Since the late 1950s, the life of Carolee Schneemann (1939–) has been expressed through her artistic practice, first with the medium of paint and then through the medium of her often nude body, though she has utilized objects, printed matter, moving images and the often nude bodies of others as well. Wikipedia suggests that Schneemann is a “first-generation feminist artist,” despite the fact that surely feminist artists have existed as long as there has been art. However, the claim does mark an intrusion into a cannon where recognition of Schneemann’s work continues to position her at a remove from the male artists she worked with and near, such as Stan Brakhage, Allan Kaprow and Claus Oldenburg. Her first major solo show was not until 1996, when the New Museum mounted a retrospective of her work. When her practice is invoked, two works are often cited: Meat Joy, a 1964 film documenting a cast of eight in the throes of an erotic rite involving raw meat, wet paint and rope; and Interior Scroll, a 1975 performance that culminated in Schneemann reading aloud from a script she was simultaneously withdrawing from her vagina.
For decades, alongside her embodiment through artistic practice, Schneemann has compulsively engaged in what she terms work: correspondence. Positioning correspondence as labour (and artistic practice as living) inverts a common work/life distribution where the maintenance of relationships is a thing of pleasure. However, Schneemann has been methodical in the construction of a written record of her life, saving copies of letters written and received. In Los Angeles, the Getty Research Institute holds an archive of these intimate documents, a selection from which form the foundation of the exhibition Dear Carolee: Carolee Schneemann in Letters. Additional materials were drawn from the Clara Thomas Archives at York University, where the papers of Schneemann’s first husband, James Tenney, are held. Addressed to and signed by an array of prominent artists in the international avant garde, the letters map relations of friendship and love, collaboration and critique. Even without knowing the work of Schneemann, this exhibition makes palpable the development of a mind through its encounter with others. Of course, any archive must be approached as partial and any image constructed of Schneemann through the materials of Dear Carolee must be measured against an imagination of what has been excluded. Was the labour of some correspondence too intimate to bear including in the archive? How does voice translate through time, across readers? What was deemed irrelevant or indispensable by the exhibition’s curators?
Exhibition making, like writing, is the effect of composition and editing; every gesture is deliberate. Extending the analogy of exhibition making to architecture, both organize space with regard to aesthetic effect. As an epistolary retrospective, Dear Carolee had a double obligation: to negotiate engagement through space and with a concern for readerly stamina.
Inventive tactics included a series of original letters displayed at eye level in glass frames jutting at 90 degree angles from a long wall, allowing a viewer to step into the space of each letter, read through, and examine its recto and verso for the clues of the life the letter-as-object is living.
Another tactic transformed the medium of the letters from paper into light, projecting a selection as slides, their scale becoming grand as they were beamed across the room. The plinths holding the projectors were staggered by height and within the space of the room, so that the projected letters were not perfectly aligned. The effect was a sense of envelopment, as if the reader were inside a ramshackle desk drawer full of correspondence. Standard methods of display were also used, such as a set of vitrines that cast the gaze of the viewer downward on a small collection of objects and ephemera from Schneemann’s life, such as a VHS copy of her film Fuses (1965) and a rare copy of her artist’s edition ABC—We Print Everything—In the Cards (1977/1992). A few framed photographs and posters hung flush against the walls, the kind of presentation familiar to anyone who has been to a gallery before.
Cézanne, She was a Great Painter is a collection of letters, essays, and conceptual writings that were first published in 1974, and again in 1975, and again in 1976, and again as part of Dear Carolee, which compliments the exhibition and allows for an extended engagement of Schneemann’s work through book form. What is obvious in Cézanne as read in 2015 is the longstanding and mostly unchanged refusal that women must bear toward patriarchal forms of knowledge if they are to author the roles they play. As a girl, Schneemann knew she was an artist. Sensing something sinister she could not yet name, she did not ask if the great artists whose names she was learning belonged women and instead authored her own hero: “I decided a painter named ‘Cézanne’ would be my mascot; I would assume Cézanne was unquestionably a woman—after all the ‘anne’ in it was feminine. Were the bathers I studied in reproduction so awkward because painted by a woman? But ‘she’ was famous and respected. If Cézanne could do it, I could do it.” Today, “Schneemann” on the lips and tongues of female artists who need not invent predecessors is Schneemann’s sweet revenge.
Language is not neutral; the “his” in “history” is no coincidence. Attentive to the ways that language shapes its subjects, Schneemann has long practiced a rejection of the masculine assumptions of English, either through neologism or substitution. Schneemann prefers the term “art istory,” without the “h,” to counteract the “he” it implies, and in most cases “people” can do for “human.”
Through her letters, it becomes obvious that the complexity of her artistic production is steeped in an engagement with feminist politics, seeking a fundamental re-ordering of how value accrues in the work of women. In her early career, she was surrounded by men whose fame was ascendent. Though an integral part of the New York City art scene of the 1960s, the radical intentions behind her own work and the influence she had on the artistic production of her peers did not lead to recognition or material stability. In her letters, Schneemann repeatedly tells of experiences where “men [helped] me to sustain what I had but not to enlarge it in scope or enjoin them in their world…I WAS PERMITTED TO BE AN IMAGE/BUT NOT AN IMAGE-MAKER CREATING HER OWN SELF-IMAGE.”
This schism, between history and istory, between image and image-maker, is the result of what Schneemann diagnoses as the mixed inculturation women receive of OF COURSE YOU CAN/DON’T YOU DARE. This is the consequence of society adopting a rhetoric of equality without enacting the reciprocal systemic shifts required to make good on it. If the recent recognition of her work is understood as a consequence of changing standards of taste, where, say, depictions of desire from a feminine perspective are legible, it should not be confused with the triumph of social redress. Writing in 1974, imagining the year 2000, Schneemann predicted this: “In the year 2,000 books and courses will only be called ‘Man and His Image,’ ‘Man and His Symbols,’ ‘Art History of Man,’ to probe the source of disease and mania which compelled patriarchal man to attribute to himself and his masculine forebears every invention and artifact by which civilization was formed for over four millennia.” Writing from beyond the future that Schneemann anticipated, I shudder to say we are somehow not there yet.
(All quotes taken from the 2014 edition of Cézanne, She was a Great Painter except where otherwise indicated.)
cheyanne turions is an independent curator and writer who holds a degree in Philosophy from the University of British Columbia, and is currently pursing a master’s degree in Visual Studies from the University of Toronto. From the farmlands of Treaty 8, she is of settler and Indigenous ancestry. She sits on the Board of Directors for Kunstverein Toronto, the Editorial Advisory Committee for C Magazine and the Advisory Board for the Art Museum at the University of Toronto. She is the director of No Reading After the Internet (Toronto). Photo credit: Yuula Benivolski