Carolee Schneemann, pioneering performance artist, RIP

Carolee Schneemann — a performance art pioneer whose deeply provocative and thoughtful work focused on gender, sex, the body, and power — died yesterday at age 79. My first exposure to Schneemann's work was in the mid-1980s on a grainy VHS dub of avant-garde art films that also included pieces by Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle. That videocassette, along with the RE/Search book Angry Women and a few other underground tapes and texts, opened my eyes and mind to a multitude of new genres in feminist art and radical thought. From an obituary by Andrew Russeth in Art News:

Schneemann's corpus of work is so gloriously diverse that it is impossible to summarize with a single defining piece, but among her most famous (and infamous) works is Meat Joy, a 1964 film of a performance featuring eight scantily clad dancers who writhe together, with animals parts soon joining the melee. It's a bacchanalian display—unapologetic and exploding with pleasure—and an utterly indelible work of art.

"Meat Joy has the character of an erotic rite: excessive, indulgent; a celebration of flesh as material: raw fish, chickens, sausages, wet paint, transparent plastic, rope, brushes, paper scrap," Schneemann wrote. "Its propulsion is toward the ecstatic, shifting and turning between tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon—qualities that could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent."

Describing the work on another occasion, in terms that could very well serve as a manifesto for her entire career, she said, "The culture was starved in terms of sensuousness because sensuality was always confused with pornography. The old patriarchal morality of proper behavior and improper behavior had no threshold for the pleasures of physical contact that were not explicitly about sex but related to something more ancient—the worship of nature, worship of the body, a pleasure in sensuousness."

But there is also her Interior Scroll (1975), a performance that involved the artist, in part, pulling a long, thin scroll from her vagina and proceeding to read a rejoinder to a male artist who had criticized her work….

Asked by (artist Pipilotti)Rist about the best advice she had ever received or given, Schneemann opted to answer with the latter and said, "I guess my best advice is this: Be stubborn and persist, and trust yourself on what you love. You have to trust what you love."