A Tribute to Carolee Schneemann, (1939-2019)

March 7, 2019
Installation of objects from the Carolee Schneemann archive at the MoMA PS1, 2018

Carolee Schneemann, painter, performance artist, filmmaker, installation artist, and visionary feminist has died at the age of 79.  Schneemann’s groundbreaking work wove themes of sexuality, sensuality, and embodiment into a visceral, inimitable and bold art practice.  Her work uprooted staid notions of gender while unflinchingly confronting societal taboos. 

The Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries acquired the Carolee Schneemann Papers, circa 1954-2012, and the archive has been used heavily by researchers from around the world ever since.  Objects from Stanford’s Schneemann archive have been lent to institutions for a number of exhibitions, including a retrospective of her work entitled Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Paintings shown at the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, Austria (2015–2016), and MoMA PS1 in New York (2017–2018). 

Born in 1939 in Pennsylvania, Scheemann earned a BA at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York and an MFA from the University of Illinois.  She moved to New York City in the 1950s and immersed herself in the 1950s and 1960s milieu of the New York avant-garde and happenings, meeting artists and performers such as Marcel Duchamp, Robert Morris, and members of Fluxus.  In the early 1960s she was involved with the Judson Dance Theater, a proponent of contact dance improvisation and free-form movement, where she met dancers Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown.  From 1963 to 1968 she was founder-director of Kinetic Theater movement and design workshops in New York. 

Some of Schneemann’s signature works include: Meat Joy (1964), a performance where she and seven other partially-clad men and women moved in an immersive environment of raw meat and fish, wet paint, rope, and paper; Fuses (1964–1967), a film depicting Schneemann engaged in lovemaking with her partner, composer James Tenney, sans the male-centric gaze typical of erotically charged films; Up To And Including Her Limits (1974), a performance series involving Scheemann suspending her nude body in a gallery space from a surgeon’s harness and making marks in the space as she was able, with crayons;  and Interior Scroll (1975), a performance involving a nude Schneemann outlining her body in paint, reading from her book Cézanne: She Was a Great Painter, assuming action poses like an art school life drawing model, and unraveling a three-foot scroll from her vagina which she read to the audience.  The narrative recounted a conversation between Schneemann and a woman filmmaker, where the filmmaker associated Schneemann’s work with the irrational and unstructured, qualities the filmmaker associated with the feminine. 

Schneeman’s achievements became more concertedly recognized only since the 1990s.  She was the recipient of the following awards, among others: Guggenheim Fellowship (1993); Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grants (1997, 1998); a Lifetime Achievement Award, Chicago Caucus for Women in the Arts (2000); a Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement, College Art Association (2001); and an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, Maine College of Art, Portland.

The Carolee Schneemann Papers, acquired in 2012, include project files with day-to-day correspondence on exhibitions, performances, lectures and more from the 1990s and 2000s; reviews, photographs, slides, AV material, lecture and workshop notes, scrapbooks, sketchbooks, drawings, material used in preparation for publications about Schneemann, etc.  The finding aid to the collection can be found here.

Image caption: Installation of objects from the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries' Carolee Schneemann archive at MoMA PS1, 2018.  Photo courtesy of Kristen St. John.