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How Carolee Schneemann Used Her Body as a Tool of Subversion

A new exhibition in London celebrates the radical feminist who transformed the language of modern art.

When radical feminist artist Carolee Schneemann died in 2019 at the age of 80, she was just beginning to receive recognition from the art world after being shut out of it for decades. Schneemann, who fearlessly used sex and violence as tools to subvert the status quo, celebrated the divine feminine — even when it put her life and career on the line.

“Carolee Schneemann approached her life and her work as an unceasing process of transformation,” Lotte Johnson writes in the exhibition catalog for Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics. “Layered, spliced, slashed, shredded, pasted overlapped, superimposed, concealed, revealed, fractured, split, burned, baked, activated, fused, repeated, pushed, pulled, unraveled, embraced.” 

If it sounds fearless, intense, and relentless, that’s because Schneemann was all of these things and more. Back in 2017, when asked how she consistently made work that challenged the status quo, upsetting sexists and feminists alike by refusing to perform respectability politics, she simply said that it was like seeing a dead body in the road and realizing that if she didn’t move it out of the way, nobody else would.

Carolee Schneemann and Kitch in Schneemann’s studio on West 29th Street, New York, 1962. Photograph by Leo Choplin Reproduced by permission of Neil T. Choplin, MD. © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022
Carolee Schneemann and Kitch in Schneemann’s studio on West 29th Street, New York, 1962. Photograph by Leo Choplin Reproduced by permission of Neil T. Choplin, MD. © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022

Daring and Determination

Born to a country doctor in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania, Carolee Schneemann grew up awed by the power of nature and a freedom few young girls of the time enjoyed. She escaped the drudgery of the domestic chores usually assigned to femininity by joining her father on his visits to patients, and came to understand the body as a landscape all its own. 

Schneemann decided to become an artist long before such a calling was considered a viable career, but her father didn’t think higher education was appropriate and refused financial support. Undeterred, Schneemann secured a full scholarship to Bard and became the first woman in her family to attend college — only to run head first into systemic sexism.

With no life models to paint, Schneemann used her own nude body as a model in the privacy of her dorm room. Male students snuck into her room, stole the work, and for their transgressions, Schneemann was kicked out on charges of “moral turpitude.” 

But once again the young artist remained determined to prevail, knowing that she had to establish a firm foundation for her work “because if I don’t have a realm of precedence, then I’m anomalous, and my experience is constantly marginalized as being exceptional in that there’s no tradition, there’s no history, there’s no language,” she said in a 1988 interview.

Up to and Including Her Limits, 10 June 1976 Studiogalerie, Berlin Photograph by Henrik Gaard Carolee Schneemann Papers, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (950001) © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022
Up to and Including Her Limits, 10 June 1976 Studiogalerie, Berlin Photograph by Henrik Gaard Carolee Schneemann Papers, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (950001) © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022

Artist, Subject & Muse 

In 1963, Carolee Schneemann began openly integrating her unclothed body into the work of art with the photographic series Eye Body: 38 Transformative Actions for the Camera — a series of silver gelatin prints that showed the artist in the studio amid her paintings. In these works she is artist, subject, and muse, triumphantly subverting the archetype of the female nude by claiming it in a way no male artist ever could.

“Naked, exposed, facing a camera or spectators, my body is no longer the sexual object expected, determined by masculist culture,” Schneemann wrote of the work in 1976.

“Covered in paint, grease, chalk, ropes, plastic, I establish my body as visual territory — as an extension of the energies and organizations of my painting-constructions. It is my material. Not only am I an image maker, but I explore the image values with my flesh as materials I choose to work with. My body may remain erotic, sexual, desired, desiring but it is as well votive: marked, written over in a text of stroke and gesture discovered by my creative female will.”

Water Light/Water Needle, 29 May 1966 Havemeyer Estate, Mahwah, NJ Photograph by Charlotte Victoria Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022
Water Light/Water Needle, 29 May 1966 Havemeyer Estate, Mahwah, NJ Photograph by Charlotte Victoria Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022
Newspaper Event, 29 January 1963 Judson Dance Theater, Judson Memorial Church, New York Photograph by Al Giese Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022 Photograph © Al Giese / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022
Newspaper Event, 29 January 1963 Judson Dance Theater, Judson Memorial Church, New York Photograph by Al Giese Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022 Photograph © Al Giese / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022
Meat Joy,16–18 November 1964 Judson Dance Theater, Judson Memorial Church, New York Photograph by Robert McElroy Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022 Photograph © 2022 Estate of Robert R. McElroy / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS)
Meat Joy,16–18 November 1964 Judson Dance Theater, Judson Memorial Church, New York Photograph by Robert McElroy Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022 Photograph © 2022 Estate of Robert R. McElroy / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS)

It was a philosophy that would guide Schneemann throughout her career, one marked by acts of art so deliciously audacious it took generations for the art world to acknowledge her genius.

She began working on “happenings,” staging events like Meat Joy in Paris in 1964, where Schneemann and a cohort of young men and women writhed on the floor naked among a sea of raw fish, chicken, and sausages while a rather bourgeois audience gazed on the morass of flesh in awe. 

Suddenly an unknown man sitting in the audience leaped from his seat in a state of frenzied rage. He lunged at Schneemann, dragged her off to the side, and began to strangle her. Two women sitting in the audience sprung into action, beating the man until he set Schneemann free — and the artist returned to the performance without missing a beat. 

Water Light/Water Needle, 29 May 1966 Havemeyer Estate, Mahwah, NJ Photograph by Charlotte Victoria Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022
Round House, 29 July 1967 Dialectics of Liberation International Congress, Institute of Phenomenological Studies, The Roundhouse, London Photograph by John Haynes Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022 Photograph © John Haynes
Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera, 1963 Gelatin silver print, printed 2005 61 × 50.8 cm Photograph by Erró Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022 Photograph Erró © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022
Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera, 1963 Gelatin silver print, printed 2005 61 × 50.8 cm Photograph by Erró Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022 Photograph Erró © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022

“The Message”

Photography has preserved so much of Carolee Schneemann’s art, allowing us to return to the unthinkable, ineffable moments she constructed, like the legendary 1975/77 performance, Interior Scroll. The work first took root in 1974 when she made a drawing titled The Message, showing a woman pulling a long, folded piece of paper from her vagina — and from this image a new idea emerged, a manifesto that spoke of Schneemann’s understanding that the female body had a story to tell, a story that must be heard. 

In 1975, she did just this at the Women Artists Here and Now festival in East Hampton, New York. She got atop a table undressed, slowly unraveled a scroll of her own, and read from it, warning women to “be prepared” for sexism at the hands of men.

Chromelodeon (4th Concretion), 23 and 25 June 1963 Judson Dance Theater, Judson Memorial Church, New York Photograph by Al Giese Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022 Photograph © Al Giese / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022
Chromelodeon (4th Concretion), 23 and 25 June 1963 Judson Dance Theater, Judson Memorial Church, New York Photograph by Al Giese Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022 Photograph © Al Giese / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022

But Schneemann would learn sexism has no gender. Subjected to a flurry of attacks by feminists, who begrudged her classical beauty and hourglass physique, Schneemann was called salacious and duplicitous for playing into male hands by using her beauty in her art.

She failed to anticipate such an antagonistic response from those she saw as sisters in the fight for liberation and complete bodily autonomy. But Schneemann refused to be cowed by disregard and disrespect, using her body as a tool of artmaking throughout her singular career.

It wasn’t until the final years of her life that the true breadth of her vision and talents were properly received. In this moment, the final words of Interior Scroll rang true: “You must expect NOTHING then enjoy whatever gives-to-you as long as it does and however and NEVER justify yourself just do what you feel carry it strongly yourself.” 

Carolee Schneemann with Venus Vectors, 1987 Photograph by Victoria Vesna Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022
Carolee Schneemann with Venus Vectors, 1987 Photograph by Victoria Vesna Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022

Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics is on view through January 8, 2023, at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. The exhibition catalog is published by Yale University Press, $45.00.

Two film strips from Fuses,1964–67 16 mm film transferred to HD video, colour, silent, 29:51 min. Original film burned with fire and acid, painted and collaged Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022
Two film strips from Fuses,1964–67 16 mm film transferred to HD video, colour, silent, 29:51 min. Original film burned with fire and acid, painted and collaged Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and P.P.O.W, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022

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