In Memory of Carolee Schneemann

at P.P.O.W. Gallery in 2009

Carolee Schneemann (1939–2019) has been most remembered as a performance artist who dared to show and perform with her body in the early 1960s, when it was entirely taboo to do so. Intent on investigating whether a female sexual identity did in fact exist, many thought the artist used her own body as a canvas. However Schneemannn’s art career began as a painter, and she always considered her physical body to be an extension of the paintbrush, and her performances, an extension of action painting. Due to the fact that performance art, at this time, progressed in tandem with larger socio-political movements such as Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests, the complete trajectory of Schneemann’s career was truncated and eventually brushed aside once those turbulent social issues, so critical to the era, were seemingly solved. And yet Maura Reilly, curator of this show titled Painting, What It Became has brought back the artist’s paintings for further view due to the fact that Schneemann’s work has never been considered in its entirety until now.

The first half of the gallery features a mix of paintings from the start of the artist’s career and lightly combines them with a small selection of video performances and kinetic sculpture. One of the two earliest pieces titled, “Three Figures after Pontormo,” (1957) is a dramatic abstract painting that carries visceral movement through the contrasts that oscillate between white, gray and black. Gradually the back of a nude male figure, standing in classical pose, emerges from this moving maze and makes a convincing connection with the performative nature inherent in Jackson Pollock’s practice of Abstract Expressionism. In fact, artists like Pollock who worked during the 1950s did not function in cultural isolation. Poetry by Kenneth Koch, James Schyler, John Ashbery and particularly the performative readings by Frank O’Hara figured prominently into the definition of this art historical moment.

In that context, Schneemann began to imbue the painted surface with other objects in pieces such as “Sphinx,” (1962) transforming the drawn line into a tangible reality, or suggesting a connector that could link viewers to art as well as each other. One could also argue that the heavily-layered, mixed-media pieces such as, “One Window is Clear — Notes to Lou Andreas Salome,” (1965) appear similar to work made by other artists at that time such as Robert Rauschenberg and his “Combines.” However such a narrow, linear view defies the nature of the collectivism that upheld the New York art community at that time. Schneemann, moreover, was a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater that promoted the investigation and development of kinetic work, which was primarily performance. Aside from Schneemann, artists like Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton and Elaine Summers were intent on extrapolating the expression of Abstract Expressionism, so as to move it from the flat canvas and into three-dimensional space.

Making art real, or bridging the gap between art and life, without losing any trace of innovative creativity is a steep challenge that every artist faces. Schneemann’s “Fur Wheel,” (1962) consists of an inverted lamp shade, covered in fur with smashed beer cans hanging from the frame as ornaments. Mounted on a turning wheel, this piece performs a painting by providing a view of the same image repeatedly. However, the movement is entirely secondary. Schneeman sought to rupture this sense of stasis when performing “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions,” (1963) in conjunction with “Untitled (Four Fur Cutting Boards),” (1963) and again in the randomly drawn piece of “Up to And Including Her Limits.” (1976)

With the revolutionary days of performance long over, Schneemann’s paintings hang, stand and tilt throughout the space of PPOW Gallery as a sign of the fact that the artist never moved as far away from the act of painting as was originally thought. Painting, What it Became is a short survey that focuses on this long-overlooked side of Schneemann’s career and constructs the bridge between her two-dimensional work and performances. Although these two genres had occurred simultaneously for quite some time, performance was long mistaken as process. Schneeman, herself, has said that the use of her nude body ended up becoming a distraction to the pursuit of her larger goal: to extend painting into the public sphere. As the shock of the 1960s has shifted away, it is now clear that this collection of paintings initially functioned as formalist investigations into the movement of medium.

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