Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting

Carolee Schneemann is a provocative and influential artist whose work challenged the art establishment and our society’s perception of art. Her career has spanned many decades and her artwork took on many forms, and throughout all of it she fought against sexism and bias against female artists.

Schneemann was the first woman from her family to attend college, getting a scholarship to study art at Bard College. At school she would pose nude for paintings by other students, but when she painted self-portraits the paintings would be stolen by male students. Eventually, she was expelled from the school for “moral turpitude.” This was not fully explained to her but she attributed it to the paintings she had been making of herself.

The hypocrisy of this experience seems to have influenced her career as an artist. In “Up to and including her limits” (1973-76) she suspended herself from ropes while naked and drew on the wall and floor with a crayon. In this piece she is creating an abstract expressionist work, the prevailing movement of the time and one that was dominated by men. By integrating herself into the piece, her gender became inseparable from the drawing and cannot be denied. She became both the creator and part of the work itself.

In “Meat Joy” (1964) Schneemann choreographed eight men and women dancing and interacting on a stage with raw meat and paint. During one performance she faced overt persecution for her work when a male spectator became enraged and tried to strangle her [2]. Two women intervened and fought him off. Schneemann continued the performance, and as a result the attempt on her life became a part of the work.

Not all of her work directly addressed feminism or sexuality. She made sculptures with various materials and sometimes motorized parts. Her piece “Music Box Music” (1965) is a small sculpture made of wood, broken glass, oil paint, and music boxes. I found the colors of the gold colored glass and paint to be visually appealing. A later piece, “Mortal Coil,” (1994-95) has long ropes hung from the ceiling slowly rotating with the portion of rope on the floor creating patterns in sand. There were also obituaries on the wall. This piece was made later in Schneemann’s life, possibly when she became more cognizant of her own mortality and the mortality of her friends. Although these pieces do not address feminism or sexuality in the same way that other pieces like “Meat Joy” and “Up to and including her limits” do, she is still asserting herself as an artist and not accepting a role in the art world as dictated by men.

A later piece centers on the tragic events of September 11th. “Dark Pond” (2001) was made a few months after the towers fell using photographs of people jumping from the upper floors of the World Trade Center buildings. I found these to be disturbing as I knew people who worked in those buildings, one of whom died that day. Although the digital photos had been colored over with watercolor and crayon, I found myself looking at the piece wondering if my former coworker was pictured. I hope he wasn’t, and most likely he wasn’t, but the people pictured are known to somebody, and I doubt they were pleased that this artwork was created.

I researched “Dark Pond” after visiting PS1 to learn more about it and why it was created. I found an interview[3] where she discussed this piece and her thinking behind it. Schneemann said that “...their choice was to either to be incinerated or exploded out of the space where they were, because the spaces were blowing out of the windows.” She saw their decision to jump as a final act of free will. The question of incineration or falling is a grim one, but is one that many people wondered about in the aftermath of this tragedy. The decision to jump is a brave one, something that Schneemann captured in this work.

Carolee Schneemann is a prolific artist who challenged the art world to see women and female artists as so much more than the narrow role that men tried to relegate her to as a student at Bard College. Her work is an important exemplification of our society’s fight against sexism and bias against female artists.

[1] Wikipedia contributors. “Carolee Schneemann.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 30 Jan. 2018. Web. 30 Jan. 2018.

[2] Rosen, Miss “The art work that nearly killed Carolee Schneemann.” Dazed. 19 Oct. 2017.

[3] Move, Richard. “The Opulent Towers’ First Responders Carolee Schneemann’s Terminal Velocity and Dark Pond.”

[4] Rose, Steve. “Carolee Schneemann: 'I never thought I was shocking'.” The Guardian. 10 Mar. 2014.

[5] Stiles, Kristine; Selz, Peter. “Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art.” University of California Press, 2012.