By DAVID JAGER January 29, 2024
Carolee Schneemann harkens back to a time (quaint in retrospect), when sex was political. Not gender, or orientation - just sexuality. Once upon a time, in the not-so-distant sixties, many artists believed that if you opted out of the military industrial complex by embracing raw nature, and life’s simple pleasures, you were changing or even improving the world. Witnessing the sheer whirling energy of this show at New York's PPOW Gallery and the sixty odd works it encompasses, you might emerge convinced.
At the height of the New York sixties, Schneemann was artistic high priestess of all things sexual, transgressive, primal and chthonic. Hypnotically beautiful and utterly fearless, she captivated the entire downtown scene with a bravery and fierceness only matched perhaps by Marina Abramović or Valie Export. The 36 performance photographs from “Eye-Body” (photographed by her friend Erro), gives you an idea of the full impact of her painterly performance. One still shows wild eyed Schneemann in full erotic shamaness mode, nude body smeared with blood and paint, chomping down on an animal skull.
Many Marcusian and anarcho-syndicalist ideas are woven into Schneemann’s ethos, who died in 2019 at the age of 79. There was also a life-long struggle against very real sexism that existed against women artist of her generation. She was repeatedly told that if she wanted to be taken seriously as an artist and not merely an artist’s model, she had to keep her clothes on. This included her suspension from Bard college for having the audacity to paint herself nude, though she would have been perfectly free to pose as such for other male painters. Schneemann bucked this double standard wherever she could, and she paid the price in continuous censorship and scandal.
Making the point that she was as formidable behind the easel as she was in front of it, the focus of this show- Schneemann’s seventh at PPOW- is painting. Schneemann thought of herself as a painter first and foremost, and so this show encompasses many rarely seen oils, watercolors, drawings and painted objects. The subject, as ever, is nature and the body, as well as her ever evolving relationship with her own femininity.
There are her figure drawings and portraits of her main partner and collaborator from the sixties onward, the composer James Tenney. The painting is an interest take on certain strains of early European modernism: Charlotte Salomon comes to mind, especially with the watercolors. Schneemann’s hand is both deft and loose as the palette is warm and burnished. She makes quick, agile work with a line and easily gives her figures an athletic weight and heft, if anything she is manifesting sheer admiration. Tenney was a hell of a specimen, apparently...
She also tried her hand at abstraction and the results are just as vigorous. “Winter’s fuel” looks as if it could be a glimpse into the heart of a fire, but could just as easily be the blurry entwining of bodies, anticipating the similarly hazy and alluring figuration in the painting of Cecily Brown by several decades. The show also includes her ambitious multi-media bricolage ‘Maximus at Gloucester’ which involves board, paint, lobster traps, nets and pieces of glass. The effect is ambitious and weighty, turgid even.
As a friend of Joseph Cornell, Scheemann also tried her hand at box constructions like ‘Butterworth Box” which comes off as the organic accretionary product of the studio environment. “Window to Brakhage” is another object that attempts to visually encase hand painted feel of a Stan Brakhage film with its layers of paint and solvent and at the same time addresses the Brakhage paradox of film as a both material object and ephemeral tracery of light.
The exhibit actually focuses quite heavily on the collaborative relationship between Schneemann and Brakhage, which is not very well known. Schneemann, who was introduced to the film pioneer through her James Tenney, became very close to Brakhage and his wife Jane Wodening. Brakhage and his wife make an appearance in Schneemann’s drawings, electrified scrawling that nonetheless give off a crackling and palpable physicality. Schneemann and Tenney also make an appearance in the Brakhage film “Loving”. It is a window into the sixties’ vision of liberated eroticism as its own peaceable kingdom.
Schneemann’s own film “Fuses”, a paen to sex and nature, is included in a viewing room in the back of the show. Originally scandalizing audiences with shots of Tenney’s penis smeared with Shneenann’s menstrual blood, the film has Brakhage’s stylistic fingerprints all over it, from the hand painted, dyed and scratched film print, shaky handheld camera and the close cuts and rapid edits. But it is also meditative, poetic and oddly tender, a window into a lost era that in no small part continues to influence our own.
As the first posthumous show of a unique feminist firebrand, PPOW has helped to reveal the solid painterly substance of an artist who has often been accused of mere vanity and sensationalism. This show demonstrates that, to the very end, Schneemann was a substantial painter in her own right, and a true believer. WM
David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in New York City. He contributed to Toronto's NOW magazine for over a decade, and continues to write for numerous other publications. He has also worked as a curator. David received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 2021. He also writes screenplays and rock musicals.view all articles from this author