Carolee Schneemann, whose venturesome work in an array of mediums forthrightly addresses societal taboos around sex and gender, the politics of representation, and the very nature of self-expression, has died at the age of 79. Her passing was confirmed by P.P.O.W. gallery, her representative in New York along with Galerie Lelong.
Over the course of a multifarious 60-year career, Schneemann’s art came to form the bedrock of radical traditions like performance art and body art, even while she insisted on identifying herself all the while with a traditional label. “I’m a painter,” she said in 1993. “I’m still a painter and I will die a painter. Everything that I have developed has to do with extending visual principles off the canvas.”
Schneemann’s corpus is so gloriously diverse that it is impossible to cite a single defining work, but among her most famous (and infamous) works is Meat Joy, a 1964 film of a performance featuring eight scantily clad dancers who writhe together, with animals parts soon joining the melee. It’s a bacchanalian display—unapologetic, unrepentant, exploding with pleasure—an utterly indelible work of art.
“Meat Joy has the character of an erotic rite: excessive, indulgent; a celebration of flesh as material: raw fish, chickens, sausages, wet paint, transparent plastic, rope, brushes, paper scrap,” Schneemann wrote. “Its propulsion is toward the ecstatic, shifting and turning between tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon—qualities that could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent.”
There is also Interior Scroll (1975), a performance, documented in photographs, that involved her, in part, pulling a long, thin scroll from her vagina and proceeding to read a rejoinder to a male artist who had criticized her work.
And there is Up to and Including Her Limits (1973–76), for which she strapped herself, naked, into a tree surgeon’s harness hanging from the ceiling. Stretching out to nearby walls and the floor to mark them with crayon, she turned the explosive, machismo-filled mark-making of Abstract-Expressionism into an activity that was physically and psychologically constricted.
Schneemann was born in 1939 in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania, northeast of Philadelphia. Her father was a physician and her mother was a homemaker. “I remember looking at all of his anatomy books,” she once told the artist Pipilotti Rist, one of the many artists she inspired, in an interview. “He was happy that I would prowl around and look at things that I wasn’t supposed to see.”
Her parents did not approve of her going into art. “I was so lucky that Bard gave me a scholarship,” she told Rist. “It was a miracle.” Though it was not entirely a panacea. “It was before the era of women’s self-determination had taken off,” she continued. ‘My teachers always said, ‘You’re very talented, but don’t set your heart on art. You’re only a girl.’ ”
As with so many women artists of her generation, major institutional recognition came slowly for Schneemann, even while she was critically lauded and admired by peers and younger artists, but such accolades did eventually come.
In 2015, the Museum der Moderne Salzburg in Austria presented a full-dress retrospective, “Kinetic Painting,” which traveled to MoMA PS1 in New York in 2017, the same year that she received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award from the Venice Biennale.
This post will be updated.