Carolee Schneemann is a painter. She studied painting in college. She painted a male nude that got her in trouble with her male teachers. She has pretty much stayed in trouble ever since. She has a gift for getting men upset with her art.
Nowadays this naked feminist–who uses nudity as a medium–regards the canvas as a straitjacket, though she insists, “I’m a painter. I’m always a painter. I consider anything I do painting. I just don’t use brush and canvas.”
Thanks to a tornado in downstate Sydney back in 1961, Schneemann crossed the threshold into performance art. At the time she was studying painting at the University of Illinois. “When a tree crashed down into the back of our shack, that’s when I began to compose a journey through the altered landscape, which was inspired by my cat Kitch, who saw the tree crashed into the kitchen as a very useful access between inside and outside, whereas for us it was a disaster because the landlord was 86 years old and nothing would ever get fixed.”
She invited her friends to tour her storm-ravaged domicile as an art environment. With Kitch as her scout, she set foot on the virgin territory of installation and performance art.
Soon afterward she was teaching drawing at the University of Illinois campus at Navy Pier and hanging out at Second City. “They helped me think about using the self for performance.”
Moving on to New York City, she was uninspired by the painting scene. “I just had the sense that the canvas had already been completely vitalized and explored by Pollock and de Kooning. All I could really do with my need to activate that surface was to slice through it and come out the other side.” Now, she says, this reminds her of the Godard film where men watching a nudie movie lunge for the stripper on the screen.
Schneemann began staging installations and performances–calling them “actions”–in her New York loft. In her 1963 piece Eye Body, she says, she tried to overstep her status as “cunt mascot on the men’s art team.” Amid broken mirrors and motorized umbrellas, she appeared nude with live snakes crawling over her. The following year she collaborated with Robert Morris in Site, posing nude as Manet’s Olympia. “He immobilized me, he historicized me, he turned me into a frozen icon of Manet and Goya,” she says.
In a journal about these experimental efforts she later wrote, “I was permitted to be an image, but not an image-maker creating her own self-image.”
Schneemann started a performance troupe and debuted Meat Joy–a “celebration of flesh as material”–in Paris at the Festival for Free Expression. The mostly nude cast embraced fish, meat, and sausages–all raw–accompanied by recordings of Rue de Seine vendors. Her “erotic rite” rubbed at least one member of the audience the wrong way. He attempted to strangle her. Help came in the form of a trio of well-dressed women who were the only ones who guessed that the attacker wasn’t part of the act.
Schneemann soon turned from the outdated canvas–turf she termed the “Art Stud Club”–to the underground cinema.
For her infamous Fuses, Schneemann assumed roles on both sides of the camera. The outcome, finished in 1967, was a dense, richly textured take, mostly from Schneemann’s point of view, on her and her boyfriend making love. The film was lauded by various critics for its “vertiginous intimacy,” “an optical promiscuity,” and a “highly sensual ambiguity.”
But the film caused an uproar at the 1968 Cannes film festival. “In the middle of the screening, 12 or 15 men went berserk,” Schneemann says. “They started hopping around and screaming and tearing up their chairs. With razor blades they sliced up the seats they were sitting in. It was petrifying. I happened to be standing in the back with Susan Sontag, and I thought she would know what was going on, and she just said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’
“I never imagined that Fuses would be a classic film. I never imagined that it would still be a unique representation of heterosexual lovemaking as depicted by the woman in the lovemaking. I sort of thought it would spawn thousands of variations on itself. It is still unique. It’s still censored. I’m proud of that.
“My films were made to capture the sensation of imagery and to hold it. And once I had it on film, the real-life circumstances dissolved. There seemed to be a spirit to film that dissolved life, that took the living material out of its present frame. Many people ask me if I had assumed that anything you filmed would no longer be in your life, that a trade was going on.
“So I made a deal with the film spirit. I’m going to work with a subject until it dies. There’s going to be a very clear time frame around it. The subject was a 17-year-old cat. The promise was I would film what the cat saw, and intercut that with details of the lives of people I would see the cat paying attention to, and then intercut that with my feeding the cat until the cat died.”
That was the end of Kitch, whose last meal–a lamb chop–was caught on film.
That Schneemann handles sex, death, and meat in her art with such ease may have something to do with her upbringing as the daughter of a Pennsylvania country doctor. “Normal dinner conversation would be dad slicing the meat and talking on the phone: “Is it superating? Well, has it got a yellow pus look or a little more red?”‘
Her summer job in high school was helping an artificial inseminator. “The only thing they really wouldn’t let you do was to castrate the little pigs. That was not for girls. The men couldn’t stand us even being around then. I wonder what that was all about,” she laughs.
And what little town in Pennsylvania was that? “Never mind,” she sighs, shifting gears. “I think what we have to watch out for is that we make these mythologies instead of talking about the work. I’m very exhausted with just telling stories. That’s not what my work is about. It’s People magazine-type titillation where you think if you grew up in a certain town and run around naked you’re going to get a spark of genius. Well, fuck that.
“My work is about the ecstatic. For me it’s like an entrancement where I invite very uncertain, very unconscious energies to come through me. It’s a matter of psychic life and death to get the suppressed female energies out, now that I know that’s what I’m really working on.”
In 1975 this process was embodied in her performance titled Interior Scroll, in which she read a coiled text she pulled from her vagina. The scroll related her encounter with “a structuralist filmmaker” who said he couldn’t abide “the diaristic indulgence” and “painterly mess” of her films.
Over the years Schneemann’s most loyal assistants have been felines. About Fuses critic David James wrote, “The only stable persona implied is a black cat, its manifest sensuality is a purring correlative to the action. . . . It illustrates the pussy’s point of view.” That was Kitch who was watching.
Recently Schneemann was reading “The Reign of the Phallus” when her kitten Vesper–“he doesn’t weigh more than a pound of hamburger”–nuzzled under the covers. In a new video made by Schneemann’s neighbor Victoria Vesna, Vesper’s Stampede to My Holy Mouth, Schneemann announces: “Into this sexually distorted universe, posit the inexplicable embrace of a tiny kitten whose gentle lips produce an unexpected female orgasm.”
“I’m always shocked by what my culture finds shocking,” she says. Although Vesper’s adventures have not elicited the ire of censors yet, Schneemann says, “I find these repressive reactions to be so obscene.”
Schneemann’s installation Cycladic Imprints opens tonight, November 6, at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee, with a free reception from 6 to 8. It will remain on view through December 23. Saturday the gallery will screen her Kitch’s Last Meal, Plumb Line, and Fuses beginning at 8. Admission is $7, $5 for students and RSG members. Schneemann will be present at both events; call 666-7737 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.