>ART RETROSPECTIVE / Carolee Schneemann
Ode to a fearless, shameless heroine who taught us not to be afraid of ourselves, our desires and, most importantly, our power.
Carolee the shameless heroine had originally been scheduled to appear in Bella Plume’s debut issue in the Gallery Space section. However, in light of her passing, we thought it appropriate to release this piece today. She will forever remain a force.
CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN FOUGHT THE BATTLE OF SEXES IN THE ART WORLD LONG BEFORE OTHERS: THE AMERICAN ARTIST SHOWED THE WORLD THAT WOMEN HAVE THE RIGHT TO EXPRESS DESIRE AND TO USE THEIR BODY AS THE MATERIAL FOR ART. THROUGHOUT HER CAREER, SHE WANTED TO LIBERATE HERSELF FROM SOCIAL CONVENTIONS AND ARTISTIC CONSTRAINTS.
WE VISITED CAROLEE UPSTATE IN HER MAGICAL COTTAGE, NEXT TO THE EXHIBITION PLACE SHE BUILT FOR HERSELF AND THE LITTLE POND WHERE SHE GOES FOR A SWIM IN THE FREEZING COLD WATER. NAKED, OF COURSE. AFTER BEING CELEBRATED WITH AN EXHIBITION IN SALZBURG AND HONORED WITH THE GOLDEN LION AT THE VENICE BIENNALE LAST YEAR THE 78-YEAR-OLD ARTIST FINALLY GOT HER RETROSPECTIVE AT MOMA PS1 IN HER FORMER HOMETOWN NEW YORK. WE TALKED TO CAROLEE ABOUT HER FAMOUS PERFORMANCES, ABOUT COURAGE, OUTRAGE AND HOW BEAUTY AFFECTED HER LIFE AND WORK.
B.P > In the summer of 1975 you pulled a scroll from your vagina in front of an audience of mostly women artists, reciting a text about the supremacy of men in society. Your performance ”Interior Scroll” caused an outrage.
Carolee: I told the audience that I am reading from my book “Cezanne, She Was a Great Painter” and did a series of poses you would do as a model for a painter. I am always amazed that I seem to do something so radical. It is gratifying and also startling that there was so much resistance and that it was not considered appropriate. People were shocked. Women were very upset, they said: You are betraying us to the worst male phantasies.
Where did you take the courage from to get on that table and do your performance?
Things do not mean anything unless you try it. It is this annoying art voice inside of me. And then I was cutting these pages, folding them up, writing, rolling them up. I started practicing, the ink all running. Then it got to be fun.
Today ”Interior Scroll” is celebrated as a key moment in performance art. Which criticism back then hit the hardest?
The critique from the women. The criticism that my performance was narcissism. Subsequently, Hannah Wilke got the same treatment. Important historians and critics absolutely ignored the work to the point that it became a very aggressive exclusion.
But later you became the symbol of a new wave of feminism and you prepared the stage for a generation of female artists.
I have been the first woman artist who influenced these other women and an artist like Marina Abramović said so at one point.
In the 70s I felt like they were all sitting on my shoulders. That they had to use my work as a bridge to where they needed to be. Younger artists now come and ask me: What was your strategy? What is your practice? They have all these dreadful terms and materialistic expectations now. I do not have a practice: I am not a dentist, not a yoga teacher, not an elephant. I have the process. I do not have a strategy, I have a vision when I am lucky.
In the mid-60s you followed up with your performance “Meat Joy”, an erotic rite that celebrated the raw flesh. It was a battle cry for sexual freedom. What reaction did you get this time?
I was famous overnight. Went to La Coupole, there was a table with me, spread with oysters. It was incredible, not like home. But I realized Europe has a tradition of the exceptional woman. Then they send me to Italy for the Biennale. I lived with Rotraud Klein, the widow of Yves Klein at her wonderful place. She, of course, got me a lover. London came next. What a nightmare, disaster. The audience was completely dead. Like frozen. People thought it was disgusting or did not get it. The police were called. New York was very intense. Very mixed. At that moment minimalism was validated. So, most of the critics took it very harsh. Others were ecstatic.
Did you understand your work as painting with your body?
I was pushing Abstract Expressionism further. Absolutely. But it was denigrated in denial because I was just a pretty girl. Because my body was ideal enough I could use it to work the meanings for the female nude. I was working against Pop Art, against Yves Klein, against masculine aesthetic culture. It was deadly.
The minute you used your body it became political.
I wanted it to be a political act. But not a didactic, hit them over the head political act. I had to speak up on the tangle and the density of suppression and regression in my culture. I had to show it and reveal it but not in a programmatic way. It was metaphoric.
What are you up to these days?
My issue is how to save my house, it will take a lot of funding to give it to a foundation and preserve it. I would like to empty the house and have it just as a spirit site where artists and writers would come to live and work.
Where would you move?
I would be dead. I would like to be buried under the big pine tree but that might be complicated. But I could just call all my old boyfriends and lovers and give them a shovel. And make a film how they buried a diva, that would be fun.