The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue
In Memoriam

A Tribute to Carolee Schneemann (1939 – 2019)

A genius of gesture, word, image, sensuality, and vitality, Carolee Schneemann died at 6 pm on March 6, 2019 in her beloved 18th century Huguenot house in Tillson, New York, surrounded by her cat (and the spirits of so many others) and the comfort of friendships and lovers she had known for decades. Over a lifetime of making art, pleasure, provocations, home, more art and always art—her emotional exactitude and generosity touched the earth, the art world, and the lives of countless human and nonhuman intimates and strangers. As she was very much a presence in and champion of the Brooklyn Rail, we offer this special tribute to our friend, the artist Carolee Schneemann. —TNG

* * *

Carolee in Tuscany, 1976. Photo: © Anthony McCall, 2019.

Carolee in London
by Anthony McCall

In 1970, Carolee settled in London. That’s when we met and fell in love. 

She lived in Belsize Park, in North West London, in a small ground floor flat with windows giving on to a tiny front garden. The focus of the living room was a round table, piled with books, quarterlies, and recent Herald Tribune’s, plus two constant companions, a portable typewriter and her grey cat, Kitch. Typically, with no regard for quarantine laws, Carolee had smuggled Kitch into England from France, where her film Fuses had been awarded a Special Jury Selection Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In an alcove at the back of the flat she had improvised an editing bench, complete with tape splicer and a Moviescope viewer flanked by a pair of re-winds; dozens of strips of film hung from the wall above the table. This was where she edited Plumb Line, the second of her trilogy of diaristic films.

Later Carolee moved into my apartment in South Kensington, where we occupied separate studios next door to one another. At the time she was writing a lot, which included keeping up a regular and often intense correspondence with poet and artist friends in the US and Europe. We often went down to the Devon countryside to stay with our Mexican friends Felipe Ehrenberg and Martha Hellion, who ran Beau Geste Press, a Fluxus-oriented artists workshop and publisher in an old manor-house. It was there that Carolee developed and printed her Parts of a Body House Book (1972).

Carolee had many admirers and supporters in the English art community. Yet she was troubled and often angered by the certainty that her work was being ignored, misrepresented, or undervalued, both in the UK and the US. After three years in London she was anxious to return to New York. With fortuitous timing I was just then awarded a Gulbenkian Foundation travel grant, while the P&O line cruise ship, S.S. Canberra, offered a bargain, one-time-only crossing of the Atlantic. In January 1973 we sailed to New York, complete with steamer trunks and, of course, Kitch. 

Soon we were ensconced in Carolee’s loft on 29th Street, which still housed many of her assemblage and box constructions of the early ’60s. Summers and long weekends were spent in the old Huguenot stone house upstate that she was to live in, and work in, for the rest of her life. Now home again, Carolee set about re-establishing ties with old friends and supporters. There were studio visits, talks given, screenings mounted. Such events in the early 1970s downtown art world hovered well beneath any commercial radar, and a performance or reading or screening would usually take place just once, and often in an obscure location. But it was a productive period. For instance, during that first two years back in New York, Carolee initiated the performance series Up to and Including Her Limits, her ongoing diaristic film Kitch’s Last Meal (1976), and the performance Interior Scroll. She was back in the place she needed to be.

* * *

Truth According to Being
for Carolee and from her
by George Quasha

(Written for and read at her internment in Tillson, New York on April 6, 2019)

Seven days ago before dawn Carolee visited my mind, vividly using me to be her.
And this is what I’m seeing through her.

A being being who she is teaches being what it can be.
She’s not here and she’s everywhere here where she promises always to be.
I still hear her voice and it registers earth asking us to listen further.

She spoke body for a lifetime.
Her multilinguality in body had interspecies resonance in always vivid connection.
She talked sex, she talked cat, man, woman, Other, asking to be other with her.

She made art a language never aiming to please.
Cezanne’s broken line over and over to find the ecstatic surety of what the body shows.
To trust the lines of communication
even as they break.

I had her dream and it contained me containing her.
Now her song is any sound slicing through neurons with vulvic force.
Its core passion rips this moment out of time.

It’s hard to let go when her grip still holds you and the fire is black.
The magic has gone inside, with burnthrough to come.
She’s still talking back, at play in our shadows.

The riptide ecstatic has further reach.

* * *

Thinking about Carolee Schneemann
by Bruce McPherson

After the shock and tears, the feelings of personal loss and collective grief, as well as after the dutiful if hagiographic journalism, one is left wondering how Carolee Schneemann's life's work is likely to be seen over time. There are many things I could say, but two things above all else occur to me to suggest here as ways forward.

First, that while Carolee insisted on many occasions that she was a painter, what this meant was that the forms of her art should not and could not be separated into discrete categories—painting, performance, film, dance, theater, writing, photography, sculpture/combine, installation, etc.—that it is one thing altogether, a Gestalt. This, I believe, was thoroughly demonstrated by her Salzburg/Frankfurt/New York retrospective, where it became possible for the first time to trace and embrace the coherence of her formal expression and aesthetic integrity as a continuum. Her aesthetic is too complex to describe here, but it is fundamentally gestural, a physical propulsion outward of an inward state of being. Her awareness of that inward state occurred on many levels—physically, psychologically, interpersonally, communally, and through eidetic dreaming. Painting was her early passion and rigorous training, but it is of special importance as the gateway into and foundation underlying all other media and forms of expression that she mastered, altered, and creatively employed.

Second, Carolee's sense of and belief in community. Rarely if ever has an artist created and maintained so many close friendships over the course of her lifetime with creators and thinkers of every stripe. They surely number in the hundreds, and stretched from the 1950s to the present. It seemed that she knew everyone, perhaps because everyone who knew her wanted to share her with everyone else they knew, and did. Poets, artists, dancers, composers, musicians, filmmakers, critics, actors, psychics, psychologists, novelists, students, academic colleagues, cat lovers, etc.—all across North America, the United Kingdom, continental Europe, Australia, and South America. For Carolee, the work of art was an active exchange, a collaboration of understanding, not a commodity, and it embodied the deepest, most personal expression of being human, or of becoming human, since she regarded our misogynistic, repressive, bellicose culture as requiring a Blakean rebirth into the truly liberating energy of life. Art as a meaning toward a never-ending.

* * *

From Danger to Ascendancy:
Remembering Carolee Schneemann

by David Levi Strauss

I first knew about Carolee from the poets, in San Francisco, and I saw all of her magnificent films multiple times at the Cinematheque, thanks to Steve Anker. Carolee and I met in Berkeley almost 40 years ago, when I gave a talk/reading on Charles Olson and Carolee introduced herself after the reading. When we moved to the Hudson Valley from San Francisco in 1993, Carolee was a neighbor and frequent late-night phone link. She was my immediate source of information on any artist or writer I met in New York. She invariably knew her or his entire history, including amorous encounters and psychic proclivities. In those late-night conversations, sometimes in person, sometimes on the phone, we also talked about philosophy and politics. She was one of the most insightful interlocutors I've ever known.

She knew the art world was very rough territory, full of treachery and deceit, but she was fascinated by it, and became one of its most dedicated and astute analysts.

Carolee was told, by many, many experts in the art world over many, many years, that her art was nothing and that she should stop making it. But she never did. From an early age, she had a very clear sense of the importance and necessity of her work that I don't think ever wavered.

Now that she is gone, I feel certain that the rest of the world will finally catch up with this certainty, and her work will endure.

My most cherished recent memories of Carolee include our frequent dinners over the past decade or so at Mick Taussig's place on the Rondout Creek in High Falls. These gatherings almost always included Carolee, Mick, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and me, with occasional other guests. We would catch up on recent projects and publications and travels, and discuss pressing issues of art, politics, and life. Mick once called this "the Shawangunks School of Art and Philosophy, Anarchy and Mysticism." Carolee was an enthusiastic participant, right to the end.

Carolee has always been one of those radical artists who goes directly into the traumas and psychic disturbances and crises of the social body, and that has meant that her work has been repeatedly censored, censured, and attacked.

I wrote this in 2007, for an exhibition of Carolee's work at Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge:

Carolee Schneemann has been in permanent revolt—against misogyny and its myriad concealed weapons and malevolent instruments, against body hatred and beauty killers, against repressive ideologies and their cowardly enablers, and also against conventional approaches to art making—for all of her adult life, and apparently before that. She told Linda Montano in 1982 that as a young child she knew that she could “locate. . . naturalness by making images and by loving” (imagemaking and lovemaking being naturally entwined or “fused”), and that “when sex negativity and the ordinary sexual abuse and depersonalization that females experience in our culture intruded, I tried to judge it, sort it out, not internalize it. I suppose that not internalizing prohibitions gave me some messianic sense that I was going to have to confront or go against erotic denial, fragmentations.” So, we get the judging and sorting out, which is essentially analytical and critical, and the refusal to disintegrate, which is psychological and aesthetic.1

Carolee was fearless in a fight, and I saw her in many over the years. And the biggest fight I ever saw her in was the fight for her life, over the past 20 years. I've never seen anything like it.

This is how the essay I wrote on Carolee’s work on the occasion of her first museum show, at the New Museum in 1996, began, with an epigraph by East German playwright Heiner Müller:

A critic saw in my last plays an attack on history, the linear concept of history. He read in them the rebellion of the body against ideas, or more precisely, the impact of ideas, and of the idea of history, on human bodies. . . . As long as there are ideas, there are wounds. Ideas are inflicting wounds on the body.

Carolee Schneemann has been putting her body on the line for over thirty years in art. The line is that “threshold of consciousness” where, as Heiner Müller says, “desires and fears reside,” making “laughter and crying equally subversive.” It is the last line of resistance in the rebellion of the body against disembodied ideas of history, whether political or aesthetic. Working always at this line—this broken line, border, and threshold—has put Schneemann's work as an artist in continuous conflict with history, defined by Müller as “the arrangement of bodies according to a law.” Schneemann's work has always involved the arrangement of bodies against the law, toward justice.

And the essay ends with this scene:

Victorine Meurent is reading the Tarot for Carolee Schneemann. The first card drawn is the number two card, the Priestess. Victorine and Carolee raise their eyebrows at one another and laugh. "You can probably have everything you want," says Victorine. "But it will change you." And Carolee replies, "We set each other on fire, we extinguish the fire, we create each other's face and body, we abandon each other, we save each other, we take responsibility for each other, we lose responsibility for each other, we reveal each other, we choose, we respond, we build, we are destroyed." As she finishes speaking, the woman on the face of the card is transformed into a Minoan bull dancer. She vaults off of the card into space, passing neatly between the horns of the bull, leaping precisely from danger to ascendancy.2
  1. “Revolt, She Said.” In catalogue for Carolee Schneemann exhibition at Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007. Reprinted in David Levi Strauss, Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (New York: Aperture, 2014).
  2. "Love Rides Aristotle Through the Audience: Body, Image, and Idea in the Work of Carolee Schneemann." In catalogue for retrospective of Schneemann's work at The New Museum, New York, November 1996: Carolee Schneemann: Up To And Including Her Limits (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996). Reprinted in David Levi Strauss, Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics in the Twilight of the Millenium (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1999, 2010).

* * *

by Ann McCoy

Ann McCoy, Lilah Dougherty, and Carolee Schneemann. Photo: Ellen Sullivan Sylvarnes.

During an argument with Jung, an American patient, Mary Bancroft, told him a story to illustrate a point. The Zurich zoo had decided to feed small kittens to their eagles. The eagles were the masculine world of “big ideas,” who devoured the small feminine parts of life represented by the kittens. Carolee was on the side of the kittens. She described seeing an Egyptian frieze depicting a goddess, mouth to mouth with a cat, receiving the breath of life. Hers was a world of animism, interspecies dialogues, and lived mysteries rooted in nature. Carolee’s thinking did not fit into the theoretical boxes set up by the men in the art world. Yet, even when it came to abstraction, she could run circles around the theorists of the New York School, and reshape that dialogue in her own vision. She was so smart they didn’t know what to do with her. In the end, her explorations proved to be the more relevant. As we face an environmental and spiritual crisis, summoning the cat goddess to give us a breath of life seems like an idea whose time has come. Her Infinity Kisses inspires us.

We met through Stan Brakhage in the early ’70s, and began a series of many telephone calls and visits that lasted up until her death. Our careers had reverse trajectories, yet we were friends in both fair and foul weather. I was showing yearly on 57th Street when she went through several decades of rejection by the art world. I remember the yearly trauma when she worried how she would pay the taxes on her house, the endless residencies in remote places, and a visit from a female Whitney curator who was so cruelly dismissive of her work she took to her bed for a day. When my career entered several decades of hardship and rejection by the art world, she was a one woman cheering squad, telling me not to take to my bed. Her brilliant writing was an inspiration, and she showed us all how to master a dialogue about our work. With her boundless generosity she read most of what I wrote, and her commentary was invaluable. There was always the encouraging word, discussions of dreams, and her amazing editing jobs. She hated superficial art, art for amusement, and thought fiberglass fish wearing dresses were an evasion of the serious realities art needed to face. The muses were to be called forth for only the highest reasons to make art.

Aphrodite is the goddess of positive human relationships, and Carolee was her representative in the art world. Her positive Eros stretched from her erotic relationships to her friendships. I remember saying to her recently, “Carolee, as many of us are so wounded from our relationships with men, we have retreated. You are still a believer, and still want to suck cock.” She laughed and said her vagina ached from neglect. It is touching to me that her living ex-husband and lovers were there at her bedside on that last day. Dying in the house that was her magical temenos, she was protected by her cat, and surrounded by many friends who loved her. She was noble in both life and death.

         The Sun, hearth of tenderness and life,
Pours burning love over the delightful earth,
And, when one lies down in the valley, one smells
How the earth is nubile and rich in blood;
How its huge breast, raised by a soul,
Is made of love, like God, and of flesh, like woman,
And how it contains, big with sap and rays of light,
The vast swarming of all embryos!
And everywhere grows and everywhere rises!
   —Oh Venus, O Goddess!

-Rimbaud, Soleil et Chair

* * *

2nd March 2019
by Jarrett Earnest

It had just snowed when Ann McCoy and I drove to visit Carolee Schneemann in her home on the Saturday before she died. Carolee was tucked in bed with a cat on her chest. Ann brushed and braided her hair and I made strong coffee with maple syrup. “Every friend contributes their special thing,” she said. We talked about the Egyptian lion-headed goddess. She began having trouble forming words, “Not having language is not for me.” She said to look around her house again before I left. On the wall across from the kitchen were images from her Hand/Heart for Ana Mendieta—drippy red hearts made in the snow in 1986 as a memorial to her friend. Outside were the same woods but covered with new snow. Driving across the Hudson I pulled over to look at the bright grey sky over her house. I was thinking about how impossible it was to capture what was happening, and then took these two pictures of the light. 

Courtesy Jarrett Earnest.

* * *

Mourning Carolee
by Robert Kelly

Carolee Schneemann at the tribute to Robert Kelly at Anthology Film Archives, May 2011. Courtesy Robert Kelly and Charlotte Mandell.

We met about 60 years ago, and have been distantly intimate ever since. We met in the strange and rather wonderful Greek restaurant in Chelsea called The Original Spartakos, but everybody called it Jimmy the Greek’s. In that restaurant, a bunch of us poets—Ursule Molinaro, Venable Herndon, George Economou, Armand Schwerner, who lived down the block, Paul Blackburn, who lived a few blocks away, and I—would meet fairly regularly. It was the stammtisch for the Chelsea Review and other of our enterprises in those days. And there we met with her wonderful composer I think husband already Jim Tenney. We all sort of loved each other, and most of those people went on knowing most of those people for years and years.

Carolee had recently come from a weird little college upstate that I had never heard of (and where, through a benign providence, I have been teaching for 58 years now), and was very much in New York, beginning everything.

I knew her first as a painter, and some of her paintings—extraordinary, muted-colored abstractions, rich, and intricate—still stay in my mind years later. That she was a painter I believe shaped her whole career. Though most people knew her and know her from sensational public performances and naked practice movie sex, in fact all of her creations seemed motivated by an incredibly intense visual sense. Visual imagery as a key to meaningful and personal transformation. It’s curious that almost the last public event of Carolee’s that I witnessed was just a few years ago when she exhibited new work—Flange 6rpm —at Steven Holl’s T-Space in Rhinebeck, a series of projected images. It pleases me to think of that overarching pictorial career of hers that scarcely ever surfaced in the years between. We were so concerned with her as a performance artist and as the maker of that extraordinary film, Meat Joy. And so much more.

Carolee’s sexuality—free, rapturous, intense, free of guilt, free of shame—was illuminating, instructive, and a little frightening. I remember once hearing her tell how she had made love on a jet liner. The joy with which she described the event reminds us of how far we still are from a perception of sex and its activities as natural, joyous, and free of guilt. We still live in a Puritan society. We still live in a society in which touch is the most frightening of all senses.

Carolee did her best to displace that image, that constriction. Her generosity with her body extended famously to animals—the cats, her famous cat, of course. And not just to cats—we remember that she danced with a snake, rather famously, back in the ’60s, a big snake, a boa I think. That connection lasted for years—long after, when she bought her house in Tillson NY, an old house under a hillside, where she found one day on the staircase a snakeskin, and wondered where it had come from. Soon she discovered that the house had been built on a snake path—I had never heard of a snake path, but she assured me that it was so. For centuries, snakes had made their way up that hill from the stream across the road, and when the house was built a century before, it did not deter the snakes. They came in the front, climbed the stairs, and went out the back onto the higher level of the hill. They never stayed inside, but sometimes left their skin behind. Carolee loved that idea; she loved the continuity of life—animal, human, the connections, the sense that our life is thronged with the lives of other beings and other creatures. She knew where to live.

One of the striking things about Carolee to me was that unlike so many brilliant women, the men in her life always seemed in a sense up to her level—if not doing the same thing, at least with the same intensity and power that she had in her own life. James Tenney, the richly imaginative composer, who was a pioneer of electronic music at Bell Labs, and whose own compositions, electronic and otherwise, still haunt me. And the skillful and elegant Anthony McCall. And the prophetic, avant-garde publisher Bruce McPherson. These are beings who carried some of her intensity into other domains and other times.

Carolee’s generosity towards fellow artists was fabulous and very unusual. I never heard her speak ill of another artist of any kind; every time we met in public or in private to speak about anything, her conversation was always full of positive gestures, positive feelings, for the work of other people, even in fields very close to or very far from her interests. I can remember not so long ago a conference on the work of Stan Brakhage—Carolee came and spoke more lucidly and more compassionately about Stan and his work than all the rest of us put together—a memorable performance in the art of generosity, of understanding by sympathy. Her intensity, her friendliness, her closeness, her power—these are the things that I miss, and make me mourn all the more so her passing too soon, too soon.

* * *

Tribute to Carolee Schneemann
by Kristine Stiles

Even before I met Carolee Schneemann, I was devoted to her. As a graduate student in 1978 at U.C. Berkeley, I worked as a research assistant to art historian Peter Selz on his book Art of Our Times (1981). I was responsible for the performance art section, and urged him to include Schneemann. He refused, and I responded, “OK, I quit.” He relented. “Telephone her and get an image.” I called and requested a photograph. Uncanny in her insights and perceptions, Carolee laughed, “Peter didn’t ask for the image, you did.” I admitted as much and she asked to meet me in New York. So began our 41-year-long friendship of mutual devotion and the struggle of strong wills.

Schneemann was extraordinarily complex, “simultaneously eloquent and incisive, emotional and rigorous, tender and fierce, confrontational and shy, yielding and intransigent, cautious and spontaneous, determined, energetic, courageous, full of confidence and doubt, sorrow and joy,” as I wrote in Correspondence Course, the anthology of her letters from 1956–1999 that I edited and published in 2010. She loved her typewriter and was a poetic writer of considerable accomplishment, nuance, and humor. Just as her letters were entirely visual, her performances and installations were deeply intellectual, a quality many missed, rapt as most were with her beauty and naked body.

Schneemann was also “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” to quote Winston Churchill’s 1939 description of Russia and whether or not it would enter WWII. The “key,” Churchill added, was “Russian national interest.” In her self-interest and desire for what she called “historical vagaries,” Schneemann chose 1939 as her birthdate. She changed many aspects of her identity, including the spelling of her given name, and she enhanced details of her life and art, as perhaps we all do to some extent or another. She told me that her first husband, composer James Tenney, called this process her “creative dating.”

Although revealing much, Schneemann also cloaked her history and remained impenetrable and often contradictory, as much as she was both ferocious and deeply loving. She once asked why I had not written about her trauma. My retort, “Because you haven’t disclosed it.” Mercurial as ever, Carolee answered only, “Yes.” She took refuge in her privacy, barricading secrets behind the doors of her beloved 1750 Huguenot stone home in the countryside of Springtown, New York, where she swam in her pond, lived with her cats and lovers, and made her virtuoso art, reveling in its mess. She also kept prolific diaries, written daily since childhood and locked in a trunk. I wonder who will read them and what they will reveal about this most mysterious, significant woman and artist? I hope that the reader(s) will be kind. I visited Carolee often and she trusted me to live in her home for a week in 1994. During the days that I read her correspondence (much more than was ever published), we spent time discussing her life. I learned many of her secrets, and I have kept them for decades.

We often talked on the phone several Sundays a month, airing our complaints about the art world and celebrating artists, chatting about travels, lovers, and friends, thinking about her art and exhausting schedule of exhibitions and interviews, discussing our individual publications, and laughing and crying about our cats and my horses. Always one for hard truths, Carolee wrote me in July of 2016: “Since we are all dying like flies, I always want to reassure you of my love and devotion. Even though it does not measure up to or compensate you for the proportion of your devotion to my work over time. Realistically this is not a symmetrical relationship.” Indeed, the asymmetry of our friendship and working connections was always clear. Schneemann attempted to monitor everything anyone wrote about her, dictating what could and should not be said. In my case, she was extra vigilant. I already knew too much, not only about her dazzling art and life but also about her radical, political, and committed ethics and her lifelong active social engagement, which few have considered.

This unforgettable woman remains without peer in the sum of her remarkable attributes, from an unfettered imagination and vivid, eloquent, even aristocratic mode of expressing herself, to her wry, sometimes bawdy sense of the absurd. Her intellect pierced through sham. In an appearance at the Getty in March 2018, when asked how she felt about the experience, Schneemann commented, “I feel like I just snuck through the cattle grate!” When asked how she felt about seeing her archive in the bowels of the Getty, she answered, “It’s like visiting a relative in an asylum.” The indomitable Carolee Schneemann was a beacon whose light will grow ever brighter over time.

* * *

Listening to the Goddess
by Heide Hatry

When I met Carolee Schneemann, at 3pm on July 9, 2006, following her lecture during the Into Me/Out of Me exhibition at PS1, I experienced an epiphany. It was as if she were the artwork that was changing my life before my eyes; her focus, her attentiveness even in a loud, crowded room, her ascent above the fray, her grace, her way of being, and of course the amazing things she was saying were utterly mesmerizing. Although I had been living as an artist for only three years Carolee embraced me as a colleague, my vast ignorance notwithstanding.

She could talk about my work as if she had done it herself, rapidly detecting the possibilities it held even when they were still vague or inchoate to me, and always encouraging me to go farther, to push my limits, even while, especially while, others were telling me it wasn’t art or that they found it too disturbing. We had a similar understanding of the relationship between our own bodies and our art, and she told me about all the struggles to which her approach had subjected her—that it was too sexual for feminists of the time and not submissive enough for the male (art) world—and as furious as the failure to understand it, or the bullet-headed impulse to reject it (even as it was being appropriated right and left, and diminished in the appropriation) could make her, it only confirmed that she was doing what she had to do. She taught me that all art is political and that the task of the artist is to be aware and to create awareness, that even while fighting for a better world, the artist must also fight on behalf of her own vision, because no one will surrender power, not even to art, without a struggle, and if art is lost, the struggle for change is also lost.

For me, Carolee’s single-mindedness and expansive generosity were always most pointedly embodied in her rapt attention to nature, the way she listened to her beloved cats and marked the plethora of little, usually unnoticed things that in aggregate make up the world. When her cat Minos, would worry the stunned bodies of birds or chipmunks until they were dead, Carolee felt right at home in a nature that was built upon predation (even as I found myself squirming), and she kvelled like a mother when La Nina, started making assemblages out of her own kills.

At the time I met her, Carolee was pretty depressed and maybe even somewhat bitter, for reasons that were easy enough to understand, and I felt such profound gratitude and anger over what she’d had to suffer to create her art that I could imagine myself as if a primitive Christian contemplating her humiliated and savaged god. To then see her getting the recognition she’d earned so many times over has been a source of amazing joy and satisfaction, and I am inexpressibly thankful that she lived to see the work of whose fate she often despaired embraced and widely acclaimed. 

Ach, I miss her and will miss her so much. What I especially miss already are our phone calls. She was the person (other than my daughter and my partner) who most often called me, always just asking: How are you doing? or What are you working on? And then we’d be on the phone for 30 minutes, or often an hour, talking about everything from politics, health— how we were managing our (physical) pain—books, signs of the changing seasons, but mainly our art, and she’d always ask what I was thinking about it, or about this or that work or exhibition she’d seen, what I was struggling with… We also talked a lot about sex and how important it was to her, and how much she suffered when she didn’t have it. For my At Her Age “documentary,” in which I asked women what experience, at any period in their lives, came to mind when they thought about what had made them feel old, she recalled a sentence that somebody had said to her: “I can’t help feeling an immeasurable taint of past fuckings, which have marked your vagina. The invisible imprints are repellent.” Imagine!

I’m sad that I was never able to persuade her to continue making the body-work that would express the mystery, glory, depth, elegance, and strength of the aging female body as she’d already done for the eye-mind-body in her youth. After all I’ve been through, she said, I won’t give them the satisfaction of seeing my body in decay.

For a number of years, a triptych of her series, Hand/Heart for Ana Mendieta, made in 1986 at the time of her friend’s death, has been hanging over my bed. I never met Ana Mendieta, but Carolee made me feel as enraged as she herself felt about Ana’s death; its inherent horror and injustice aside, I think it typified for her the long and brutal (and casual) suppression of women in art, and the work depicts the dirty, bloodied hands of the woman artist clinging to such modest gains as she’s struggled, or been suffered, to win. Since Carolee’s death these pictures have changed: I feel that they now include traces of our conversations, of everything she was to me, infused in a physical thing, and that is not only deeply comforting, it’s like I feel her presence in them. I have other physical things from her, for example, syringes, bandages, and stuff covered with her blood. She gave them to me when I visited her in the hospital, saying, I know you’re the only person who will treasure something like that. I do. I do.

* * *

by Joyce Burstein

she faced everything with candor
never squandered or second guessed
took delight in every aspect of embodiment
we spent the past year plotting her home burial
there was nothing that kept her from life, not even death
she was more fun than a barrel of monkeys
then, out of the corner of my eye, radiant, the most beautiful woman in the world.
I always hear her in the epithalamia, wedding songs now détourned to dirge:

{ Dress now in sorrow
{ feet more beautiful than snow fallen in sunlight
{ blood against snow
{ ivory footed bedstead
{ lover vanished in the image of you
{ let them count the stars, the grains of sand, who care to measure all the raptures you have found
{ Vesper has taken one of us
{ Hymen Hymeneous Hail Hymen
{ raise high the roof
{ even Venus bows

-Fragments from Catullus 3, 61, 62, 64, Sappho 111

Courtesy Joyce Burstein.

* * *

on Carolee
by Kathy Brew

Carolee Schneemann with Kathy Brew, c. 1992. Courtesy Kathy Brew.

Kathy Brew's cat Lily, sister to Carolee's cat, La Niña. Courtesy Kathy Brew.

I first officially met Carolee at New Music America in 1988 in Miami. Of course, I already knew of (and was in awe of) her work. She was already an art goddess in my mind. But it was when she came to San Francisco in 1991 for a semester as a guest artist at the San Francisco Art Institute that we really began our deep friendship. I lived in San Francisco at the time, and Linda Montano had suggested that Carolee connect with me while living there, more for female friendship than art world connections. We became what we referred to as “mermaid sisters,” as we both loved plunging into water, and would find places and ways to do just that as often as possible—from the Pacific Ocean and other Bay Area watering holes to her pond in New Paltz and more. I moved back to NYC in 1994 and in 1995 I found myself living in a loft in the Flower District one block away from Carolee’s loft. So we became “cup of sugar” neighbors (even though we both usually avoided sugar), and would connect regularly, both in the city as well as upstate. I knew of Carolee’s health challenges over 20 years ago, and became one of her trusted confidants. As doctors’ daughters, we practiced giving vitamin B shots with syringes on oranges, before administering them to her physical body. Those oranges came into her work, Known/Unknown: Plague Column. I helped her edit the video footage for that piece. I have continued shooting video (along with my partner, Roberto Guerra, and alone after he passed away, also from cancer) with her over the years and have quite an archive that I will begin to try to distill and work with. We had what Mike Bidlo, Victoria Vesna, and I refer to as “the goddess connection.” Most recently, we shared the feline connection. Her most recent cat, La Nina, and mine, Lily, are sisters from the same litter. So whenever we spoke about all sorts of things—art, being single, loneliness, health issues, and more—we always shared stories of our beloved sister cats. The funny thing is that initially Carolee named her cat El Niño. It wasn’t until she took the cat to the vet to be fixed that the vet informed her that El Niño was actually La Niña! Stay tuned, as I believe PPOW is presenting an exhibit of La Niña’s work this Spring, something that Carolee was determined to have happen. Carolee was one of the most supportive and generous friends I’ve ever had—a true soul sister and mentor. For that, along with her creative spirit, fierce intelligence, integrity, and amazing humor, I will miss her terribly. But I carry her with me, as we do with those who’ve impacted our lives so deeply. Her spirit lives on in all the lives she touched and in the amazing body of work she created that has had such important influence on the culture. The goddess reigns!

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Reminiscences of Carolee
by Aline Mare

I met Carolee in the 70s, as a young experimental filmmaker living in a squat in Chalk Farm, London when she came to show “Fuses” at the London Film Festival. I was completely blown away. It was not only the power of the film in its full sensual glory, but her own radiating aura and the intelligence of her beauty that so deeply affected me.

I cannot describe the freedom that she spoke of: to embrace the sensuality and the erotic power of the female body; only that it was a beckoning call. I returned to New York a few months later and began making experimental films and performance in earnest.

She entered in and out of my life over the years and I could often hear her whispering in my ear, always leaning towards seeking the ecstatic vision: to be unabashedly free of shame about our bodies and to embrace our beauty. When I joined forces with Bradley Eros—making wild half-naked shamanistic films and theater pieces—she was occasionally in the audience, lighting up the darkness. She understood the urge towards a sensual intellect with her heart, her mind, and her cunt. I have always felt that I was seen and acknowledged by her, though my work remained deeply underground during that time and we ended up living on different coasts.

Many moons later she re-entered my life when she fell literally into the arms of my husband-to-be at her own opening at SF MOMA. I was the single mother of a beautiful boy who I dragged along with me to a party at her loft in New York, where I met him. At our wedding, she gave our union a sacred blessing when she spoke of the intricate roots that connected one to another in mysterious ways. Twenty-five years later, I am still grateful that her fainting spell led me to such a long lasting and sacred union.

She had a great understanding for the value of good sex—having had a quite a few long lasting soulful love affairs and marriages herself. I always loved her line: “touch tenderly, fuck fiercely”—and have used it repeatedly in my intimate life.

She has always been a guiding force in my life as a female artist. Her fearlessness and deeply mythic intentionality, as well as her tender sense of humor and her tough wizened armor, have become part of my flesh. I can feel Carolee under my skin—in a visceral personal way and I shall carry her with me to the living end.

* * *

Tribute to Carolee Schneemann
by Michelle Handelman

The first time I met Carolee was through her work. At the time, I was an art school dropout, visiting the public library to do research for my first performance art piece as I knew nothing about performance, and there, amongst the rickety metal shelves I found Carolee Schneemann’s More Than Meat Joy (1979). My entire vision of what art could be was shattered by what I saw in those pages. I could feel her energy leaping off the page in what can only be described as a complete visceral upheaval. I saw images I had only dreamed of—a woman naked, covered in feathers and meat while confronting the lens with intelligent defiance. Bodies at once beautiful and grotesque, examining the complicated relationship between restraint and release, pleasure and pain, the violence of Eros. Like so many other young women artists looking for work that spoke of sexuality and death, I found my mirror. Or rather, I saw myself in her mirror, pushing the radical political against the radical erotic. The power of Carolee’s art gave me the power to become an artist.

The second time I met Carolee was in the flesh. It was the late 1980s and I was making experimental films with long takes and no edits. She fiercely critiqued my work saying, “Cut, cut, cut!” To Carolee the edit was a physical action, a manifestation of the body interacting with the material. The action would guide the result, and that agency of movement was how she got closer to the truth. Many years later she harshly criticized my work again, saying that it wasn’t doing anything to move the feminist movement forward. She understood that the battle was not over. And with instinct, passion, and fearlessness, she changed the course of art history. I don't think I ever entirely got over the fact that I personally knew Carolee Schneemann. Every time I would speak with her I would say to myself, “I can't believe I'm sitting her with Carolee Schneemann and she's asking about my work." I was incredulous. One day we were hanging out at her show at Emily Harvey Gallery and I asked, "What advice can you offer younger artists?" She looked deeply into my eyes and said with much conviction, "Sleep with everyone you want to sleep with! Because when you're older no one will want to sleep with you." It was at once funny, honest, heart-breaking, and raw.

* * *

Carolee Schneemann
by Dan Cameron

My initial up-close personal experience with Carolee Schneemann took place in mid-August 1979. It was my first summer as a college graduate, and I had a full-time job in NYC starting after Labor Day, but I’d been offered a one-month gig stripping old built-up varnish from the woodwork of several interior rooms of a stately Hudson, NY home. It was a dirty job and I was terrible at it, so I was invariably looking for evening diversions, one of which came in the form of an ad for a screening of Schneemann’s Kitch’s Last Meal (1973-1976) in the nearby village of Catskill, with the artist present to give remarks. Claiming I had a valid driver’s license, I borrowed somebody’s car to get there, arriving to a packed room where the only place to sit was on the wooden floor up front.

As a recent graduate of Bennington College, with its longtime connection to Judson Dance Theater, of course I knew who Schneemann was, and I had browsed through her book, More than Meat Joy, at the campus library. But even then I was struck by the fact that none of the Bennington faculty had known quite what to do with her: the painters all thought she was really doing performance, the dance crowd thought she was a studio artist, and absolutely nobody seemed to know how to even address her singular take on what we casually refer to today as gender issues within the art world.

Carolee was a mesmerizing speaker. Gracious and articulate, she came prepared in the way that a performing artist would: self-composed, with perfect posture and breath control, and always fully occupying the present moment. I tend to remember the 1970s as a pretty slouchy decade overall, so Carolee stood out as someone whose approach—even when it meant introducing a film—entailed a serious degree of physical self-discipline. At the time, I was taken with her assemblage work, which I saw as closely related to the films, but since most of the visual documentation I’d seen up to that point was in low-grain black-and-white—I wasn’t a New Yorker yet and her breakthrough 1982 Max Hutchinson show was still in the distant future—any opportunity to experience her work firsthand seemed like a godsend.

I’m still not sure if Kitsch’s Last Meal is a masterpiece, but while I drove back to Hudson that night, it felt like my entire conception of how an artist exists in the world seemed upside down, the single evening eclipsing an undergraduate degree’s worth of earnest discourse about Clement Greenberg and the Frankfurt School. At Bennington I’d been taught that an artist develops a style based on years of incremental experimentation and patiently applied technique, but Carolee’s talk and film had described a far more gripping, life-or-death scenario, in which the artist undertakes her work as if stranded in a bleak wilderness of restrictively conventional ideas about art, in which the task at hand requires building entire worlds from scratch, each with its own advanced system of enlightened meaning, if human civilization was ever to have a hope of reaching the next level of our cultural evolution. I was smitten.

Alas, I was also far too shy to introduce myself to Carolee that late summer evening in Catskill, NY, but when she and I did begin to collaborate a couple of years later on the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: 1962-1966, I reminded her that I’d been there, and her response was typical. She confessed that she knew she really had to be on top of her game that night, because the feeling of people hanging on intently to her every word was palpable. Then she laughed heartily and said, “It must have been you!”

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Her Mythical Body
by Ernesto Pujol

America’s culture of entertainment evaluates artists through its obsession with the beauty and seductiveness of youth. Other cultures care for its older creative bodies but we are embarrassed by old age and dismiss them into invisibility. Carolee Schneemann refused to be dismissed and invisible. She always stood proud as a wise reminder of our critical need for historical memory. Over the past 20 years, I have sent most of my performance art students to look at Carolee’s work not only because her body’s agency marked a moment of liberation for women artists, but for all artists who sought to leave the fascism of American conservatism behind. We should revisit American performance art as Before Carolee (BC) and After Carolee (AC). Her newly mythical, timeless body of furious and playful love made and changed our visual history. I remember Carolee best for her deep personal dignity, generous accessibility, and care for animals great and small that spoke of humility and compassion. Her cat stories were not about a sentimental eccentricity but about a grounded, tender connection to the animal body exemplified in her performances, shaking off the cruelty of Puritanism, and in her beautiful private life. Carolee sought to reclaim our practice through countless humanitarian acts of perception that can only be compared to moments in monasticism in which the wise Master encounters the fullness of the universe in the gaze of a wild creature. Contemporary American performance art is richer for having such enlightened wildness in its performative lineage.

* * *

by Gale Elston

I met Carolee about 25 years ago when she had heard I once had a gallery and she was seeking exhibition opportunities. I organized exhibitions of her work in her loft and in my loft in Soho. She was regal, majestic, had amazing bodies of work and no gallery representation. She was renting out her NYC loft for money and her back space in New Paltz and was vastly underappreciated by the art market. One of a few things she would find “Unforgiveable.” Later a show was organized for her at Whitebox where I was a founding member, Juan loved her work. I became her art lawyer and we became dear friends. Carolee was fierce about the primacy of her work and her practice as an artist. She was fully committed and worked at her art incessantly. If anyone ever mentioned the word “relax” she would shriek or hiss. Her ongoing exploration of sexuality, sensuality, mythology, nature, politics, the vulvic morphology, historic gender structures was intelligent and full throttle. But she always had time for friends. She was a fantastic friend, always interested in current politics, philosophies, and my personal life. When I had a series of miscarriages she wrote me a beautiful letter about souls dancing in orgasmic fluids. She loved to swim in her pond and the importance of her Huguenot stone house and gardens can not be underestimated. She thrilled to the cat artworks Nina created there, collected gifts from cats past and present, birds, mice, feathers and displayed them there, and reveled in her garden. She insisted I transplant some of her mugwort (magic she declared) and mint. Always generous and loving, Carolee was a woman in full, living “Up to and Including Her Limits.” As the artworld grieves the loss of its Queen I see her soul swimming in the orgasmic juices of her creative expressions and the bright intelligence she left for us in her writings, sculptures, paintings, and films. I am deeply grateful to Carolee Schneemann for the gift she was to our humanity and to the world at large.

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Heart & Sole: In Memory of Carolee Schneemann
by Linda Weintraub

Photo: Linda Weintraub.

Carolee’s feet remain neglected sites of significance despite her copiously documented career. Yet these humble appendages carry significance that even the vulva cannot provide, despite its valorization in her art. Consider this, the vulva is structurally and functionally withdrawn from public view; it resists disclosure. In contrast, feet are anatomical extensions into space and place. Because feet determine the extent of a body’s kinetic explorations, Carolee’s distinctive relationship to her feet offers vivid insights into her pioneering accomplishments.

Even in the final years of her life, Carolee’s shoes were more likely to be carried in her hand than worn on her feet. Weather and the circumstance mattered little. Her sole-ful nudity fed her cravings for somatic rapport with her planetary home. The foot’s elaborate assemblage of muscles, tendons, nerves, and ligaments conjoined to connect her material body to its immediate material circumstances. These categories of somatic experience are unfamiliar to wearers of shoes. Feet that are routinely swaddled in rubber and leather are oblivious of the bountiful textures, temperatures, consistencies, and degrees of moisture that feet evolved to detect, register, and deliver. Such sensory interactions are, arguably, more alien to current cultural norms than exposing the vulva. Indeed, cushioned soles exemplify the insensate social strictures that Carolee resisted throughout her life. Contact between her feet and earth was a radical and defiant form of non-compliance. Over time, the persistent demands of her sensory appetites seemed to alter the anatomical structure of her feet. Her toes gradually spread apart, as if to optimize their investigative and grasping capacities.

Carolee was less a free-spirit than a grounded soul. She craved submergence, not release. By enlisting gravity as a mighty ally, her cathedrals soared in reverse. Terminal Velocity (2001–2005) is an example of an artwork that is imbued with the downward thrust of gravity. This photo montage of newspaper clippings depicts victims of the World Trade Tower disaster plummeting to their deaths from 100 story offices. Its account of gravity differs remarkably from Yves Klein’s renowned photo montage entitled Leap into the Void (1960) that also depicts an air-borne human. Klein describes his “Leap” as the “boundless spirit (that) would exist free of form, objects would levitate, and humans would travel liberated from their body,” while Carolee insists upon the momentum and physicality of downward motion. As such, Terminal Velocity does not only evoke the horror of 9/11; it also comments on workers, stacked in the office suites of the World Trade Towers, exiled far above their earthly home.

As in her paintings, Carolee’s bare feet dissolved figure/ground divisions between her body and her material surroundings. Indeed, removing shoes corresponds to her stylistic elimination of outlines, borders, and frames that segregate visual elements. She explains, “Alienation from our physical joys, constrictions in the scope of our own physical natures, meant endless disasters, acts against our own deepest needs.”1

In sum, Carolee’s feet served as staging grounds for the confluence of joy, eroticism, violence, and horror. Unfettered, they absorbed vibrations that issue from the Earth, and spurred the glorious celebration of flesh for which she will always be remembered.

  1. Carolee Schneemann, More Than Meat Joy: Performance Works and Selected Writings, Documentex, McPherson & Company , (Kingston, NY:, 1979, 1999), p 194.

* * *

A Friendly Tribute

Dear Carolee,

We first met in 1961 at the Judson Gallery which was in the basement of the very Judson Church building in which your memorial is taking place today. We were both included in the same show which was organized there by Sam Goodman, Stanley Fischer and Boris Lurie. That same winter you and I took part in the Store Days happenings which Claes Oldenburg staged on Avenue B. Also, in 1962, you designed the program-leaflet of our Franco-American poetry reading at the Living Theatre. You later moved to Europe and, as I was putting together the first International Festival of Free Expression at the privately funded American Center for Students and Artists on Boulevard Raspail in Paris (not to be mistaken for the US government–sponsored place on the rue du Dragon), you came to me with the proposal of a horizontal trance frenzy involving humans, fish and different meats; some more or less accidental nudity; and lots of splashy body art. That project was to become famous as Meat Joy, which you premiered then and there, in 1964, at our Paris festival. All of us were later invited to travel to London to present a cross-section of the Festival’s main events including Meat Joy. Two evenings were planned at Dennison Hall but the second one was cancelled by the police because of insulting coverage by the right wing British press which targeted what it called “too much nudity and sex trying to pass as avant-garde art.” Same old story. In fact the Meat Joy Paris premiere went very well. The room was packed and the audience sat in a circle around the protagonists as the action spread out on the floor. I remember you giving soft instructions to artist Daniel Pommereulle and to Annina Nosei (then a student, not yet an art dealer) to make do with the overly dramatic contortions of Rita Renoir, a famous Crazy Horse Saloon stripper, who ambitioned to become a mainstream theater actor by way of the so-called avant-garde (that was supposed to be us, I guess). You set out to explain to her that in our line of collective work there were no such things as stars or second fiddles since all participants had equal status. Rita couldn’t quite grasp the difference between a porny burlesque number in a trendy nightclub and an experimental painterly group grope in an underground setting. But never mind, with all its contradictory components Meat Joy, in particular, and the fortnight long festival, in general, were big hits and we enjoyed ourselves immensely while helping each other make things happen.

The flimsy undergarments you had asked the cast of your happening to wear had a strange tendency to tear or fall off in the heat of the action and that, of course, enhanced the audience’s attention span. Nowadays nudity is quite commonplace, even banal, in the performing arts, but back in the sixties that was not yet the case. I remember how excited the magnificent British-born surrealist poet Joyce Mansour was as she moved closer and closer to observe what was going on. Being short-sighted and wearing thick glasses, she got so close that eventually she became part of the action. In a sense, that kind of sums up the entire purpose of our efforts. Meat Joy was immediately perceived by us as a major landmark of the world-wide underground transnational rhizom which we experienced first hand in the sixties on either sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific. What did all of us have in common? A passion for Artaud, for Picabia, for Kerouac definitely, and for as Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantras (1964), which you and I cared for specifically.

More than half a century later it makes sense to recall the general socio-political context in which the contre-culture came about and spread like wildfire, especially today as we are witnessing a nauseating global regression towards the most obnoxious forms of racism, nationalism, social and sexual oppression, and religious fundamentalisms of all kinds, of which the pussy-grabbing moron shooting off his mouth in the Oval Office and at N.R.A. rallies is but a symptom, not the cause. It could be useful to note how intensely positive the general context we operated in was back then, in contrast to what it is today.

In the US, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements energized everyone; so did the Berkeley Free Speech movement, the budding Feminist movement, and Gay Liberation, all converging into a many layered antiwar rainbow coalition. In Chicago, during the huge 1968 demonstrations, the likes of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet, Joan Baez, Norman Mailer, Dick Gregory, Ed Sanders (of Fugs fame) and Abbie Hoffman mingled closely with the protesting youth while heeding William Burroughs’ advice to “Put your ass where your mouth is.” Come to think of it, that was the nearest thing to our world-wide political, sexual, and artistic battle cry. Meanwhile, in France, a giant general strike shook up the very basis of capitalism: factories, radio and TV stations, universities, schools, train stations, airports, subways, and theaters, were occupied by more than ten million insurgents who stopped going to work so as to try and retake control of their own lives. The General Strike turned the entire social space into a gigantic Dada-flavored wild dance floor on which millions performed spontaneously. The uprising was choreographed by no one in particular, certainly not by professional politicians, union bureaucrats, tycoons, or oligarchs. It is an open secret that if anything at all triggered or inspired the events which lead to the General Strike in May ’68, it could only be the age-old dream dreamt by many generations of John Browns, of Rimbauds, of Bakunins, of Louise Michels, of Emersons, of Emma Goldmans right up to Dada, the Situationists, and, yes, to the sixties contre-culture movement. In other words, it is not impossible and—even quite plausible—that on an individual, private, intimate level, a free jazz concert by Ornette Coleman; a performance of Paradise Now by the Living Theatre; a tune played by Thelonius Monk or by the Rolling Stones; or a happening conceived by Kaprow, by Fahlström, or by you, Carolee, could initiate a psycho-physical sensory awakening process of life-changing magnitude. That’s what art does, it opens minds and invents different pathways for hitherto unknown impulses to come out into the open.

Alas, the art market quick-sands and enforced prostitutional behavioral codes have all but swallowed up whatever creative dissent managed to evade detection, but, nevertheless, here and there, we can discover signs of life buried within the global quagmire. I’ll give but one example concerning the wider sixties context, outside the limited realm of museums, galleries, universities and all the profitable culture industry, yet directly related to the creative process.

In 1966, I took part in a million-person anti-Vietnam War protest in the Belgian city of Liège, in which converged a large variety of radicals from not only neighboring countries (France, Germany, Switzerland) but from all over Europe. The first five kilometers of the demonstration were boringly academic to a fault: thousands of banners covered with the usual robotic political slogans, row after row after row of red flags, large portraits of Marx, Che Guevara, and even, to my horror, Stalin, followed by all kinds of Vietnamese and other flags. Later on, black flags showed up and, at the very end of the enormous procession, suddenly a conclusive philosophical statement of the highest order appeared out of the blue: a handful of youthful females and males, paraded distinctfully apart from the mainstream, holding up a simple broomstick to which they had thumb-tacked a sheet of free-flowing translucent cellophane. I went up and hugged them, so happy I was to see their hilarious portable version of Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915 - 1923) which, in a discreet but undeniable way, underscored the organic link of the sixties socio-cultural uprising with the spirit of the Dadaist precedent in transparent displacement. Duchamp’s sharp, crystal clear concept of the anartist—which he, Huelsenbeck, Niki de Saint Phalle, Tinguely and my then girlfriend Johanna and I had discussed with Teeny and Marcel Duchamp in their Greenwich Village home in 1961—had travelled to Liège and proliferated.

I experienced a similar revelatory emotion when you premiered Meat Joy back in 1964. In my view that work of yours stands and will continue to stand alongside Strange Fruit sung by Billie Holiday, Walden (1970) filmed by Jonas Mekas, The Connection (1962) filmed by Shirley Clarke, a masterful drip canvas by Pollock, a combine painting by Rauschenberg, an abstract expressionist color storm by Joan Mitchell, or a Kaprow happening, as the quintessence of what the very best art to come out of America during the fifties and sixties was all about.

We loved you then, we love you now, and we will love you for the foreseeable future, dear Carolee, because you touched our hearts in a special way and made us purr as you did your libidinous cats.

As ever, your old friend,

Jean-Jacques Lebel.

* * *

Courtesy Thyrza Nichols Goodeve.

Because of Carolee
by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

Carolee Schneemann was indeed an absolutely extraordinary individual. My relationship with her later in life was certainly not a given as her aesthetic and sensibility were not my own. Carolee’s celebratory sexuality and freedom were not something I could identify with, coming from New England WASPs fraught with shame and neurosis. As Yvonne Rainer once said, “Carolee you make sex look so easy!” to which she responded, “Yvonne, you make sex look so hard!,” as a youngster it was the formal rigor and cerebral affect of Yvonne Rainer’s work that formed and mirrored my own writing and interior life not Carolee’s —not to mention I was once a student of Annette Michelson, whose letter to Carolee is quoted in Kitch’s Last Meal and more famously in Interior Scroll, excoriating “the personal clutter / the persistence of feelings / the hand-touch sensibility / the diaristic indulgence / the painterly mess / the dense gestalt / the primitive techniques” of her work.

Sailor Boy. Courtesy Thyrza Nichols Goodeve.

But in 2007 Heide Hatry asked me to write a catalog essay for an exhibition of Carolee’s work she curated at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and—under the sway of Donna Haraway's work on companion species—I wrote the first of two essays on Carolee’s collaboration with her cats. The second, “The Cat is My Medium” (her phrase) became the lead of a special issue of Art Journal on her extraordinary—and I mean out of this world—writing about her cats. Sitting with her in her house or on her lawn while her cat Minos played in the sun, we went through the typed and handwritten files she kept all her life and I discovered just how acutely articulate and sensitive a word person she was. I hear her cry of revulsion each time I write “show” deleting it immediately in order to write “exhibition” because she derided the way “show” made art sound trite and like entertainment. Anyone who witnessed her public performances about her work or read through the zillions of letters collected by Kristine Stiles in Correspondence Course, was /is awe-inspired by each articulation, as finely muscled and full of rigor and touch and lack of convention as each and every frame of Fuses. Add to this what she taught me about being strong and courageous in the face of unimaginable pain and rejection—my emotions swirl.

Daily, I think of her whenever I eat avocados—(her hands peeling the green meat as she cooed when I said I eat an avocado a day) / open a jar (wondering when my hands will have the difficulty hers did at the end and yet she never complained) / I see the floral print summer jacket hanging in my closet she gave me because she said I looked so beautiful in it. /sip a glass of water at my bedside each night remembering her bringing me my water as I slept in her guest room fitted next to a chamber pot / cuddle with my tuxedo cat Sailor Boy—remembering the day she called to tell me a tiny kitten had been discovered in the Navy Yard and needed a home / the memory of skinny dipping in her pond as she held onto the tall grass to get in—that smile, ecstatic, framed by thick curly hair as she swam towards me saying “beauty.” Ultimately it is that boundless smile, accompanied by a sigh and a shrug of her shoulders as she looked at me, amused and overwhelmed by the sheer ridiculousness of life, which sits on my shoulder daily like a Cheshire cat grin. It wasn’t in me to say goodbye because she was the most living person I’ve ever known.

* * *

ON CAROLEE (Memorial, Judson Church, May 3, 2019)
by Yvonne Rainer

My memories of Carolee Schneemann are inextricable from my memories of Judson Church, where I first met her.

Carolee was a regular participant in the Judson Dance workshops that took place in the church gym in the early ‘60s and in the performances that accrued from them. The workshops were attended by a ragtag group of dancers, musicians, and visual artists that met once a week in the gym to work out and talk about ideas that had been generated from Happenings, John Cage concerts and writings, and the previous Robert Ellis Dunn composition sessions in Merce Cunningham’s studio. There was a core of stalwarts that came every week, Carolee among them; others showed up by way of friends or word of mouth. Any work that was presented in the gym would be included in an upcoming program.

At the outset, before a few of us had shown our work to Judson Minister Al Carmines and been welcomed into the church, three or four from Dunn’s class had auditioned for the annual “Young Choreographers” concert at the 92nd Street YMHA. We were all rejected. Judson was to become a place that offered community, support, enthusiasm, and controversy, and, sometimes, hilarity and competition, and, as Minister Al Carmines was to say early on, “I didn’t quite know what I was looking at, but I sensed that it was important.” By this time the church, under the unflappable oversight of Howard Moody, was operating a military draft counseling service and organizing around issues of civil rights, free speech, abortion rights, and the decriminalization of prostitution. The small but devoted congregation came to many of the cultural events.

Judson would soon become our home, an alternative to the once-a-year, hire-a-hall mode of operating that had plagued the struggling modern dancer previously. It hardly mattered to me that the emerging work did not always measure up to my own evolving standards. What mattered was that here we could present things more frequently, more informally, more cheaply, and—most important of all—more cooperatively. As I look back, what stands out about that first concert in the un-air-conditioned church sanctuary in the boiling summer of 1962, is the zeitgeist that suffused us all: a dare-devil willingness to try anything, the arrogance of our certainty that there was ground to be broken and we were standing on it, the exhilaration produced by the response of the incredibly partisan spectators, and the subsequent feverish anticipation of each new review in the Village Voice by our champion, Jill Johnston.

Carolee Schneemann was an essential and dynamic part of the workshops that followed the first “Concert of Dance.” Initially, I knew little about her; I knew that she had been a painter, though I had never seen any of her paintings. At some point I read a dismissive New York Times review of a Schneemann exhibition on the Lower East Side by John Canaday that ended with “I’m never going downtown again.” Undaunted—I’m sure she considered the pan a distinction—Carolee throughout her career considered herself first and foremost a painter. As she wrote: “As a painter… I wanted the bodies to be turning into tactile sensations of flickers.” Lateral Splay, her contribution to the third Judson concert, amply demonstrated that intention with its rowdy rush of bodies scuttling recklessly across the sanctuary floor as low and fast as possible. I had to bow out of that one, as it was far too anarchic for my then more restrained and orderly sensibilities.

Carolee also attempted to recruit me for a piece in which I was to imitate a chicken; a project from which, after one rehearsal, I politely withdrew. But her 1963 Newspaper Event was more up my alley: she pretty much left the performers to their own devices, giving us tacit permission to exploit our exhibitionist inclinations and run amok midst the piles of crumpled newspapers littering the floor, an experience that for me was a pleasurable relief from the structured idiosyncrasies of my early solos.

Here I must confess that I was still not taking Carolee’s performance work very seriously when she presented her iconic Meat Joy at Judson Church in 1964. By my lights it was both a literal and aesthetic mess, and I was unable to appreciate its bacchanalian radicality. Like many others, I could not see that it dealt with the body, as one writer put it much much later,“ as a vehicle for political resistance and social transformation.” (Ara Osterweil: “On Fuses”, Carolee Schneemann: Unforgivable, Black Dog Publishing, London, UK, 2015) Despite my early ambivalences, she and I did share something in common from the very beginning of our association, and that was our love of cats! I was pleased to be introduced to the remarkable Kitch a couple of years before she ate her last meal.

Carolee and I moved closer in mutual respect in the following decades. I regret never having seen, only read about, her shocking solo Interior Scroll, which contained a necessary art historical corrective that she extracted from her vagina, and I was later to admire the grace and incisiveness of Mortal Coils, a poignant and generous act of mourning. I was especially impressed by her devil-may-care language and writing, effervescent in their wealth of textures and mixed metaphors. “I work with space as if it’s time,” she said. “The aesthetic, domestic, and the transcendental get all mixed up [in my work].” Carolee challenged us to change the ways we look at the female body, and she certainly tested the comfort zones of many art lovers when, in her film Fuses (1967), she pushed our faces into close-ups of tumescent male genitalia, and, further still, displaced misogynist conventions of identification in such images by using a cat as interlocutor and “medium.” Heterosexual and interspecies relations were at once questioned and embodied by the keen, inquiring gaze of the ever-present Kitch! Though some may contest these assertions, I have absolutely no doubt that Carolee put up the most rousing fights of her generation.

She fiercely articulated her positions (in every sense!) and fearlessly deflated criticism. Following her presentation at a conference that included slides of Up To and Including Her Limits, famed sociologist Erving Goffman, speaking from the audience, culminated a high-flown and long-winded attack with “you cannot escape the symbolic code that’s in our culture.” To which Carolee, having already offered an argument that went over his head, irreverently retorted, “Can somebody please get rid of this guy?!”

More recently, on seeing her retrospective at PS 1, I was astounded to be confronted by her abstract expressionist paintings from the late ’50s and early ’60s. They were as innovative and exuberant as those of any of her male contemporaries. It was at that moment that I was more convinced than ever of the degree to which she had been shunted aside and demeaned by the art world of that period.

Yes, bless her: after she realized that the art world powers-that-be were finding her body more noteworthy than her mercurial visual and verbal genius, she started baring that body to provoke them and everybody else. In my expanded understanding of what she was about, I came to appreciate Carolee’s unique fusion of audacity, inspired resourcefulness, and tenacity, and am very happy that I was able to share such thoughts with her personally at the opening of the PS 1 exhibition. It was the last time I saw her. I shall miss Carolee’s fearless spirit and luminous presence.

* * *

Farewell Carolee. Australia has always felt such a long way away but never so far as at this moment.

Thank you for your friendship and your mentorship over so many years.

As we walked around that Fluxus exhibition where your works were plainly missing so many years ago, you taught me to also refuse concerted efforts to render women artists invisible...

As we walked down a New York street and you acknowledged the presence of every person begging, you taught me again about visibility and dignity that is beyond money...

As we talked 47 years later about a feminist erotic exhibition to bring both our and other women artists work on this subject into visibility as political action, you were there, despite your illness, to again support, encourage, challenge, engage....

And, as I have done for those 47 years, I will carry forward the warmth and the engagement in a life-long, positive, generous, visible contribution to culture that you showed that a woman can make. I cannot do other. It is now in the fibre of my being through the enactment of our friendship and is unable to be unlearned.

Farewell, Carolee with love,
Lyndal Jones


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues