7 Facts About Legendary Performance Artist Carolee Schneemann

Carolee Schneemann is a prolific feminist painter and experimental visual artist. Here are some facts about this versatile artist.

Aug 30, 2020By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature
Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions For Camera by Carolee Schneemann, 1963/2005, via MoMA, New York


Carolee Schneemann occupies a special position in the art of the 1960s and 1970s. She is considered a pioneer of feminist performance art. In the following text, you will find seven interesting facts about the artist and her works of art.


1. Carolee Schneemann Always Saw Herself As A Painter


four fur cutting boards
Four Fur Cutting Boards by Carolee Schneemann, 1963, via MoMA, New York 


Most people know Carolee Schneemann as a performance artist and a pioneer of feminist art. What many people don’t know is that Schneemann not only completed a classical study of painting, she also understood herself as a painter all her life. Born in 1939 in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania, the visually experimental artist holds a B.A. degree from Bard College, an M.F.A. in painting from the University of Illinois, and an honorary doctor of fine arts from the California Institute of Art and the Maine College of Art.


In an interview with Scott McDonald in 1980, she declared: “I’m a painter, working with my body and ways of thinking about movement and environment that come out of the discipline of having painted for six or eight hours a day for years. That’s got to be the root of my language in any medium. I’m not a filmmaker. I’m not a photographer. I’m a painter.” Painting, as this quote from the artist makes clear, can be seen as the basis for her artistic work. It is the starting point for all understanding of Schneemann’s art.


quarry transposed central park
Quarry Transposed (Central Park in the Dark) by Carolee Schneemann, 1960, via PPOW Gallery, New York


2. Her Early Work Was Influenced By Paul Cézanne And Jackson Pollock

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A look at the early paintings of Carolee Schneemann shows the US-American artist was influenced by partly very contradictory art movements. In the research on Carolee Schneemann’s painting, there is evidence of inspiration from Paul Cézanne‘s Impressionism as well as a strong influence by contemporaries such as Robert Rauschenberg and the action painting of Jackson Pollock. However, more than simply using or adopting the techniques and style of these artists in her own paintings, Schneemann reflected them in her art, sometimes even satirizing them. Like her contemporary Joan Jonas, Carolee Schneemann understood painting as a “male-dominated medium” and the brush as “phallic”. Even more than Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning at that time, Schneemann questioned painting in its two-dimensionality and wanted to expand painting into space and time. This reflection ended in segmental images and assemblages and can be seen in large format paintings like Quarry Transposed (1960), Sphinx (1961) or Fur Wheel (1962). 


fur wheel carolee schneeman
Fur Wheel by Carolee Schneemann, 1962, via PPOW Gallery, New York 


Author Maura Reilly writes in her essay The paintings of Carolee Schneemann (2011): “Each [painting] demonstrates the artist’s continued desire to push painting through the canvas, out of the frame, and into the spectator’s space, while at the same time structuring the ‘real’ with the visual composition of a painter’s eye.” An examination of Jackson Pollock’s action painting is also found in Schneemann’s performance entitled Up To and Including Her Limits (1976). Trapped in a harness and naked, the artist paints in front of an audience, thereby exaggerating Pollock’s form of painting. In this performance, criticism of the concentration on the male body and its sexualization in Pollock’s art can be seen.


3. Part Of The New York “Experimental Avant-Garde”


After moving from Illinois to New York with her partner James Tenney in 1961, Schneemann quickly became part of the so-called “experimental avant-garde” and associated herself with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, and other second-generation abstract expressionist artists. Through a colleague of Tenney’s at Bell Laboratories, Billy Klüver, Schneemann met Claes Oldenburg, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg, who integrated her into the activities of the art program of the Judson Dance Theater at Judson Memorial Church. 


store days documents claes oldenburg
Store Days; documents from The Store (1961) and Ray Gun Theater (1962), by Claes Oldenburg, selected by Claes Oldenburg and Emmett Williams, photographed by Robert R. McElroy, 1967, via Walker Art Center, Minneapolis


There she took part in works such as Claes Oldenburg’s Store Days (1962). In Robert Morris Site (1964) she played a living version of Édouard Manet‘s Olympia (1863). Conscious of liberating her body from the status of cultural possession and re-appropriating it for herself, she used it naked in works of art. Schneemann was interested in the art of the Abstract Expressionists of her time, but Schneemann’s own pictorial constructions, despite their connections in the art scene, met with little interest from New York art dealers. Consequently, Carolee Schneemann increasingly devoted herself to her own cinematic performances and experimental films.


4. Her Performances And Installations Were Criticised By Feminists


meat joy carolee schneeman
Meat Joy by Carolee Schneemann, 1964, via Whitney Museum, New York 


In all her artworks, Carolee Schneemann negotiated the themes of physicality, sexuality, and gender roles. Schneemann’s most famous performance to date is her first one: Meat Joy (1964). In Schneemann’s so-called kinetic theatre performance half-naked male and female bodies rolled across the floor in front of an audience in color and a mixture of raw meat, fish, and sausages. With performances like this Schneemann shocked her audience in the 1960s. Criticism came from both conservative and feminist sides. Unlike many of her colleagues, Carolee Schneemann was less concerned with the presentation of harassment or oppression in her works and more with body appropriation, sexual expression, and emancipation. 


At first, feminists strongly criticized the fact that the artist primarily used naked bodies for expression. It was not until the 1990s that Schneemann’s image as an icon of feminist art was born. With her works, she influenced other artists such as Valie Export, the Guerilla Girls, Tracy Min, and Karen Finley. Carolee Schneemann is much more than “just” a feminist artist. But feminist themes determine her oeuvre. Recurring themes are physicality, sexuality, and gender roles.


5. Carolee Schneemann And Her Partner Are The Protagonists In Fuses (1965)


fuses carolee schneeman
Fuses by Carolee Schneemann, 1964 via EAI, New York


To this day, the film Fuses (1965) is not only one of the most famous works by Carolee Schneemann, but the film is also considered a controversial classic of recent art history. The film is a self-righteous piece showing Carolee Schneemann and her partner having sexual intercourse. The images are overlaid and distorted with cinematic effects so that the view is limited to the nakedness of the bodies and the whole thing appears like a dream. 


The Guardian newspaper wrote about this film by the artist: “The notorious masterpiece… a silent celebration in color of heterosexual lovemaking. The film unifies erotic energies within a domestic environment through cutting, superimposition, and layering of abstract impressions scratched into the celluloid itself… Fuses succeeds perhaps more than any other film in objectifying the sexual streamings of the body’s mind.“


fuses carolee schneeman
Fuses by Carolee Schneemann, 1964, via EAI, New York


Fuses is not only a provocative piece of film, but the artistic work is also a good example of how Schneemann’s films were influenced by her painting. Thus, the edited shot as well as the video stills shown in this article seem like many abstract expressionist paintings that have many different layers that overlap and that allow the artist’s action in creating this work of art to be openly recognized.


6. She Thought Of Her Vagina As A Sculptural Form


Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneemann, 1975, via Tate, London (see full scroll here)


Carolee Schneemann’s nudity and her female body were often dominant elements in the artist’s performances. She used both her body and her genitals for her artistic expression. The artist herself understood her vagina as a kind of sculpture. In the text to her performance Meat Joy, she explained: “I thought of the vagina in many ways – physically, conceptually: as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the source of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation. I saw the vagina as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model: enlivened by its passage from the visible to the invisible, a spiraled coil ringed with the shape of desire and generative mysteries, attributes of both female and male sexual powers. This source of ‘interior knowledge’ would be symbolized as the primary index unifying spirit and flesh … the source of conceptualizing, of interacting with materials, of imagining the world and composing its images.” 


carolee schneeman interior scroll
Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneemann, 1975, via Moore Women Artists 


The significance of the vagina as a sculptural body and meaningful physical space is also the theme of Snowman’s famous performance Interior Scroll (1975). In front of an audience – mainly women artists – Schneemann in this performance undressed in front of her viewers. She then read naked from her book Cézanne, She Was A Great Painter (published in 1967). After that, she put paint onto her body and after a while removed slowly a narrow scroll of paper from her vagina reading out loud from it. 


7. Carolee Schneemann Produced Openly Political Films Against The Vietnam War


viet flakes carolee schneeman
Viet Flakes by Carolee Schneemann, 1965 via Another Gaze


Carolee Schneemann was a feminist and performance artist, she was a painter – and she was obviously political. Her political commitment was also evident in films directed against the Vietnam War. One of them is Viet Flakes (1965). The 7-minute 16 mm film consists of a collection of Vietnam atrocity images, compiled over five years, from foreign magazines and newspapers. Broken visual rhythms in the film are complemented by music by Carolee Schneemann’s partner James Tenney, which includes Vietnamese songs as well as fragments of classical and pop music. This film makes the suffering of the people in Vietnam during the war particularly clear.


These seven facts about Carolee Schneemann show that the artist was diverse in her work but also in her political stance. She was an explicit and provocative artist and was criticized for this from many sides. Carolee Schneemann died in 2019. Two years earlier she was honored with the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale.

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By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On TheCollector.com you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.