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Catching up with Carolee Schneemann

8 March 2019

When Carolee Schneemann (1939–2019) first presented Meat Joy in Paris in 1964 a ‘celebration of flesh as material’ with props including raw fish, meat, wet paint – a man came out of the audience and attempted to strangle her. In its extravagant embrace of female sexuality, her work provoked equally strong reactions from feminist critics, who dismissed it as playing to the male gaze – and it was this that stung the most. For central to Carolee Schneemann’s works across performance, photography, film, painting and sculpture was the premise that a woman could be ‘both image and image-maker’.

While her contributions to feminist art history (or ‘istory’, as she called it) are now rightly recognised, there are many areas of her work that remain underexplored, from her participation in the Fluxus movement to her investigations of violence and conflict, beginning with Viet-Flakes (1965). The film documenting the artist’s collection of photographs of the conflict, set to a haunting soundtrack by the composer, and her then husband, James Tenney. Subsequent projects focused on the Lebanon war, the attacks of September 11 and, most recently, the ongoing conflict in Syria.

In both her work and everyday interactions, Carolee Schneemann was frank about illness, ageing and mortality, and pessimistic about the general state of society, but she was also full of generosity and mischief – and extremely kind to the many writers (myself included) who were constantly approaching her with theories about her work.

When I met Carolee on her visit to London for a show at Hales Gallery (where I then worked) in 2017, she was as ready to talk about handbags and the best places to eat oysters as to reminiscence about her time living here in the 1970s, with the artist Anthony McCall and her cat, Kitch. She had smuggled Kitch into the country from the US just as, decades later, she smuggled her newest kitten into Frieze New York. Cats were among the great loves of her life, and a recurring presence in her work– from Kitch’s role in her early films to later pets in the photographic series Infinity Kisses (1981–97). It was hard to know how seriously to take her contention that her cat La Niña was adept at sculptural assemblage and kinetic art. But perhaps that’s just another example of how the rest of us are still playing catch up, long after Carolee Schneemann herself has stopped forging ahead.