ART— CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN
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.