: Body Politics is the first UK survey of the work of American artist Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019) and the first major exhibition since her death in 2019. Tracing Schneemann’s diverse, transgressive and interdisciplinary work over six decades , the show celebrates a radical and pioneering artist who remains a feminist icon and a reference for many contemporary artists and thinkers.
Schneemann was adamant throughout her life that she was first and foremost a painter
Addressing pressing topics ranging from the sexual expression and objectification of women to human suffering and the violence of war, Schneemann’s work engages with the precarious lived experience of humans and animals. With over 300 objects, the exhibition draws from the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and numerous private and public collections, covering the extraordinary range of Schneemann’s artistic output. Bringing together paintings, sculptural assemblages, performance photographs, films and large-scale multimedia installations, as well as rarely seen archival materials including sheet music, sketches, scrapbooks, programs and costumes, this exhibition positions Schneemann as one of the most relevant, provocative and inspiring. artists of the last century.
The title of the exhibition reflects that for Schneemann, the personal was political. She was engaged in a kind of expansive politics of the body, setting out to challenge the restrictive idea that body and mind were divided. Schneemann took the sensory experience of her own body as a starting point – she understood that her body was inextricably linked to her environment and to others and recognized and challenged how history had defined women’s lives and bodies. However, Schneemann was not only concerned with the specifics of being a woman – in her writings of the 1970s, but she also reflected on the merits of finding “neutral” terms instead of gendered ones and her bodily politics engaged in abuse of power around the world. Conflicts.
Schneemann was a pioneer whose work defies easy categorization. Although known primarily as a performance artist, she was adamant throughout her life that she was first and foremost a painter. The exhibition opens the exhibition on the artist’s rarely seen early gesture paintings, including Aria Duetto (Cantata No. 78): Yellow Ladies (1957) and Pin Wheel (1957), a kinetic painting activated by the potter’s wheel on which it is mounted.
In her early works on canvas, Schneemann grappled with the influence of American Abstract Expressionism and the sensory painting style of Paul Cézanne, but remained frustrated with the heroic, male-dominated canon of the history of art. From the early 1960s, she sought to extend her works beyond the limits of the frame, incorporating found objects and fragments of daily life to produce “painting-constructions” and “box-constructions”. For the assemblage Colorado House (1962), she cut, tore, and reconfigured what she considered failed paintings, while for the diorama Pharaoh’s Daughter (1966) she filled a wooden box with glowing lights, slides of biblical scenes and mirrors. .
The exhibition traces Schneemann’s radical work using her own body as a medium, often directly addressing the misogyny she experienced, the historical suppression of women, and taboos around women’s bodies. Key works include a series of photographs from Schneemann’s first solo performance, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera (1963), in which she stages a series of gestures amid a sprawling environment of materials.
For Up to and Including Her Limits (1976), she clung naked to a harness suspended in the corner of a paper-lined stage set, creating gestural abstract marks with crayons as she swayed back and forth in a trance state. The resulting large-scale installation of the 1974 performance at Anthology Film Archives in New York is presented with video footage and extensive photographic documentation. One of Schneemann’s most powerful performances, Interior Scroll (1975 & 1977), is highlighted in the exhibition, the artist’s rallying cry against the persistent devaluation of the female body and intellect in a patriarchal society.
By the early 1960s, Schneemann was living in New York and embedded in the downtown scene. She became a founding member of the Judson Dance Theatre, a pioneering group of interdisciplinary artists including Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, David Gordon and Steve Paxton. She took the gestures and materials of everyday life as an impulse.
Schneemann has described his group performances as “kinetic theatre”, incorporating intricate movement scores, sets, lighting, sound, and technical innovations. Many performances are depicted through photographs, film, sheet music, sketches, notes, and costumes, including one of Schneemann’s most iconic performances, Meat Joy (1964). This epic group performance was designed as a sensory celebration of the flesh. Conceived, like many of his works, from images from his dreams, Meat Joy saw untrained performers (including a poet, balloon seller and teacher) dress and undress and perform body exercises mass – skidding, rolling, jumping and twisting – among paper, paint, raw fish and chicken.
Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics showcases Schneemann’s remarkable film work, in which she has forged a new experimental language, exploring sexual desire, challenging the male gaze, and taking her daily life and relationships with humans and non-humans (in especially cats) as the source material. The historical film Fuses (1964-1967) is shown in its entirety, a self-portrait of Schneemann and his partner James Tenney having sex, with the cat Kitch as witness and companion. This radical piece, produced over three years, celebrated heterosexual pleasure and set out to question, expand and complicate representations of the female body and sexuality, offering a new proposal for the expression of erotic experience.
A focused section of the show highlights Schneemann’s formative time spent in London. The city provided the context for many of his experimental performances, including Round House (staged at the Roundhouse in 1967, as part of a line-up that included poet Allen Ginsburg, anti-psychiatrist RD Laing and activist Black Power Stokely Carmichael, among others), Naked Action Lecture (performed at the ICA in 1968) and ICES STRIP/ISIS TRIP (performed on roller skates on a train from London to Edinburgh in 1972).
The final section of the exhibition includes a series of works that address the precarious nature of life and the politics of human suffering in the context of the Vietnam War, the civil war in Lebanon, the terrorist attacks in 9/11 and the artist’s own battle with cancer. . Schneemann’s film Viet-Flakes (1962-1967) and associated performance Snows are among the earliest anti-Vietnam war works – they confront the violence of military intervention while probing the experience of viewing anonymized footage of the suffering.
Known/Unknown: Plague Column (1995–96) takes Schneemann’s diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast cancer into account while probing the misogynistic portrayal of women. Through these and other works, Schneemann confronts the deeply personal experience of navigating politics and reflects on how we become involved in the entrenched power structures in society.
Top photo: © Artlyst
Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics Barbican Art Gallery September 8, 2022 – January 8, 2023