BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Coleen Fitzgib­bon

Break­ing the Frame, a film by Marielle Ni­toslawska about Sch­nee­mann’s unique legacy, serves as a de­par­ture point for an ex­change about the “beauty para­dox,” his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary pa­tri­archies, and the artist’s on­go­ing sub­ver­sion of gen­der codes.

Carolee Sch­nee­mann’s ex­ten­sive artis­tic oeu­vre spans per­for­mance, film, paint­ing, and sculp­ture from the 1960s to the present. Af­ter study­ing paint­ing at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois, Sch­nee­mann quickly em­braced Fluxus hap­pen­ings and per­for­mances in New York and ex­panded her work to in­clude ob­jects and media. I met Sch­nee­mann at the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago (SAIC) in 1971, when she ar­rived as a vis­it­ing artist in the film depart­ment. Her screen­ing of Fuses and her lec­tures on god­dess mytholo­gies caused protests among the all-male SAIC fac­ulty but were ea­gerly at­tended by the en­tire stu­dent body. In the 1970s, when Sch­nee­mann lived in New York City with artist An­thony McCall, she in­tro­duced me to vis­ual artists and film­mak­ers of the down­town scene. In 1974, I shot the film Trip to Carolee with Mar­jorie Keller while hous­esit­ting for Sch­nee­mann and tak­ing care of her cat in New Paltz, New York.

Marielle Ni­toslawska’s film Break­ing the Frame (2012), a thought­ful and ab­sorb­ing mon­tage about Sch­nee­mann’s life and work, partly filmed in New Paltz, made me want to re­visit some of the ex­pe­ri­ences and changes in the per­cep­tion of women’s art­work that Sch­nee­mann and I have lived through over the past few decades.

— Coleen Fitzgib­bon

COLEEN FITZGIB­BON: Pat Steir once said that your prob­lem in the male­dom­i­nated art world was that you were too beau­ti­ful. A re­cent Psy­chol­ogy To­day ar­ti­cle talked about the “beauty para­dox”—how women are not ac­cepted as lead­ers if they’re beau­ti­ful be­cause they are ex­pected to be “fem­i­nine.” And fem­i­nine women can­not be lead­ers be­cause they’re not mas­cu­line.

CAROLEE SCH­NEE­MANN: Well, it’s more com­pli­cated than that. If women are beau­ti­ful, they’re a source of arousal, and that dis­tracts male pur­pose. Beauty is ad­he­sive, it’s sticky. There’s also the tra­di­tional mind-body split. In or­der to be in­tel­lec­tu­ally de­pend­able, you can’t have a volup­tuous, lus­cious, erotic body, be­cause the split is be­tween in­tel­li­gence and sex­u­al­ity.

CF: As in Greek mythol­ogy, Athena is the god­dess of wis­dom and war, and Aphrodite the god­dess of beauty and love. The Ro­man Vestal Vir­gins, priest­esses of the god­dess of the hearth Vesta, cul­ti­vated and guarded the sa­cred fires that pro­tected Rome. Vestals took a vow of chastity and were free of obli­ga­tions to marry and have chil­dren while they se­cured the con­tin­u­a­tion of Rome. They were vir­gin guardians, likely beau­ti­ful, but no sex.

CS: That’s another de­mand—beauty was a re­quire­ment for sa­cred spir­i­tu­al­ity.

CF: Your per­for­mances show the lib­er­at­ing ef­fects of fe­male sex­ual ec­stasy. Your films Fuses, Meat Joy, Up To And In­clud­ing Her Lim­its, and In­te­rior Scroll re­veal, for me, the pos­i­tive en­er­gies of sex­u­al­ity and in­tel­li­gence in women, and how they don’t have to be sev­ered.

CS: Well, I wouldn’t say it that way. I’d say that, in my work, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the per­form­ers, male and fe­male, has an ec­static, erotic as­pect. It has noth­ing to do with fe­male lib­er­a­tion as such, or women per­form­ing in a cer­tain way. It has to do with a sen­si­tized sit­u­a­tion in which the par­tic­i­pants prac­tice re­la­tional spon­tane­ity. It’s not about spon­ta­neous ex­pres­siv­i­ties; all par­tic­i­pants ex­pe­ri­ence a set of rig­or­ous and in­tense ex­er­cises that sen­si­tize us in terms of mov­ing, shift­ing, han­dling bod­ies, and the taboos in re­gard to smells and be­ing touched.

CF: One of your ear­li­est pieces was Meat Joy in 1964, in Paris. Had you seen Yves Klein’s per­for­mances with nude women be­ing dragged through blue paint?

CS: I couldn’t have seen those per­for­mances, he died in 1962 and my first time in Europe was for the Fes­ti­val of Free Ex­pres­sion, or­ga­nized by Jean Jac­ques Lebel in 1964. But Klein’s widow, Ro­traut Uecker, was my re­ally close friend, a sculp­tor her­self, and I lived with her in Paris. I al­ways thought that Klein used the women as kind of ac­ti­vated pup­pets. The per­for­mances had this Baroque el­e­gance with mu­si­cians in for­mal clothes play­ing French clas­si­cal mu­sic, and naked women mark­ing can­vases with their nude bod­ies in a beau­ti­ful blue color. It was all part of some­thing very phe­nom­e­nal about get­ting the nude off the can­vas, so I had a great re­spect for it, but I didn’t like it that much. The ob­ses­sion with fe­male form be­came so mech­a­nized. The male Pop artists’ end­less de­pic­tion of nudes that looked like shiny parts of au­to­mo­biles— these were all very strong in­flu­ences that I could work against.

CF: The men and women in your per­for­mances are work­ing to­gether, equally shar­ing the bur­den, and it’s much messier than with Klein.

CS: He’s a tra­di­tional male di­rec­tor who stands out­side of his cre­ation and di­rects it—he doesn’t get paint on him­self. He’s in charge of where the paint goes.

CF: In your case, you’re the di­rec­tor but you also join the group. You’re stained all over like ev­ery­one else.

CS: That’s the premise of the work, al­ways. I never have any­one en­act any­thing that I wouldn’t do my­self. There’s no sep­a­ra­tion be­tween me and the per­form­ers. There’s no hi­er­ar­chy ex­cept that it’s my vi­sion, and the par­tic­i­pants must want to be a part of it.

CF: Stan Brakhage said that you started out as a dancer?

CS: No, I’m a pain­ter! I’ve al­ways been a pain­ter. I was trained as a pain­ter; I live as a pain­ter. It’s just that men al­ways wanted to get the brush out of my hand.

CF: When you were in school at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois, your part­ner was James Ten­ney, the com­poser. I read that the male fac­ulty were out­raged and con­sid­ered it ob­scene that you painted Ten­ney naked, show­ing his gen­i­tals.

CS: That was at Bard ac­tu­ally, and they took that paint­ing out of the se­nior paint­ing ex­hibit in 1960.


But you con­tin­ued to paint?

CS: I couldn’t give up. Since I was a child I was be­ing told to stop paint­ing.

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