The so-called swinging 60s didn’t really get going until the Summer of Love in 1967, when thousands of young people in an eclectic mix of hippie gear converged on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to enjoy hallucinogenic drugs, sex and music against a background of anti-Vietnam War rhetoric. Until then, America and Britain, both recovering from the effects of war, were largely conservative, hidebound and patriarchal societies. This makes the work of the American artist Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019), now on show at the Barbican in the first major survey and the first show since her death, all the more remarkable. For before Feminism was even a thing, she was breaking artistic and social boundaries.
Before Feminism was even a thing, she was breaking artistic and social boundaries.
Born to a doctor and his wife in rural Pennsylvania in the 1930s, she had a conventional upbringing. Her parents wanted her to become a typist. But being able to draw ‘before I could speak,’ in 1952 she gained a full scholarship to Bard College in Upstate New York, only to be expelled two years later for ‘moral turpitude’. The college had no life models, so she made bold paintings of her own naked body. In 1954 she attended Columbia University and the New School for Social Research at a time when New York was a bubbling cauldron of new ideas. Work from this period shows the influence of both French post-Impressionism and American Abstract Expressionism (that mainly male movement of high modernism). Hovering between figuration and abstraction paintings such as Aria Duetto (Cantata No.78): Yellow Ladies c 1960-1 disrupt the surface of the canvas with rich gestural brush marks, displaying a visual panache that has all the confidence of de Kooning. Despite her later performative work, Schneemann always referred to herself as a painter.
As a child, she came across the term ‘gestalt’ in an art class. It was to become a ’60s’ buzzword, loosely referring to a unified whole that was more than the sum of its parts. Along with ‘happening’ – first introduced by the artist Allan Kaprow in 1959 to describe the theatricality of visual experiences that invited the viewer to be a participant as much as a viewer – it became a hallmark of the time. In 1962 to mark her emergence into New York City society, Schneemann hosted a ‘debutante party’ in her 21 Street loft. Later, she recalled ‘we celebrated anything/everything’ with ‘100 sweating rocking streaming rapturous stamping flying artists’ flitting between ‘rambling lofts’. Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol were all friends, and their influence can be seen in the introduction of kinetic elements, the incorporation of found objects and the performative elements in her work.
Cartesian philosophy had long taken (the very male) view that there was a split between mind and body. Long before the phrase was taken up as a feminist mantra, the personal became, for Schneemann, the political. Using her own body, she challenged the binary view of reason versus instinct, the Apollonian versus the Dionysian. Just to look at the titles of her books displayed at the Barbican: Jung, Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Wilhelm Reich and The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, is to be presented with a reading list of a sexual warrior from the ’60s. For Schneemann, engagement with the body linked to global politics, to female exploitation and the environment, and challenged how the lives and bodies of women were perceived. Her understanding that painting was a dynamic and physical act lead her to question whether she could be both image and image maker? As early as 1962 (a year before sexual intercourse was invented according to the poet Philip Larkin), she staged a performance in her studio among works in progress. Painting on her body, she became an element in her paintings. It was to be a turning point. Although conforming to the American stereotype of being young, thin, white and beautiful, she challenged the conventionally ascribed role of wife and muse, realigning herself as a point of action and knowledge—an active maker rather than a passive subject. A 1963 gelatin silver print from Eye Body shows her lying naked on the studio floor as two snakes slither over her. She might be a Minoan goddess.
Being a founder member of the Judson Dance Theatre – a group of choreographers, dancers, visual artists and musicians – allowed her to meld different art forms. Improvised and collaborative works were performed to experimental soundtracks in immersive, multi-media events. 1964 saw the debut Meat Joy in Paris. Untrained dancers, clad in feather and fur-trimmed underwear, tangled together in heaps of twisted limbs. As they rolled semi-naked around the stage, torn paper, raw fish, chickens, and hot dogs rained down, and buckets of paint spilt beneath them in a Bacchanalian orgy of movement and material. Yves Klein also used the female body, dragged across a flat canvas, to produce an image. But, here, for the first time, was challenging visual and physical theatre being created by a woman. Described by Schneemann as an ‘erotic rite,’ Meat Joy seems to hark back to an age of innocence before AIDS, when young people were throwing off the repressive shackles of an earlier generation in favour of free sexual expression.
Growing to artistic maturity during the era of Abstract Expressionism that promoted the myth of the male genius, Schneeman was one of the first to claim the female body as central to the painter’s process. No longer passive but carnal and erotic, it was shown as orgasmic, angry and sometimes broken. Long before such debates were common currency, her work challenged what it means to inhabit a gendered body and claim sexual freedom of expression, reminding us of what a pivotal era the 1960s were. Many other artists are echoed in her work – Eva Hesse, de Kooning, Warhol, and Yves Klein. But well ahead of the game, Schneemann’s groundbreaking practices paved the way for later female artists such as Mary Kelly, Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas, who would focus on the female body and what living within that body means to be alive.
Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics, Barbican Art Gallery 8 September 2022 – 8 January 2023
Sue Hubbard is a freelance art critic, award-winning poet and novelist. Her latest novel, Rainsongs, is available from www.duckworthbooks.co.uk and her fourth, Flatlands, is due from www.pushinpress.com in 2013.