Carolee Schneemann is central to the development of contemporary art. Her dramatic and powerful work has contributed to the invention of body art, performance work, and the feminist idiom we know today.
As early as the 1960s Schneemann produced and enacted the innovative film works and directed experiences she termed “Kinetic Theater,” employing, in the words of author Madeline Burnside, “…her body as a locus in which art and artist are indistinguishable.”
There are at least three points in that phrase likely to discomfit the average viewer. In the early 1960s, employing the feminine pronoun and “art” together was bad enough. Also problematic is the word “body”—not the objectified and airbrushed body of a nude model (as in much Pop Art), but the deliberate, active body of the artist in her own candid, even aggressive, terms. Women could be accepted as long as they conformed to male expectations—not exactly Carolee’s strategy. And finally, that slippage between the artist and her activity, between the material reality and the expressive use of the body: that messy erasure of fixed boundaries made critics then, and historians now, very uncomfortable. But, evidently, comfort was not the point.
Decorum, appropriateness, minimalism, polite reserve—these concepts are not operative in the work of Carolee Schneemann. Virtually everything else is, from such emotional themes as love and hate, sex and death, attraction and repulsion, and pleasure and pain, to artistic categories including expressionist gesture, evocative assemblage, ecstatic theater, and magisterial installation. Schneemann has taken the language of drawing and painting beyond surface, transforming the exuberant gesture and individual imperatives that characterized Abstract Expressionist painting into a mode of creating in time as well as space. She followed her own first imperative, developing ways of extending marking into her environment, onto her body, and within performative actions. Focusing on the organizing principles of rhythm, motion, and gravity, she brought the structured simultaneity of musician Charles Ives (an important inspiration on her early collaborator, the composer James Tenney) into rigorous new processes of film editing and collage-like formats. With each of these inventive breakthroughs she has richly participated in defining new ways of comprehending art and freeing women to draw from their own perceptions and experiences with the same liberty afforded their male colleagues, influencing scores of subsequent artists as far-flung as Tracey Emin, Sophie Calle, and Matthew Barney. Although specialist historians have charted her accomplishments, particularly within performance studies and feminist scholarship, exhibitions of Schneemann’s work have been relatively rare and the span of her accomplishments remains far less well-known. This exhibition seeks to rectify that neglect.
The current exhibition re-amasses and expands on a groundbreaking project initiated at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at State University of New York at New Paltz (February 6–July 25, 2010), as part of their Hudson Valley Masters series. The primary change from the original exhibition was to expand the presence of Schneemann’s film work. Important projects like Meat Joy (1964) and Snows (1967) have been moved from monitors to large-scale projections and two additional film works have been added: Fuses (1966) and Precarious (2009).
With its intensely hand-made feel and provocative subject matter, Fuses is often considered Schneemann’s most important film. This exhibition culminates with the U. S. premiere of Precarious, a three-channel video installation originally commissioned by the Tate Liverpool for the festival AND (Abandon Normal Devices) in September 2009. This installation work provides an absorbing, intense experience, surrounding the viewer with original sound and footage, as well as motorized mirror assemblies invented by the artist to modify and activate the projected images, restoring movement to bodies in captivity.
This handout was designed to reflect the experience of visitors to the revised exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, and at Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The originating catalogue Carolee Schneemann: Within and Beyond the Premises, authored by the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art’s then-curator Brian Wallace, provides a welcome new perspective on the artist’s work through four intersecting themes: research, ecstasy, furies, and dwelling. Wallace follows Schneemann’s own definition of her process—emphasizing the notion of research to characterize the cumulative way she invents her subjects, incorporating dreams as well as readings, and drawing continually to refine her approach. The concepts of ecstasy and fury reflect both the painterly gesture that pervades all her work (analyzed in the essay, “Painting, What It Became,” by Maura Reilly, p. 27) and the deeply personal approaches to her subject choices; embodied, often erotic experience, and the maddeningly misguided wars and deprivations perpetrated by society, are the most distinctive.
“Dwelling” might be the most unexpected category (p. 62). Since 1964 Schneemann has inhabited a stone house in the Hudson Valley that was built in 1750; she speaks of the house as a primary relationship and collaborator in the catalogue’s interview by Emily Caigan, “Depth of Place” (p. 51).
The exhibition Carolee Schneemann: Within and Beyond the Premises provides a welcome, even overdue opportunity to experience this important career first-hand. It features some familiar images, photographic documentation from her most famous live pieces; no matter how familiar now, they still carry an explosive impact:
Schneemann was born in the farmland of Fox Chase, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a doctor. She has observed that her creative works are linked to growing up in the country as much as they are to her history as a painter. She received a B.A. from Bard College and an M.F.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she began working in performance and other non-traditional mediums, although painting was and remained the touchstone for her artistic practice. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater and the first artist to collaborate with Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), using the resources of Bell Telephone Laboratories, Schneemann is a pioneer in the sprawling category of visual art sometimes called “new genres,” as well as in developing technological elements, editing styles, and hybrid forms expanding the possibilities of what art can accomplish.
Free-flowing, intensely personal, sometimes verging on indulgent, Schneemann’s art is replete with elements bound to challenge proprieties and destabilize many visitors. Startled into a new way of perceiving the world, audiences will discover the roots of much of what makes art contemporary.
Author: Elizabeth A. Brown, Curator and Former Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions & Collections, Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, 2012.
At the end of 2010, the Henry Art Gallery at University of Washington’s Director Sylvia Wolf and Chief Curator Elizabeth Brown contacted Krannert Art Museum (KAM) about a possible partnership to build on the success of a recent exhibition of Carolee Schneemann’s work curated by Brian Wallace at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at State University of New York at New Paltz.
Our response was enthusiastic. Schneemann received an M.F.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early 1960s and the university’s School of Art + Design was going to recognize her as a distinguished alumna for accomplishments in the field of studio art and in the professional community at the 2011 annual conference of the College Art Association in New York. Her art, with its expansive interdisciplinary and intermedia reach, resonates with many initiatives that increasingly define the Urbana campus. Carolee Schneemann: Within and Beyond the Premises powerfully extends the museum’s commitment to presenting the work of distinct visionaries whose artistic practices challenge formulaic readings of art history. In the last nine years, KAM has organized monographic exhibitions of the work of Louise Bourgeois, Hedda Sterne, Howard Finster, and, most recently, Annette Lemieux.
As indicated in Elizabeth Brown’s essay, the most significant exhibition change from the original Dorsky showing was to expand the presence of Schneemann’s important film work. In addition, KAM’s installation includes works and words reflecting the artist’s life in Illinois. We are curious to see her reactions, after a half-century’s absence, to a place and time that had for her moments of joy, pain, and revelation. Included in the installation is a wonderful photograph from 1960 of Schneemann and James Tenney (a composer and Schneemann’s partner of 13 years), as well as their beloved cat Kitch, in front of the rickety house in Sidney, Illinois where they lived as graduate students. They look happy and very much in love.
Schneemann’s time in Illinois provided some profound experiences and produced early important works of art. Labyrinths (1960) emerged from a tornado felling her favorite Tree-of-Heaven in Sidney. Tenney’s composition teacher at the U of I introduced the two to a young Vietnamese poet who awakened them to her country’s reverence for nature and ancestors, as well as to the destruction that the French and Americans were exacting in the wars with Indochina. Snows (1967) was “built out of [her] anger, outrage, fury, and sorrow for the Vietnamese.”
Schneemann’s work of “Kinetic Theater” titled Illinois Central (1967) was “built on imagery of the tree as a vertical key linking the destruction of the Vietnamese landscape with the open plains of Illinois…(The photographer, [and U of I professor] Art Sinsabaugh made seventy landscape slides for this work.)”
While these references provide local and personal connections for our audience, the most compelling aspect of Carolee Schneemann: Within and Beyond the Premises is the trajectory of a career and life formed by remarkable artistic vision and invention, as well as huge, sustained outlays of energy and hard work.
I would like to express my deep gratitude to Carolee Schneemann and to the following: Jennifer Stamps; Michael Prudhom; Electronic Arts Intermix, Carolina Nitsch, P.PO.W. Gallery, and Elisabeth Wingate; Brian Wallace; Sara J. Pasti at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art; Elizabeth Brown; Sylvia Wolf, Paul Cabarga, and the rest of the staff at the Henry Art Gallery; KAM staff and U of I collaborators; and Katie Anania, Jonathan Fineberg, and Michael Rush.
Author: Kathleen Harleman, Director, Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2012.