Carolee Schneemann's pioneering work ranges across disciplines, encompassing painting, performance, film and video. Her early and prescient investigations into themes of gender and sexuality, identity and subjectivity, as well as the cultural biases of art history, laid the groundwork for much work of the 1980s and '90s. Her bold challenges to taboo and tradition can be seen as inspiring and influencing artists as varied as Paul McCarthy, Valie Export, the Guerrilla Girls, Tracy Emin and Karen Finley.
While she is often described as a performance artist, Schneemann first studied painting, and that training informed the course of all her subsequent work. It can be seen in her continuing identification as a painter and a formalist, in her attention to art-historical figures such as Cézanne, and in the hand-coloring and mark-making to which she subjected the surface of some of her films. However, the effect of her early experience with painting was also reactive and negative; she recognized, as a woman in the early 1960s working in a male-dominated medium, that "the brush belonged to abstract expressionist male endeavor. The brush was phallic." This realization coincided with an explosion of new artistic forms, and while Schneemann would never give up painting, she turned her attention to the downtown New York avant-garde's locus of film, dance, theater, and performance.
Her involvement with this scene, including work with the Judson Dance Theater and time spent at Warhol's Factory, as well as participation in events such as Robert Morris's Site (1964), in which she appeared onstage as Manet's Olympia, proved crucial to her own concept of what she would call "kinetic theater." Although she had experimented with performance as early as 1960, her work in this vein went public with the notorious 1964 action and film Meat Joy. This "celebration of flesh as material," replete with naked bodies, raw fish, chickens, and sausages, was contemporaneous with the sensationalist Viennese Aktionist group, and, at least superficially, shared some of the concerns of those artists, who referred to her as their "crazy sister." However, rather than pursuing their interests in the scatological and the morbid, Schneemann presented Meat Joy as an "erotic rite," foregrounding human sexuality and Dionysian ecstasy with a powerful and subversively affirmative spirit. This spirit asserted itself even more explicitly a year later, in her "anti-porn," collage-film Fuses, conceived of as a response to work by her friend, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. The film challenged dominant modes of interpretation, and was also a provocation to both the avant-garde film establishment and the feminist movement.
This go-it-alone criticality is one of the major strands of Schneemann's work. When critiqued for her interest in sexuality and use of her body as medium, she has always offered an unapologetic defense, pointing out, for example, "If I am a token, I'll be a token to be reckoned with." Her insistence on integrating the form and content of her art can be seen as quite radical, in that it collapses work and life, thought and flesh, nature and culture — forms charged by repression and the strategic deployment of those forms. For Schneemann, the focus on the "experiential erotic body" is a method of empowerment, and an antidote to what she sees as a tendency of feminist art historians to discuss female sexuality exclusively as a male construction. Schneeman's project, then, is in some ways concerned with reclaiming those signifiers, actions, and ideas that have historically been denied women, and, to a lesser degree, artists in general. Her work should not solely be viewed as feminist, although she is certainly a pioneer in that area. Rather, her focus has also been on countering traditional art historical accounts, and in mapping what she calls "Istory," in an attempt to see "where the taboos and censorious conventions are embedded aesthetically." This tendency to identify what has been deemed sacred and what has been declared obscene can be seen in works like Art is Reactionary (1987), and in her research into historic artifacts as far-flung as Victorian art-books and Neolithic cave drawings.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, and up to the present, Schneemann has continued making work in diverse media, including writings and installations. Looking back on her groundbreaking work of the 1960s and '70s, it is important to recognize that, to a certain degree, she was inventing modes of resistance as she went along. Whether it was the notion of what feminism looked like and how it picked its battles, or the notion that art history was clearly written from a position of power, her work has always employed a criticality that was ahead of its time.
Born in 1939 in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania, Schneemann received a B.A. from Bard College and an M.F.A. from the University of Illinois, and holds Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from the California Institute of the Arts and the Maine College of Art. Her work has been exhibited throughout the world, at institutions including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Film Theatre, London; Tate Liverpool, UK, and PPOW Gallery, New York. In 1997, a retrospective of Schneemann's work entitled Carolee Schneemann - Up To And Including Her Limits was held at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York. A retrospective of over forty of her works was exhibited in 2010 at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York at New Paltz, and traveled to The Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, and Krannert Art Museum, Champagn, Illinois.
Schneemann has received an Art Pace International Artist Residency, two Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Gottlieb Foundation Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the College Art Association, an Anonymous Was A Woman award, the Ono Lennon Courage Award, and a USA Rockefeller grant, among others. Her published books include Cezanne, She Was A Great Painter (1976); Early and Recent Work (1983); More Than Meat Joy: Complete Performance Works and Selected Writings (1979), and Imaging Her Erotics - Essays, Interviews, Projects (2002). She has taught at many institutions, including New York University, California Institute of the Arts, Bard College, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Carolee Schneemann lives in New Paltz, New York.