Dangerous Persuasions

Carolee Schneemann’s Body of Letters

Paper covers rock, scissors cuts paper, rock smashes scissors, paper covers rock. A letter is just paper, and so very much more. I’ve just finished reading Correspondence Course, An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle, edited by the noted art historian Kristine Stiles (Duke University Press, 2010)—a powerful bound sheaf of paper—more than 500 pages filled with letters, mostly written by Carolee Schneemann, with a number written to her. They date from 1956 to 1999 and there are more not included in this volume. Together, what is published is a document of a time, the second half of the 20th century to the millennium, which saw enormous changes in technology and radical changes in politics as borders shifted and regimes fell and rose. Women, too, began to look for change. The feminist movement rose, gained ground and strength, and some things did shift for women.

“Wealth and speed are what the world admires and what all are bent on,” Goethe wrote in a letter dated 1825 to his friend Karl Heindrich Zelter, a German composer and conductor. “Railways, express mail-coaches, steamboats and every possible means of communication—that’s what the civilized people of today strive for. So they grow overcivilized, but never get beyond mediocrity.” His bleak view of communication and human exchanges is included in a preface written by Walter Benjamin using the name Detlef Holz, for a series of letters he selected for publication in the Frankfurter Zeitung, 1931–32 (Walter Benjamin Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935–1938, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002).

Carolee Schneemann drew around her a circle of people who, with her, were at the centre of changes in all the essential fields dealing with the ways people made contact with each other. The artist Dick Higgins was among them. It was he who identified and named “intermedia,” the assembly and blurring of boundaries in music, poetry, physics, art, psychology and linguistics, and recognized the hybrid forms that reflected the changes in communication following the Second World War. In her preface, Kristine Stiles pointed out that new aesthetic approaches were required, and Schneemann and her colleagues were at the forefront of the development of intermedia, exploring and making art that responded to its time, directing it into the future. The letters she wrote marked the process and outcomes of a period and its key players in astute and vivid detail. Schneemann is a fine letter writer, intelligent, highly intuitive and also critically perceptive. The historical period is well documented here, but perhaps more significant is the epistolary drawing of this remarkable artist’s biography.

Personal letters, which these are, are always written in the first person, the author’s hand moving line to line across the sheet. They are written for the single reader, one person, and they are intimate—voice to ear in a delineated space: eight by six inches for a personal note or eleven by eight-and-a-half for typewriter paper. These are enclosed dimensions suitable for holding in the hand, folding to slip inside a book or a pocket or into a drawer scented with lavender. The criteria for intimacy are there. And then because letters are discreet, and discrete, they are assumed to be truthful, genuine and unguarded. When they are well written, they are literature because they require time and because the writer knows they are a record. They are also made, so they are constructs, and here, truthfulness is contingent, even by omission: history can be read in what’s there and also in what is absent. Stiles noted that in selecting Schneemann’s letters, there were some the artist chose not to include; she respected Schneemann’s “preference for historical vagaries.,” she said. The spaces between are generative, leaving room for expansiveness.

A personal letter is subjective, of course; there’s no need to be equitable or even-handed, no necessity to be social. It’s the ideal space for personal indulgence, candour, peevishness and even small tantrums. It’s also a rare, generous occasion, with its intimacy and potential for elaboration, for the writer in an almost dreamlike state to fill the burgeoning space of one page slipped behind the next with associative imagery, plans and wishes, nascent enactment of heart and mind. Fold, lick and send off, stamped with postage and trust. Schneemann’s letters were written for one reader but her intentions were much broader. She made and kept copies and saved the letters she received, and as a result they moved from the private to the public, with history as intervenor. She was writing her own piece, writing herself into the self she constructed and became, and writing this self into history. Prescient, and for all the good reasons that the period, the patriarchy, misogyny, entrenched power structures, fear and rising conservatism presented. With her work she changed history, with her record she secured it. Fully aware, she wrote in the present, for the future.

Goethe’s pessimistic and concerned comment on the direction his period seemed to be pursuing, quoted at the start of this piece, was echoed in Schneemann’s letters as well. She expressed an unease about people communicating but not really connecting, the focus being on what was easy and superficial, even among artists. Here she had written to James Tenney from Paris in 1964: “The romance of Paris is in its historical past and its continuing physical beauty. I don’t see greater ‘joie’ here at all—the movements of life are more charming, lyrical, pleasant but within the traditions of sexual drama a gloss of impotence and emotional absence as real & deadly as it is anywhere in the world now.” And in 1966, back at home in New York, to Jean-Jacques Lebel: “Something soft happens here…like the helpless, apathy over, what is now, our Dirty War; there is almost no motion towards political engagement, statement, by the advanced artists here…Warhol’s Velvet Underground giving a week of live performances: ‘Fairies I have Known’…a perverse, charming melt into chic; the normalization of terror, sadism, masochism become a popular consecration…almost homey and warm and friendly in character.” Her eyes miss nothing, her perceptions and sensibility always alert. She worried the present, and the future in anticipating the anomie and gloss now so prevalent. Intermedia, a bold fusion of possibilities that would extend experience, seems diluted as flashes of entertainment.

Her radical use of film in “Fuses,” 1964–67, recreated a state of the erotic body so authentic it lifted from its two-dimensional screen surface to become bodily volumetric for willing viewers. Jonas Mekas named it the most “beautiful film of 1968” in a review published in Variety in 1969, and critic Dave McCullough, in the San Francisco Express Times, in that same year wrote, “the cultural history of male America has passed down too much shit for a man to have made “Fuses,” which views love-making subjectively, from within. The interior view is both more erotic and less pornographic, more like doing it than watching it.” Still, it was considered too risky to show the film widely. As Jonas Mekas wrote to Joseph Berke concerning the upcoming Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation held in London in 1967, suggesting some programming he might do for this meeting, “I hesitate to bring “Fuses.” It is so gorgeous…dangerous, if censorship be rampant on your Island?”

Almost 30 years after Schneemann produced “Fuses” she was still arguing its meaning with a passion driven by frustration at its so long having been misunderstood, but more importantly because of her rooted conviction that it was a highly important work. She wrote in 1995 to Kerry Brougher, the American curator of the exhibition and publication, “Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945,” “Are any of the writers in the catalogue considering “Fuses” for its shameless exploration of a personal erotics in which the women artist is both subject and camera-eye? That there is no heroicizing, glamorizing camera operator (male) to configure the moving intimacy of participation and authority. “Fuses” occupies its unique historical position because it is my camera-eye through which viewers enter both my body and an eroticized film time. As a painter, I exchange my inscribing brush for my penetrating lens—as a painter I turn the film into a second skin…” She includes, in this letter, along with so much else, her wry exasperation and justified impatience with critical art scholarship: “It’s hard to believe it has taken 30 years (!) for feminist critical theory to finally address “Fuses.”

“Interior Scroll,” 1975, is a seminal work of performance. The artist, her powerful, ideal body naked, stands on a low platform and draws from her vagina a folded ribbon of paper on which a text is written and from which she reads as the text becomes visible to her. In 1992 she wrote a long letter to American art historian Amelia Jones. Schneemann was responding to Jones’s writing on her work, the artist correcting the record by adding her original intentions to the scholar’s interpretation. She wrote: “And finally Amelia some thoughts around “Interior Scroll” which I’d love to link in with your [Ezra] Pound quote ‘wobbly vagina’…such a friendly obscenity…It’s surprising how disturbed I found myself by your description of “Interior Scroll” involving ‘long wads of paper out of her vagina’…wads…Feelings of the sanctity, power, ecstatic strength and delicacy of the vagina rose in stupendous opposition to the idea of ‘WADS’…the delicate…precision of folding, oiling a narrow coil of thin paper…”

That fatigue never set in, or more likely it did, that despair wasn’t overwhelming—which the letters indicate was also the case, that insult and rage alternated as responses to the hegemony of pervasive institutionalized power is recorded in many of the letters, and joy, pleasure, excitement about projects, hers and others’, and love and passion which were overriding sentiments driving most of the correspondence—all attest to Schneemann’s enormous strength and tensile resiliency.

In 1996 Amelia Jones wrote to Carolee Schneemann about having seen the exhibition, “Hall of Mirrors,” curated by Kerry Brougher, to whom Schneemann had addressed a letter about her inclusion in the exhibition and catalogue. Jones wrote, “And, finally, your feminism was a breath of fresh air in a show that (predictably) glossed over all such complexities of politics and points of view (one brief wall text about the ‘male gaze’ wasn’t enough for me!)…But your piece was a solid anchor (or perhaps, more fittingly, a luscious labile core of multiplicitous possible meanings) that, in fact, exposed the somewhat shallow fetishization of the apparatus in the rest of the show. Thank you.”

Carolee Schneemann is essential to performance and to the artists whose work followed hers. (She’d lamented that for her, there were no mentors). The list could include Kiki Smith, Karen Finley, Tracey Emin, Pipilotti Rist, Janine Antoni. At the outset, and continuing, Schneemann’s letters have served as her stage for performance. Here, she drew her self, drew sexual/political lines in the sand that she intended be shifted, drew an audience to see and breathe more fully, and always drawing as a necessary gesture—think of “Up To and Including Her Limits.” And her writing to Amelia Jones in the 1992 letter referring to “Interior Scroll” but applying more broadly, “but all the action—as all of my actions—originate with a drawing…the line…the fragile persistence of line moving in space…Cezanne’s broken line over and over…” Letters too, are lines on paper.

Two more letters. One written to Schneemann in 1994 by artist and critic Brian O’Doherty on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts, denying her application for support. He wrote, “I’ve said before that excellence in our culture seems to be punished as much as rewarded, and this is doubly true in the arts where the vision expressed is unique, often uncomfortable, and unabashedly demands the audience’s time. If we are not to be homogenized mindlessly in the media mixmaster, that vision—that is, your vision—is indispensable.” The second, in 1999 (which closes the book) to the MacArthur Foundation Fellow Program, declining their invitation to her to serve as a nominator. She wrote, “I am not the only woman artist with a distinguished history who has no way to sustain her work, nor provide for her future. I’m enclosing a bibliography, as well as an exhibition and lecture sheet to clarify this extremely paradoxical history, the punishing facts of this mythic ‘career.’ Perhaps you will understand that being in dire straights while enduring a fantasy of success and achievement makes it impossible to fulfill your request.”

But instead of concluding with the end, this final note is taken from the book’s beginning. This is Carolee Schneemann writing to a friend while she was still an undergraduate at Bard. Everything is there in this first, early assertion: how she would write her self, how she could select and construct a self, and the courage to make this decision, which was also a promise: “I decided to write, since it’s so much like a letter I would make to myself were I someone else.” ❚

Volume 33, Number 4: Correspondences

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #132, published December 2014.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.