and destructive militarism—masculine violence.

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Snows, 1967, kinetic theater. Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

CF Paul McCarthy did a performance called The Class Fool in ’76. In the video, he paints himself and adds weights to his genitals until he is stumbling and can hardly stand up.

CS Yes, there’s a crossover in terms of extreme sensuality. While my work was more about pleasure and ecstasy, Paul’s would be about the demeaning visceral qualities of the body, the ecstatic disgust of piss, shit, and sperm.

CF Which brings to mind Vito Acconci’s performance Seed Bed and Kiki Smith’s wax sculptures that reference bodily fluids like tears, feces, and milk.

CS Our culture needs to have its physicality reproportioned. It’s been sanitized into stereotypic sports and prurient pornography concerning the feminine, and into macho-militarism overshadowing masculinity. So it’s completely out of kilter in terms of equitable, pleasurable exchange. It’s discomforted.

CF Why do you think that happens in our society?

CS Well, we’ve got 2000 years of oppression—religious, social, medical, and judicial oppression.

CF Maybe it’s just human. I was rereading The Iliad recently and was surprised again by the number of stabbings, cuttings, and intestines falling out in the writing.

CS That’s in contradistinction to some disappeared, or almost lost, goddess cultures that were comparatively harmonious, agricultural, and worshipful of nature. Those beneficent cultures always got wiped out.

CF They usually didn’t have a standing military.

CS Well, some did. I’ve researched this, and you see statues and sculptures of women fighting—Amazons and other ancient tribes were defending their goddess religion against marauding male tribes. I have a startling photo collection of friezes and sculptures that I found in Etruscan museums. The invaders have bigger weapons.

CF In your book Imaging Her Erotics, I was surprised by how much historical information you had on early symbolism in various prehistoric cultures. Are we talking about warrior women fighting under male leadership?

CS No, these are female heads of tribes, they are generals.

CF In the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, nineteenth-century male Europeans went to Africa to acquire property to grow sugar cane, fruit, tobacco, etcetera, but found that in some tribes the women owned and worked the land and didn’t want to sell. The Europeans sidestepped the problem by paying African males to sign illegal land contracts and then threw the families off of their land.

CS Complete displacement. This reminds me of the Native Americans encountering the colonial usurpers—they’d have a meeting and there were no women, and the Native Americans would say, “How can you have this discussion without your women?”

CF Women in the US didn’t get the right to vote until 1922 and, in legal disputes, some Western states still award property rights automatically to husbands over their wives.

CS And why were female doctors, herbalists, and gynecologists all refused participation in their fields until recently?

CF What did your dad think of that as a doctor?

CS He didn’t think about it at all. There were rarely any women doctors active until the ’60s and ’70s. Medicine was under the aegis of the American Medical Association or physician’s organizations that were all-male.

 Scene depicting Carolee Schneemann and James Tenny engaged in intercourse in the 1964 film, Fuses.

Still from Fuses, 1964–66, 16mm film, 6 minutes, color, sound.

CF Let’s talk about Stan Brakhage for a second. I had him as a visiting professor at the Art Institute for two years. He was a male Scheherazade and told wonderful stories of the filmmakers he introduced us to, but I had to ask him, “Why, out of the 200 films we’re seeing, are there only three women filmmakers?” Those were Maya Deren, whom he worked for when he was young; Shirley Clark, whose Cool World was a big deal; and Marie Menken.

CS Marie Menken was married to filmmaker Willard Maas, and they were in Brooklyn when Stan met them.

CF I asked Brakhage why he wasn’t showing Fuses, which I’d seen when you showed it at the Art Institute. He said something like, “I just don’t show her films.” (laughter) Before seeing Breaking the Frame, I hadn’t realized how close you and James Tenney were to him and his then wife Jane Brakhage. There was some hubris in him asking you to have an (unborn) baby and asserting that it belonged to him and James as much as it did to you. Did he think it was his baby?

CS Yes, he did. Metaphorically, as a patriarchal guy, it belonged to him too.

CF At that time he believed that a woman’s job was to bring forth babies and not to question it?

CS He had five with Jane.

CF Didn’t he tell her to burn her paintings?

CS Yes he did. And to burn her clothes. It was disturbing to have a friendship that was intellectually powerful but oppressive in terms of gender, and to see this sexual degradation that was always put in mystical or pseudo-religious terms, which Brakhage used to occupy this hierarchical position by gift and by right. His Cat’s Cradle was all about that and I wasn’t supposed to impose on it.

CF For you and other women artists of that time the pressure from men not to make art, not to have a voice, not to be successful, must have been hugely oppressive.

CS Our work was denigrated. When Brakhage was working with P. Adams Sitney on putting together something like the twelve great filmmakers of the year, I asked, “Are you ever going to show my films?” A long silence, and then he said, “Well, we don’t think of them as films.” I said, “What are they?” And he said, “Something else.”

CF Maybe he was embarrassed about the sexuality in your work?

CS I don’t think it was that; it was more a psychic need to dominate a realm of creativity. Only certain female figures were admitted.

CF Margaret Mead.

CS Gertrude Stein.

CF They had to be older and conventionally unattractive, which brings us back to the beauty paradox.

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War Mop, 1983, plexiglass construction, mop, motor, video monitor, 19 × 19 × 11½ inches. Film: Souvenir of Lebanon, videotape of destroyed Lebanese/ Palestinian villages, 5:50 minutes, color, sound.

CS It reminds me of why I was fired from what was called the “Wonder Woman job” at Rutgers University. They’d never had a woman teach painting and the call went out for women to apply, so Miriam Schapiro, Mary Beth Edelson, and a whole bunch of us were interviewed. It was like being in the dentist’s office, and then they decided that I should have the job. I had a wonderful time at Rutgers; I taught Introduction to Patriarchal Systems and Painting and Drawing. One Easter my feminist art class made an installation of a bloody canopy entrance with paint and censorship quotes and you had to walk through red painted sheets to get into the art department. That was too much for the guys, and a colleague took me for drinks in SoHo and said, “I’m sorry, but we’re not going to rehire you for the next term.” I said, “Why, I really liked being there and I thought everyone loved the class and was doing well.” He sighed and said, “Yes, but we think you’re a witch.” (laughter) I said, “Come on, it’s 1995, you must be kidding me.”

CF You should have given him the definition for witch since he’d already turned himself into a toad. Witch was originally wikka (wicca), a pagan word for herbalist as in healing with herbs; “pagan” comes from peigan, which means a Roman countryman or eventually peasant. Women were always herbalists so a wicca was—

CS —also a visionary and seer.

CF The Inquisition burned women and cats as witches during the bubonic plague. Then the rats, who carried the fleas harboring the bacterium, multiplied out of control.

CS That’s a huge, hideous, suppressed history. Part of the witchcraft accusations and murder of the women had to do with taking their property. Did you get to see my new work Flange 6rpm? It’s an installation of motorized sculptures within a projection that shows them being cast in the foundry. The objects are indicative of their own history.

CF Just like people.

Coleen Fitzgibbon is an artist/filmmaker who studied film at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1970-1973. She attended the Whitney Independent Study Program and cofounded the artist group Colab in 1978. Her films and videos are shown in museums, galleries, and film festivals. She lives in New York City and her work is represented by Light Cone in Paris and the American Cinema Group, Inc.

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Originally published in

BOMB 132, Summer 2015

Featuring a cover with hand-drawn verse by Eileen Myles. Interviews with Carolee Schneemann, Nicole Eisenman, David Humphrey, Maggie Nelson, Justin Vivian Bond, Robert Grenier, Leigh Ledare, Chris Kraus, Moriah Evans, and more.

Read the issue
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