Carolee Schneemann

This an exhibition with an agenda. Carolee Schneemann (born 1939) is famous for her performances and their filmic and photographic records in the period bracketed by Meat Joy, 1964, and Interior Scroll, 1975. The exhibition “Kinetic painting” at Museum Für Moderne Kunst proposes, first, that her work should be seen as expanded painting, thereby challenging the received primacy of medium, and, second, that her whole oeuvre— more than 300 works— should be attended to seriously, from the 1950s through to her current production. By and large, the first case is well made; the second, less so. It’s no coincidence, I suspect, that the five essayists contributing to the comprehensive-looking catalogue of the show (330 pages, also with extensive contributions from Schneemann herself) hardly mention the last 40 years of work: all prefer to revisit the canonical period, which takes up only half the space in this Frankfurt exhibition.

The show opens with paintings, moving from a self-portrait suggesting an already brazen presence at 15, to landscape experiments, to assemblages that add discrepant materials to the canvas. Schneemann, who seems to have known everyone in the ’60s New York art world, is evidently fluent in an abstract language that positions her as a dynamic follower of Rauschenberg but not yet an original force. It seems significant for the future that, though she posed for male artists with no questions asked, she was suspended from Bard College for painting her own nude self-portraits; and that her paintings increasingly fore-grounded a desire to break out of the canvas through cutting, burning and movement.

“I wanted my actual body to be combined with the work as an integral material,” she said. That impulse operated most straightforwardly when she asked male photographers to record her naked in her own working environment: for Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera, 1963, and Body Collage, 1967, in which she covers herself with printer’s paper. Those might be seen as critiques of the phallocentric aspects of abstract expressionism. In the later photographs of Nude on Tracks, 1973–74, in contrast, Schneemann uses her body— geometrically located over a railway line— to satirize the apparent objectivity of minimal art (in striking commonality with Valie Export’s “Body Configurations” series, 1972–82).

Meat Joy itself retained the early assertive nudity, collage principle and painterly effects, while fore-grounding the performance of four men and four women and incorporating the audience in a ‘kinetic theatre.’ I suspect the famous works are themselves somewhat misrepresented in the popular memory bank: Meat Joy is seen as an orgiastic celebration of meat as paint and paint as meat—though that’s actually only a small proportion of the action. The order to strew “fish, chickens and hot dogs” doesn’t occur until the last fifth of the instructions for a 60 to 80-minute performance, during which the ‘all-over’ principle of Pollock’s compositions finds a theatrical equivalent. Schneemann doesn’t follow an additive or developmental path, but welcomes the disparity of messy visuals, spoken French passages and a collage of pop songs.

Carollee Schneemann, Flange 6rpm, 2011-2013. Courtesy Carolee Schneemann, PPOW Gallery, New York, Hales Gallery, London, Galerie Lelong, Paris, and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Axel Schneider.

Likewise, the act of withdrawing a message from the vulvic space in Interior Scroll, 1975, gets more attention than what Schneemann read from the scroll: statements of what will happen to a woman artist (“they will worship you they will ignore you / they will malign you they will pamper you”), and reports on and responses to male views of her work (“he said we are fond of you / you are charming / but don’t ask us / to look at your films”). Schneemann says she “saw the vagina as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model,” and also posited it as a wellspring of interior knowledge.

Meat Joy was the first of several performances and films in which Schneemann found a convincing and painterly language through which to explore radical positions. In challenging the cinematic norm of the fixed, authoritative and typically masculine point of view, she convincingly melded the personal and political. Viet Flakes, 1965, ‘performs’ photographs of American atrocities in Vietnam by means of a camera travelling around them, zooming in and out of focus as if to draw the viewer into active witnessing. That emphasizes the subjective decisions behind what is selected to be shown— over the cornflakes of breakfast, presumably— and how it is presented. In Mignon Nixon’s catalogue words, Schneemann dramatizes “the ambivalent desire to see, and to be blind to, war and the suffering of the other.”

Schneemann has talked of ranging from “rage and fury” to “ecstatic pleasure,” which brings us to Fuses, 1964–67, a 30-minute record of her lovemaking with partner James Tenney. As Mignon Nixon says, Schneemann’s art “privileges erotic liberation over the political privileging of maternal subjectivity,” explicitly laying claim to “woman’s birthright of sexual pleasure, including pleasure in her own image” —or, as Schneemann puts it, “to see what the fuck is, and locate that in terms of a lived sense of equity.” Fuses, too, generates its own presentational logic: it’s a handmade collage, built up from film stock that Schneemann spliced, overpainted and baked over two years, reinforcing the decentred and yet personal and immersive inhabiting of subject matter that is often presented- especially in its subsequent pornographic development— as impersonal. Fuses can be seen as an assertion of women’s right to present the naked body and its erotic potential in their own terms, and so to prefigure attitudes that would become more typical of millennial feminism.

The Sexual Parameters Charts I–III from 1969–75 are a less well-known exploration of related territory. Schneemann and three other women itemize, in a tabulated format typical of conceptual art’s dry presentational gambits, data on their sexual encounters with 40 men, analyzing them across 26 categories ranging from “Number—instead of name” and “relationship status” to “Genital Movement—active and varied, moderate, slight, brief etc,” “attention paid to the clitoris” and “orgasm sound” to “Impression— which characterise the overall sexual quality of the man” —for example, “flat,” “passionate” or “trouble.”

Mortal Coils, 1994-95, installation view, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, 2017. Courtesy Carolee Schneemann, PPOW Gallery, New York, Hales Gallery, London, Galerie Lelong, Paris, and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Axel Schneider.

So far, so good: the political is given added punch by the aesthetics. More oddly, Schneemann’s cat, Kitch (1956–76), takes an increasingly central role. The neutrality of Fuses is partly attributed to its being filmed from a feline viewpoint; Kitch’s Last Meal, 1973–78, documents Schneemann’s life with Kitch and her new human partner, Antony McCall, acknowledging that each meal could be the last for a 20-year-old cat. The five-hour double-screen projection privileges the diaristic over the dramatic, with train journeys and shots of Schneemann at work as well as many of Kitch, and also the comments from which the text for Interior Scroll is partly taken. That fits with what Branden W Joseph, in his catalogue essay, sees as Schneemann’s “embrace of seemingly banal life experience as constitutive of female, as opposed to male, mythology.” Film of Kitch was used as the backdrop to the 10 performances of Up to and Including Her Limits, 1973–76 (in which Schneemann swung in a harness while painting surfaces), and Kitch’s corpse oversaw the 1976 enactment. One of the rooms proposed in Parts of a Body House (watercolours from 1966) is to be filled with cats; and the various versions of Infinity Kisses show Schneemann kissing her cat, a queasy way of flagging an interest in interspecies communication, which could be an eccentricity taken too far or else a radical aspect of Schneemann’s thinking due further exploration.

The later works fail to combine the painterly, personal and political in such a persuasive way. You could regard their full-on engagement with the media representation of current events as part of a career-long preference for all-over excess over more cautious and conventional strategies. Yet, I felt bludgeoned by, rather than lured into, War Mops, 1983 (in which a mechanized mop cleans a TV showing war footage), and Vulva’s Morphia, 1995, in which the titular images are combined with slogans that “let vulva do the talking.”

Terminal Velocity, 2001, exploits rather than adds to the undoubted affect of its 9.11 images; the juxtaposition of war and intimacy in the multi-screen collage Devour, 2003–04, doesn’t have the punch of Viet Flakes; and the whole-room installation, Mortal Coils, 1994–95, is a rather laboured mourning for lost friends.

That said, I like how the Dust Paintings, 1983–86, move back towards Schneemann’s ’50s mode of abstract painting, now referencing the ground ravaged by the war in Lebanon, and are infected directly by embedded items and indirectly by all that she has done in between. And the show closes with another interesting move: Flange 6rpm, 2011–13, sees Schneemann use sculptural language— rather than painting— as the starting point for a performative engagement with the body. Poured aluminum shapes with computer-controlled rotation and lighting effects derived from projections of the furnaces in which they were made yield a heraldically skeletal movement in space. They act as an emptied-out coda for the more direct appearances of Schneemann’s body in the dozen years during which, as this show confirms, she took painting beyond itself in revolutionary and significant directions. ❚