Carolee Schneemann - Biography and Legacy
American Performance Artist and Video Artist
Fox Chase, Pennsylvania
New Paltz, New York
Biography of Carolee Schneemann
Carolee Schneemann was born and raised in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania. She began drawing at a young age and cites this as an early premonition about her future career. She visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a young adult and recalls feeling a strong connection to the artwork. She was the first woman in her family to attend college and received a full scholarship to Bard, where she completed her Bachelor of Arts degree. While at Bard, she studied painting at Columbia University, where she met her first husband, James Tenney, an experimental music composer. She received her MFA from the University of Illinois in 1962 and she and Tenney returned to New York.
In her early career Schneemann focused on painting in an Abstract Expressionist style. She produced many pieces, but during her graduate work in Illinois she decided that Abstract Expressionism was a boy's club and the paintbrush itself was too "phallic." She became a member of an avant-garde circle of artists, writers and musicians in New York, associating with Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, George Brecht and Robert Morris. She also visited Andy Warhol's Factory, met Marcel Duchamp and spent time with Joseph Cornell. Her artistic emergence in New York City was marked by a party she threw at her Manhattan loft where she invited all the artists she had met. She called it her "debutante party," and it ended with holes being smashed into her walls and the word "rats" painted in various places throughout the loft. In 1962, Schneemann began a three-year working relationship with the Judson Dance Theater, a focal point for avant-garde performance, dance, and theater production in Greenwich Village. She also participated in performances coordinated by Kaprow, Oldenburg, and Morris. These collaborations were the catalyst for her transition to performance art and other media, and in 1963 she began experimenting with what she called "kinetic theater," a combination of performance and installation art.
Schneemann created viscerally inspired performances in the 1960s and 1970s but also delved into collage, assemblages, film, and photography. Often her ideas for her work came from dreams, finding inspiration in the sequences of images and sounds in the unconscious nocturnal workings of her mind. She reveled in challenging social taboos in her work and set out to bring down, "the psychic territorial power lines by which women were admitted to the Art Stud Club." In the early 1960s, she travelled to Paris where she first performed her work Meat Joy in 1964, a multi-media spectacle involving raw meat, sexuality, and pop music. That same year she began work on her first major film, Fuses (1964-1967), a tribute to her sexual and emotional relationship with Tenney and the first of her autobiographical trilogy. Her next film, Plumb Line (1968) dealt with the unraveling of an heterosexual relationship and provided her with catharsis as her relationship with Tenney ended that same year. She had many other relationships during her career, but none that resulted in multiple collaborations. Despite the tumultuous end to their long-term relationship, she did maintain correspondence with Tenney, and even wrote to him about her subsequent relationship with fellow artist and filmmaker Anthony McCall.
Throughout the 1970s, she continued to collaborate with Fluxus, Performance and Happenings artists, and she maintained correspondence with Kaprow throughout their lives. Schneemann refined her performance aesthetic through works like Up To And Including Her Limits (1973-1976) an embodied exploration of the theme of the artist's gesture, which she first performed at Grand Central Station in New York City at the Avant Garde Festival. Her 1975 performance Interior Scroll, at the Women Here and Now conference in East Hampton, Long Island, was photographed by her partner at the time, McCall, and is a germinal example of her feminist exploration of the female body as both subject and object of art, as well as the source of its creation.
In addition to her film, performance, and installation works, Schneemann published her first book, Parts of A Body House, in 1972 in which she linked the body to the domestic realm. Her second book, Cézanne: She was a Great Painter (1976), used a drawing from when she was four years old of a figure looking in the mirror for its cover, and within she reflected on her own biography, western art history and the painter, Cézanne. In 1979, with the book More Than Meat Joy, Schneemann presents a survey of the documentation of her performance career up through 1978, as well as her published essays.
In the 1980s and 1990s Schneemann turned toward photography and installation pieces but still performed widely, with a transitional works like Fresh Blood, (1981-1987) encompassing performance, installation, and multimedia. The photographic installation, Infinity Kisses (1980-1988), is an extended documentation in which she photographed her cat Cluny over eight years as he gave her a kiss each morning.
With the AIDS crisis and economic tumult of the 1980s, many of her friends and colleagues passed away. She commemorated them in the work Mortal Coils (1994), an installation that utilized video and sculptural elements. She has stated that some feminists of this era felt that her work was not a sufficient way to address current feminist issues, but that did not dissuade her from continuing to create new works and further disseminating her feminist message. Her work is owned by museums throughout the world and shed continued to write as well as exhibit and lecture globally throughout her 70s. She was the first woman professor in the art department at Rutgers University and has taught at many colleges including New York University and the California Institute of the Arts. In her final years, Schneemann lived and worked in New Paltz, New York, in a Huguenot stone house that she has owned since her relationship with James Tenney. She died in 2019. She was 79.
The Legacy of Carolee Schneemann
Schneemann's groundbreaking works on film have been an inspiration for later artists, like Peggy Ahwesh and Abigail Child, and provided them with a historic precedent for feminist filmmaking. Her performance and photographic works also set a precedent for artists like Ana Mendieta and Hannah Wilke to explore ideas ranging from goddess imagery, the generative and subjective female form, and ideals of beauty. Even Annie Sprinkle's Public Cervix Announcement (1990) would not be possible without Schneemann's exploration of intimacy in her artwork. Many exhibitions throughout the 1990s and 2000s have been dedicated to feminist artists of these later generations in direct communication with works from Schneemann's oeuvre. As new generations of artists and women discover her works, the dialogue Schneemann initiated in the early 1960s about women, their bodies, the sensual and the intimate continues to engage viewers, artists, and critics.