She describes the thought patterns that she enjoys in between as something based in “suspended time.” The results are both deeply thought-out and, as with the best of art these days, entirely respectful to the powers of instinct and observations built over time – plus the joys of happenstance.
“Within and beyond the Premises,” curated by the Dorsky’s spot-on curator Brian Wallace, takes viewers into Schneemann’s work on a biographical line, and throughout its journey keeps returning to both the diversity of work that she has created over time and the underlying craftsmanship and training, as well as the simultaneous intellectual rigor and heartfulness, behind all that she does.
Schneemann was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania and saw her acceptance to Bard College, from which a few early pieces here emanate, as a watershed moment. “That saved my life,” she says of reaching a place where, for the first time, she was told that she could take her art seriously, even if she was “only a girl.”
Walking me through a hall of increasingly complex and effective paintings, Schneemann explains that at the same time that she saw herself “working with color field, all they saw was the sex…It’s a problem that’s plagued me my whole life.”
The painting grows denser, with staccato rhythms mirroring Midwestern thunderstorms, from her MFA studies at the University of Illinois, then suddenly springs forth after she moves to an old furrier’s loft in New York, incorporating found objects and an open rawness. Her first week in the City, she recalls, she found herself at Claes Oldenberg’s innovative space of the day. She got to know Lucas Samaras and Robert Rauschenberg. Her boyfriend, the composer Jim Terry, found work at Bell Laboratories; and, although she found herself rejected by every gallery that she approached, she started becoming a key element in the downtown art scene of the early 1960s.
Work was being shown in artists’ lofts and a few key spaces open to new creativity around the City. Showing up at Schneemann’s showings, as well as her later dance and more site-specific events, were the likes of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol, still trying to make it as more than a successful illustrator. “The culture was such that you could live an alternative life,” she says of that time when New York was still cheap, filled with raw spaces and a creative set not chasing money or even gallery shows.
Within a few years, Schneemann found herself extending her work into new areas. She saw it as a natural progression of her studies of form – a sort of three-dimensional collage. Others took it as a leap. She was asked to curate and provide visuals for dance theater at a space in the Judson Church near Washington Square, which has now become famous for its role as the key space for the Happenings, Fluxus and other key bodies of work and artists to come out of that time. “I would have dancers jumping off ladders with buckets of paint, and sometimes they’d be reluctant,” Schneemann says of her move into becoming a part of her art – a lead player, as it were. “I found I had to do it. I never wanted to be performing as such, but here we are. There was a sequence of actions in what I was doing where the body was a part of the painting. I just didn’t anticipate that, in others’ eyes, it would be the body – my body – which would dominate.”
Working in her studio, she created a series of installation works in which her nude body played a key role. Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions hit the male-oriented art scene of the time like a cannon-shot. A year later, she was invited to Paris, where she created Meat Joy, a sensuous performance of numerous bodies that played to packed crowds (including the famed Surrealist Man Ray) for three weeks, then moved to London, where the work was seen as pornographic.
Schneemann saw what she was doing as a means of retrieving the idea of the female nude from generations of male artists and male critics. Those critics, and a number of the male artists whom she was addressing, reacted by calling all that she was doing “indulgent,” “excessive” and “appalling.” As another layer, within a year she started politicizing what she was doing, taking on the horrors of the Vietnam War years before the movement went mainstream – or onto the nation’s campuses, even. She created works that audience members had to crawl into or through; she mixed in film and early forms of video. She would always start with drawings, though – which are part of the new show. And she always saw what she was doing as a reaction to the world of painting that had first attracted her as a younger woman.
She moved upstate as a means of escaping the madness of New York and having a quiet, pleasant place to incubate works and live a normal life. She found an old farm in what was once Springtown, just north of New Paltz, and discovered a stone house under the structure that she had bought. She fondly remembers those instances in which the house seemed to speak to her about what it needed removed, and what she subsequently uncovered. Over the years, this process has both consumed and grounded the artist, on the one hand, while simultaneously freeing her to use similar methods with her own creativity.
In 1975, while in the Hamptons visiting a friend, she was invited to address a women’s seminar. She created Interior Scroll, a piece actually witnessed by few but grown legendary over the years via documentary photographs of the moment when she pulled a long creedlike poem from her vagina and read it. “Who would have imagined that piece would enter the culture as it did?” Schneemann now says in wonderment. “It disappeared for a while, but now I can’t get rid of it. It’s annoying.”
During that same period Schneemann performed Up to and Including Her Limits, in which she drew while strapped into a harness, naked, her body as much a part of her works as what lines she produced. Using silkscreens, she caught the moment, later, when her husband was moving out and her new partner moving in, sharing a rented van, and called the resulting piece The Men Cooperate. She broke down the advice that she was getting from others, her own dreams and actual conversations about the divorce process and alternated them with personal images, creating a piece that she now describes as “full of advice that people can’t use” – something mirroring a state that any of us who has broken with a partner can recognize.
There are a video work centered on a cat’s final meal; large works dedicated to a number of associates and close friends who died during a short period of time; stylized imagery of how couples fight; a series of Infinity Kisses between herself and favorite cats; a composite wall and video portrait of moments in time, captured through glimpses. More recently, there’s her powerful reaction to the 9/11 tragedy, Terminal Velocity, working with images of falling bodies from the World Trade Center collapse. Granted, it was met with aghast controversy when first shown in New York; but now it captures the moment and its legacy with pitch-perfect astonishment. From last year at the Tate Liverpool, in England, comes a record of the video installation Precarious.
“I still face times when I don’t know if I’m ever going to do anything again,” Schneemann says, most humanly, of her lifelong work at extracting points of jarring but inevitably empathic art from the specifics of living. She mentions how there are characters whom she’s learned to invite into and listen to within her dreams, telling her not only what to make images of, but also how to construct her often-complex installations.
But she also talks about how this retrospective in her hometown of so many years – her first local showing – has invigorated her and opened up ideas for both new works and fresh ways of looking back at all that she has created over her long, influential career. “Up here, people tend to keep to themselves,” she says of how she and other artists, neighbors and basically everyone, get consumed with working, traveling. “You cut the wood, you change the kitty litter…”
She notes that the recent opening of the Dorsky show was a true This Is Your Life moment, mixing art-world folks with neighbors who had only heard of her when national controversies picked her out at her Ulster County home – but also as something with which to start working. Given Carolee Schneemann’s productive past, what comes next should not be missed. In the end, all that she makes of herself – both stripped bare and observant of all that she has ever worn – is a testament to the shared experience of all of us.
“Carolee Schneemann: Within and beyond the Premises,” curated by Brian Wallace, will be up at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY-New Paltz through July 25. Viewer discretion is advised. For further information, including directions and full museum hours, call (845) 257-3844 or visit www.newpaltz.edu/museum.