Art Review: Shock of the Nude

Ms. Schneemann had little use for Abstract Expressionism’s culture of angst. What interested her was the physical action in “action painting.” She took it seriously enough to slice into her canvases and layer them with collage material, and then move into assemblage (at one point she forged a mutually beneficial friendship with Joseph Cornell). For a while she used fire as a mark-making medium.

By the early 1960s, after she had converted a Manhattan commercial loft into a studio, her assemblages grew to the size of environments, in which she performed, her nude body smeared and streaked with paint, for a series of photographs titled “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera.” The performances, which included live snakes, shattered mirrors, and cow skulls as props, suggested archaic rituals, violence-tinged but executed with surrealist wit.

It was a short, logical step from the studio into a theater. Ms. Schneemann made the transition as a founding member, along with dancer-choreographers like Deborah Hay and Yvonne Rainer, of Judson Dance Theater, a company that was changing American dance. In the Judson aesthetic, everyday actions – walking, running, lovemaking – assumed expressive dimensions. In 1964, Ms. Schneemann, using a pop-song score composed by Mr. Tenney, directed nine performers in an epochal event she called “Meat Joy.”


“Meat Joy,” 1964, chromogenic color print of the performance in New York. Credit 2018 Carolee Schneemann/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; The Museum of Modern Art, P.P.O.W, and Galerie Lelong, New York

Staged first in Paris and then in New York, it had at least the appearance of being an erotic free-for all with men and women in bikini briefs rolling around among piles of newspapers, slathering each other with blood-red paint, and clutching the bodies of dead fish and raw chickens. Seen in blurry film montage, the work is a landmark, but also a period artifact. It again confirms the painterly impulse behind the artist’s work: here she turns bodies into brushes. But of far more interest, with its mingling of creaturely flesh, living and dead, is the work’s deep investment in ideas of transience and mortality.

If “Meat Joy,” which she termed “kinetic theater,” reflected the liberationist spirit of the proto-feminist early-60s, other work tapped into darker political realities, namely the war in Vietnam. In a flickering 1965 film called “Viet-Flakes,” the artist’s camera scans newspaper clips of battlefield atrocities as if from a fighter-plane perspective. Two years later, she incorporated this film into a performance piece called “Snows,” in which the audience had a role in dictating which live photo-derived tableaus would be staged.

Carolee Schneemann, “Snows” (1967) Video by jobverse

Most of her theater work, documented in photographs or on film, exists only as ghost traces in the show, organized by Sabine Breitwieser, of the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, and Branden W. Joseph, a professor at Columbia University, along with Erica Papernik-Shimizu and Oliver Shultz of MoMA PS1. Yet some images, such as shots of the solo piece “Interior Scroll,” still startle. For the 1975 performance, the artist stood alone on a table, nude, posing like a studio model, and reading aloud from a book of her collected writings, “Cezanne, She Was A Great Painter,” which includes a litany of misogynistic reactions a female artist could expect to encounter in her career:

to have your brain picked
to have the pickings misunderstood
to be mistreated whether your success
increases or decreases
if you are a woman (and things are not utterly changed)
they will almost never believe you really did it
(what you did do)
they will patronize you humor you
try to sleep with you want you to transform them
with your energy”

She then put the book down and slowly extracted a narrow strip of folded typewritten paper from her vagina, reading the text on the scroll as it emerged. It included, among other things, a direct appeal to a film historian — female, as it happened — who had been dismissive of her work, as a sizeable swath of the art world was at that time.

Ms. Schneemann has consistently run into resistance, often from conflicting directions. Some feminists have viewed her body-positive art as exploitive in an old, essentializing way, failing to see the claim to power implicit in her erotic self-portraiture. Yet in 1969 at Cannes, when she screened her film “Fuses,” with its images of the artist and Mr. Tenney having sex, male critics were furious: the film wasn’t pornographic enough for their taste.

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