Transformer: Carolee Schneemann in conversation with Richard Klin
By way of tribute to Carolee Schneemann, who died earlier this spring, artcritical presents an unpublished interview with this artistic giant by novelist and critic Richard Klin. This profile had originally been intended for Klin’s collection, “Something to Say: Thoughts on Art and Politics in America” (Leapfrog Press, 2011) but didn’t end up fitting the shape and scope of that publication. The photo of Carolee is by Lily Prince, Klin’s collaborator on Something to Say.
Carolee Schneemann’s innovative and controversial artistic practice flowed for over fifty years, until her death in March. The performative elements of her big, bold oeuvre—kinetic theater—usually garner the lion’s share of critical attention: Meat Joy (1964) utilized minimally garbed women and men, red paint, and chicken carcasses. Interior Scroll (1974) adhered to the title’s literal meaning, in which Schneemann—in front of an audience–retrieved a piece of paper from her vagina and then read it out loud. It was certainly easy to distort Carolee Schneemann’s intent. The public and critics both did their share of distorting. Doing so glosses over—perhaps intentionally–an intense, lifelong political commitment that inflected most of her art. There is also—not insubstantially–her insightful, articulate writing.
So much of her work was prophetic, in terms of gender issues, female sexuality, power imbalances, the brutality of the American political structure (“deformed hyper-masculinity”). Viet-Flakes, her film that focused on American brutality in Vietnam, was undertaken in 1965, at the very dawn of the antiwar movement. That is extraordinary. Being prophetic, though, is a decidedly mixed blessing.
Her emergence as an art student in the 1960s coincided with the zeitgeist of protest and social change, undergirded by the “huge surround” of racial injustice. “de Beauvoir was a huge influence. And then reading Wilhelm Reich. And then all the radical, forbidden literature that was beginning to emerge around the Vietnam War—which we don’t have anymore; alternative journals, critics…”
Her work encompassed a broad spectrum of media: performance, film, photography, but Schneemann was—first, foremost, and always—a painter. “When I was really little—four and five years old—kids are always drawing, but I was drawing obsessively with the sense that this is what life meant. I had to make these images.” Her understanding of kinetic theater was that it was “an extension of Abstract Expressionism. It relates to painters going into real time and actual space, preceded by Oldenburg and Robert Whitman and Jim Dine and Red Grooms; those were the influences ahead of me, confirmed and solidified by Pollock.” For Schneemann, it was “extending the physicality into my own body of the painting. Kinetic theater is this intensification of visual dynamics.”
This interview with Carolee Schneemann was undertaken at her home in New Paltz, New York in 2010. My collaborator, painter and photographer Lily Prince, was on hand to take photos. There were some moments of levity: Carolee’s confession, for example, that Everyone Loves Raymond was a secret vice. Her cat—as cats tend to do–constantly interrupted the proceedings.
She was born in 1939 into a thoroughly non-artistic household. The options for women in the 1950s were, to say the least, constrained. “I was supposed to conform to the conventions. I could go to typing school, get married, and have children. From early on, I was completely against that.” Virginia Woolf was one of the first hints that there existed an alternative universe of nonconformity. “Woolf was so important to me because I found her book in the back of a library van when I was at Putney [school]; I was probably fourteen. And I don’t know why I picked that book. I liked the cover and the double-O and Woolf looked interesting. And it was The Waves and I took it into the barn, started to read it, and I just wept for the next bunch of hours. Because I recognized this was a kind of fragmentation and reconnection and associative, metaphoric richness. And I knew I wanted this. I didn’t know how I could possibly do it. But as a painter I wanted it.”
The testosterone-driven art world, to say the least, did not offer much support either. “I identified the absence of what we call ‘models’ or ‘precedent’ as something that I had to vigorously try to counter.”
Her photographic Eye Body (1963) was the first time she inserted her body into her work, leading to a lifetime of critical distortion. “They mistook my body for the body of work,” effectively erasing the political import of her art. “I’m always astonished when the message is blurred or reaches a level of ambiguity that’s inappropriate. Or when the work is censored. The censorship is often implicit. Eye Body was censored because no one in the art world knew what to make of it. They thought it was narcissistic. Exhibitionism. And I thought it was a transformation of the traditional nude into a collage configuration in which I was both the image and the image-maker. I felt that that should have a political power that would deflect particularly the…mechanization of the female nude all through the sixties, where the body is turned into a form of machinery…. It’s kind of dead, it’s mechanical and it’s perfect as a surface would be for an automobile or a coffee maker. It’s so divested of a lived viscerality. I was very conscious of that and I was very conscious of the painterly traditions in which the nude was completely absorbed and contextualized into the history of male viewing.”
Fuses, a short film also made during the same period as Viet-Flakes, upped the ante. Utilizing the techniques of collage and painting, the film chronicles Schneemann and then-partner Jim Tenney’s lovemaking. “There was no example or precedent for heterosexual pleasure that I had ever seen, and I wondered if I could discover aspects of it by filming my partner and myself. There was only pornography and woman as a kind of anomalous sexual problem. The transformation’s so incredible. You couldn’t say lubricity, orgasm, vagina, come, suck, cock unless you were doing pornography. So all the lived experience was deflected. And Fuses entered a contrary cultural moment where people weren’t sure whether it was pornography or transformative, ecstatic depiction and it was the men critics and the men historians who most valued it. Women were scared. They didn’t write about it. Still.
“Initially, in the sixties, [my work] was considered proto-pornography. Then it was essentialism. Then it did not conform to feminist principles… it evaded semiotics. It was not Marxist. Every couple years there was something new that was problematic.”
And the state of the union, 2010? “It’s complicated. Politically it feels as sinister as it could possibly be”—and with the advent of Donald Trump six years later, these words were sadly prescient–“with powers and structures embedded that are maintaining invisibility. It’s a masquerade. But in the meantime, feminist principles and sexual explicitness has so changed popular culture that it’s thrilling, it’s amazing. Gay culture, issues of the body—they’re really in discussion. And to some extent they’ve been vitiated by younger people, because they don’t feel that there is any resistance or still a battle surrounding their own aspects of self-definition and freedom.
“The degree of control and systemization… it’s quite terrifying. And it’s also because culture is mass—everything is mass. There’s no sense of a sustainable community. As soon as there is one, it’s invaded by investors or real estate… so some self-determination is endangered.”
The interview ended on—if not an overtly optimistic note—at least a hopeful one. She displayed a level of personal equanimity that belied her decades-long struggle to overcome the cascade of opprobrium that seemed to emanate from every faction. “Art definitely changes the world. Absolutely. You just consider John Lennon and the song ‘Imagine’ and the power that that has.
“And in the way aesthetics can influence or bewilder or provoke.” And there was no greater example of this than the legacy of Carolee Schneemann. She no doubt bewildered. She certainly provoked. And—to say the least—she influenced.