This year, Carolee Schneemann received the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion Award. She is also the subject of a major retrospective, Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting, which will travel from the Museum der Moderne Salzburg to open at MoMA PS1 on October 22 — a level of recognition for which she has waited five decades.
In Schneemann’s provocative paintings, sculptures, installations, performances, films, and videos, serendipity often plays a crucial role, interceding as an intermediary to life’s bothersome snags. In fact, serendipity courses through her entire career. A suspension from Bard College for painting herself nude (despite permission to pose nude for male students) seeded her sense of female empowerment. She went on to use her body as a medium to spring the female form from its frame, and to pursue explicit expressions of female sexuality. If her physical body was central to her project, it also often eclipsed her larger body of work. Hugely significant innovations, born or sired by chance, are now becoming more visible as the breadth of her legacy is acknowledged. At a Huguenot inn near her home in upstate New York, Schneemann spoke with Joyce Beckenstein about her early struggles for recognition, the sensuous connections between the beautiful and the grotesque, and her enduring kinship with cats.
Joyce Beckenstein: What was going through your mind when you found out you’d received the Golden Lion award?
Carolee Schneemann: I was incredulous! I first thought it was a mistake; I didn’t understand what it was until people starting writing me. Now I’m an archivist, an organizer, and I have to tell myself that this new confluence is a kind of work.
JB: Hadn’t much of that work already been done for you over the years?
CS: My work was acknowledged for its historical significance, but it was nevertheless treated in a marginal way for many years. It took a feminist revolution to ensure that no decent gallery was without what I call a “token cunt.” With the culture concentrating on my work with the body as either pornographic or narcissistic, it was hard to get teaching jobs, or to have the work exhibited in terms of its evolving process.
JB: Now, “Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting,” which opened at the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg in 2015 and travelled to The MMK in Frankfurt this May, will open at MoMA, P.S.I in October. What’s changed?
CS: P.P.O.W. gallery has been committed to my work for two decades. Recently a number of remarkable exhibits have brought attention to neglected works from the ’80s and ’90s. A few brave and devoted curators — Christine Marcel of the Pompidou Center, and Kristine Stiles — fought for this recognition, as did Elga Wimmer, Dan Cameron, and Robert Riley. Women have to live long enough — no longer be sexually desirable — for the erotic aspect of their works not to confuse or overwhelm the cultural significance.
JB: There has been an obsessive focus on your body rather than on your body of work: your artistic life has been as an innovator in filmmaking, performance, installation, and video art. Yet you’ve always defined yourself as a painter. When you met Jim Tenney, you said, “I’m a painter who paints space as time.” He responded: “I’m a composer who composes time as space.”
CS: The relationship with Jim was intense, and we shared the research we were doing: his in music and science, mine in visual aesthetics and art history. Jim’s work influenced my considerations of dissonance, fragmentation, repetition — the way when you split two elements there is some incremental energy between them, as with collage. Our love fueled and sustained my art. When people said, “This is crap,” there were the two of us rowing our boat together.
JB: And how do you describe that time/space aspect of painting?
CS: It had to do with physicality: the energy of the stroke, the gesture of the arm extending the body into visual space. Also how the painting is relayed through the mysterious intensity of the eye to the surface. There is a kinetic sense of visual tracking, an energizing force between eye and hand, a gestalt to the way everything is perceived to be energetically connected.
JB: Where did that concept of gestalt come from?
CS: When I was eleven I traveled to a museum and was drawn by the intoxicating aroma of oil paint to a room downstairs where adults were painting a still-life. The teacher invited me into the class and set me up with drawing supplies. At one point he took a student’s paper sandwich bag, tore it up, threw the pieces on the floor, and asked everyone if they knew what it was about. No one replied, but I said, “I think it’s about the rhythm between the pieces.” The teacher was pleased and said, “Yes, this is gestalt.”
JB: In that regard, you’ve talked about the influence of Cézanne and the problems he had trying to integrate his bathers within space.
CS: I began as a landscape painter and was going nuts trying to transpose landscape into painting — I wanted the energy of what I was seeing, but the form was so predetermined. Cézanne exemplifies this struggle. His early works are sexualized, misogynist, and possess a dense, visceral erotic energy. I understood the conflict and saw his need to tame it all into structure. Cézanne opened procedural thresholds for me. I began to carve my paintings with razor blades, trying to enter the other side of them.
JB: How did you make the leap from painting space as time to other media?
CS: All my work contains visual sequences — this goes back to my childhood drawings from when I was four or five that are filmic. I used ten pages of images and move through them as if they are time.
JB: Those drawings foreshadow much of the imagery in your art. There is one of a cat springing out of a box, a series of vertical marks beneath the box underscoring its charged movement.
CS: The cat also represents the energy moving between domestic and natural worlds: cats’ grace is in tandem with their delicate intimacy, hunting, and capture. In Fuses (1965), my self-shot experimental erotic film, our cat Kitch is an appreciative witness.
JB: This brings us to another dynamic in your process: your visceral sense of using space to power tension in your work. You have compared it to the vulnerable instant when, climbing stairs, one foot trusts the other to hold steady as it ascends the next step. So much of your art seems to take place within those shifting spaces.
CS: That was my sensation of swinging in a harness in Up to and Including Her Limits (1973-76) [a performance in which Schneemann, suspended in a harness on a three-quarter inch manila rope, sustains an entranced period of drawing. Her extended arm holds crayons that stroke the surrounding walls, accumulating a web of colored marks]. I recognized that the suspension would lead me to another aspect of drawing that I could sustain over a long period of time. It’s an ecstatic feeling, but it takes abdominal strength to keep moving and not spill out of the harness. The work relates to a child’s pleasurable feeling in a swing, but it also addresses Pollock’s extended stroke.
JB: Meat Joy (1964), — one of your most controversial works — rambunctiously plays with psychic space. You’ve described it as “an erotic rite — excessive, indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material: raw fish, chicken, sausages, wet paint … shifting and turning among tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon; qualities that could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent.” Where did that concoction come from?
CS: As a teenager I worked on a chicken farm. Chopping their heads and eviscerating these chickens was very sensuous. When I was in Paris to create Meat Joy, Jean-Jaques Lebel arranged for me to stay at the hotel La Louisiane. My room was directly above a fragrant fish market and I hung a recorder out my window to capture all the cries of the vendors. This would become part of the soundtrack for the performance. The visceral erotic aspect to the work relates to lived experience, and many find disturbing what should be delicious and splendid.
JB: There is always the body politic in your work, whether it deals with feminism or the atrocities of war and despotism. Video installations are often the medium. How did you go from film to this technology, and how did it impact your process?
CS: Fuses (1965), was done in 16mm. For Viet-Flakes (1965), dealing with the atrocities of the Vietnam War, I used suppressed footage culled from international magazines. Later, computer editing changed my filmmaking process; I could do almost anything with the video system.
JB: Most of your video works are edited as fractured collages that contrast domestic life with horrific catastrophes. Devour (2003-4) loops war footage with domestic intimacy. How did these installations gestate from your earlier works, particularly those featuring your body?
CS: The presence of my body here goes to my empathy with the mutilated bodies. I have the privilege of observation; the privilege of not being threatened, raped, stabbed, hung from a noose. Now I’m considering the destruction of culture in the Middle East. Many of my “nightmare” works like Souvenir of Lebanon (1983-2006) and More Wrong Things (2001) combine images of atrocities with elements from my own environment, mixing my own personal footage and found footage.
JB: Flange 6 rpm (2013), recalls much of your early abstract imagery, yet it addresses your sensual ambiguity — the way in which a projection of raging fire envelops a sculptural series of motorized, poured metal flanges. There’s visceral tension in their gyrating movements toward and away from one another. How did this work come about?
CS: From a dream, like so many of my works. While walking down the street in Soho, I imagined a stick suspended in space and wondered what would happen if I put it in motion. I made drawings and conceived of a motorized computer system. The flange sculptures were originally each hand-formed in a lost wax process, which was then burnt out into a poured aluminum mold. The flange relates to the compendium of V-forms in Venus Vectors (1987), a large sculpture of transparent panels through which one sees V-forms from Paleolithic imagery, pyramids, wings, and one panel that includes a video performance.
JB: What do you tell students who want to become artists, and what are some of the challenges out there?
CS: There is currently a fundamental difference in the way students initiate their process, because of its digital mediation, and because increasingly formal art education encourages them towards a predetermined concept of what the work must be. There is a sense of, “you tell us what to do and we will do it, then get a gallery and sell work.” I let them know it is chaotic out there in terms of commercialism, I let them know I reject common academic language: I don’t have a “practice,” I have a process. My work has concept, but is not conceptual as such; I don’t “unpack” anything except my travel bag. I tell them to question rhetoric, to stop being fearful of history, to look at what excites them, and to what has vigor and history. You belong to what you inherit and can transform.
Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting will be on view October 22, 2017 – March 11, 2017, at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens).