Carolee Schneemann’s life work is recognised with a major exhibition at the Barbican

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine: Tradition & Identity. Available to purchase at thebjpshop.com.

Through her radical mixed media and performance art, Schneemann blazed a trail for liberating feminist expression. Often placing her nude body at the centre, she rallied against misogyny and patriarchal attitudes, asserting that the personal is political

In 2022, the question “Could a nude woman artist be both image and image-maker?” is a timely one amid a burgeoning trend of women artists reclaiming their bodies through nude self-portraiture (Arvida Byström, John Yuyi and Jenna Gribbon to name a few). In fact, the question was posed by the radical feminist artist Carolee Schneemann 60 years ago – though she isn’t popularly recognised for blazing this trail, or others.

Those who are familiar with Schneemann might consider her a performance artist. She, however, adamantly insisted she was foremost a painter. Yet her modes of expression were vast and overlapping, incorporating images (both moving and still), assemblage, sculpture and text. Over six decades, from the 1950s to 2019, the artist railed loudly and relentlessly against misogyny and patriarchy, alongside wider human suffering and the violence of war. Now, three years after her death, Schneemann is getting her first UK survey: Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics, on show at the Barbican, London, from 0.

“Schneemann is not a household name in the UK,” reflects Barbican curator Lotte Johnson, who conceived of the show in 2019, just a few months before the artist died from breast cancer. “But she’s held by many contemporary thinkers, artists and writers as a feminist icon… She ardently believed that the personal was political, and equally that the political was personal. And while her work is located in specific contexts” – most notably the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s – “it remains so relevant today”. America’s Supreme Court recently reversed the landmark Roe v Wade ruling of 1973, which enshrined constitutional protection of the right to abortion in the US. Schneemann published unapologetic accounts of her own illegal abortions pre-Roe, adamant there was no place for an “alien being, a ‘child’” in her body. “Schneemann believed that women should be able to make free choices,” Johnson says. “It’s enraging that these rights are threatened yet again, and in fact continue to be denied to many women.”

Carolee Schneemann with Venus Vectors. 1987. Photograph by Victoria Vesna.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Schneemann was reportedly expelled from Bard College, New York, in the 1950s for painting a series of nude self-portraits. She spent the first years of her career wrestling with the (masculine) conventions of abstract expressionist painting; her early gestural work on canvas is the first piece viewers will encounter as they enter the exhibition. But where Body Politics begins chronologically in the Barbican’s upstairs galleries, the ground level sees it disperse into thematic sections. Among them, Body as Integral Material refers to a pivotal moment in 1963: when Schneemann broke free from the limits of renderings on canvas and began employing her (nude) body as medium and material itself.

Philosophical and religious perspectives have long emphasised the mind and soul as the defining characteristics that elevate humans above animals. History has harked of women, in contrast to men, as being ruled by their physical bodies and emotions, and are hence inferior. “But Schneemann challenged this restrictive idea that the body and mind are divided,” Johnson says. “She took her own sensory experience as a starting point for her work,” seeking to liberate herself from the patriarchal regulation of women’s corporeal and carnal existence; to challenge centuries-old taboos around female sexuality, anatomy, eroticism and periods.

Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera. 1963 © Carolee Schneemann. Photograph by Erró.
Interior Scroll. 1975. From a performance on 29 August 1975 © Carolee Schneemann. Photograph by Anthony McCall.

Photographed by the Icelandic artist Erró, the revolutionary Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera (1963) [above] depicts Schneemann staging a series of gestures informed by her interest in bodily ritual. Bent on detonating a history of art that rendered the female nude inherently passive, she marked her flesh with paint and symbols, posed with statement objects – a cow’s skull; snakes – and integrated herself amongst the assemblages that occupied her New York studio. “The body may remain erotic, sexual, desired, desiring, and yet still be votive,” the artist declared. “I claim my body as visual territory.”

The Barbican show charts Schneemann’s experimentation with performance in the context of the downtown New York scene, in particular her involvement with the Judson Dance Theater collective. Throughout her career, she was deeply invested in documenting such work; but more than that, “the photographs are absolutely crucial to understanding [it],” says Johnson. Scenes on show include Schneemann’s performance titled Meat Joy (1964) [below], featuring men and women, adorned with fur and feathers, writhing on stage amongst raw fish, chicken, sausages and wet paint; or the earth-shattering Interior Scroll (1975) [above], in which she pulled a scroll of feminist text out of her vagina (an organ she deemed a formidable source of knowledge and inspiration).

The outrage Schneemann experienced in response to her early nudes at Bard was a taste of what was to come. In the wake of Eye Body, she was “excommunicated” from the avant-garde art movement Fluxus for “overt sexuality” and “theatrical excess”. One man attempted to strangle her during her 1964 Paris performance of Meat Joy. Others reportedly ripped up the seats of a movie theatre with razor blades in response to her moving-image project Fuses – which chronicled Schneemann having sex with her partner James Tenney – at Cannes in 1968

Meat Joy Collage. 1964 © Carolee Schneemann.

Such tales may fuel her status as a cultural icon today, but the profoundly scandalous nature of her work came at great cost to Schneemann’s career, commercially and institutionally. “People find it unbelievable that in 30 years I have sold only two works to museums in the USA,” the artist wrote in a 1999 letter to Daniel Socolow, then director of the MacArthur Foundation. “I am not the only woman artist with a distinguished history who has no way to sustain her work, nor provide for her future.”

Schneemann had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and breast cancer in 1995, and despite her notoriety in the US art world by this point, could not afford life insurance (though a Pollock-Krasner grant did enable her to seek alternative therapy in Mexico). Still committed to her craft – albeit receiving significantly less attention for it – she plunged herself into research around the relationship between women’s bodies and conceptions of illness throughout history.

Likely to leave a mark on Barbican audiences is the harrowing penultimate work in the exhibition, Known/Unknown: Plague Column – an installation combining photography, video and assemblage. The title refers to a Viennese plague column from the 1600s, in which an angelic figure is shown smiting a serpent-laden witch representing the bubonic plague. “It’s this dichotomy of the feminine as being either pure and holy or threatening and abject,” notes Johnson; here, the victory over disease is imagined as the former conquering the latter. In Schneemann’s installation, photographs of the column are shown amongst her own mammogram images; shots of a blood-filled toilet, syringes, pornography; grids of religious icons. She is doing what she does best: integrating the viscerally personal and political experiences of the (female) body – at once dreaded and desired; lusted after and loathed – via fragments, remnants and scraps.

Exercise for Couples. 1972 © Carolee Schneemann.

It is difficult not to think of Plague Column and be reminded of our own 21st-century ‘plague’. What’s more, in the final section of the exhibition, Schneemann’s ‘fight’ against cancer is tackled alongside the human suffering (and patriarchal militaristic violence) of other conflicts: Vietnam, Lebanon, 9/11. As war continues to ravage Ukraine, it is once again uncanny how urgent Schneemann’s work feels – on numerous levels – in the context of this particular moment.

“I think it’s remarkable that there hasn’t already been a show of Schneemann in the UK,” muses Johnson. “I learned so much about myself as a woman through her work. And a thought that really excites me is new generations coming to it, and having their own responses.” The battles Schneemann fought via her art may be far from won. But collectively (re)discovering her work, and internalising her rallying cries, can help us get there.

It is difficult not to think of Plague Column and be reminded of our own 21st-century ‘plague’. What’s more, in the final section of the exhibition, Schneemann’s ‘fight’ against cancer is tackled alongside the human suffering (and patriarchal militaristic violence) of other conflicts: Vietnam, Lebanon, 9/11. As war continues to ravage Ukraine, it is once again uncanny how urgent Schneemann’s work feels – on numerous levels – in the context of this particular moment.

“I think it’s remarkable that there hasn’t already been a show of Schneemann in the UK,” muses Johnson. “I learned so much about myself as a woman through her work. And a thought that really excites me is new generations coming to it, and having their own responses.” The battles Schneemann fought via her art may be far from won. But collectively (re)discovering her work, and internalising her rallying cries, can help us get there.

Carolee Schneemann Body Politics is on show at the Barbican from Thursday 08 September  2022 to Sunday 08 January 2023.

Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.