Art
Carolee Schneemann’s Lifelong Love Affair with Her Cats

Carolee Schneemann’s video work Fuses (1964-67) is a recording of a ménage-à-trois, but not the conventional kind. A naked couple is seen in the heated throes of love-making. A cat, perched on a stool nearby, watches attentively, its eyes narrowed. This three-way act of love was something of a spiritual ritual between Schneemann, her former partner James Tenney, and her cat, Kitch.

“Kitch was so responsive to our love-making, but in a very subtle way,” Schneemann recalls over the phone from her home in upstate New York. “She would be close to the bed, and purring, resonating to our energies. The cat is such a shameless appreciator of this primal energy that I would think of her as the director of the film I wanted to make.” So Schneemann imagined Kitch as the auteur behind the lens of Fuses, watching the drama unfold on the bed from her director’s seat.

For decades, Schneemann’s cats have been a central component of her art. Cats are her muses, her co-collaborators, her lovers—even portals to other worlds. The artist believes that one of her previous feline companions, Vesper, was capable of relaying messages from the afterlife. “Vesper did a lot of psychic work,” she says. “He would introduce me to elements that, after he died, would recur and become communications from beyond. They were just a slew of mystical, unlikely events that I believe were communications from Vesper when he died.”

Carolee Schneeman, Exuberant Cat, drawn when she was four. Courtesy of the artist.

Carolee Schneeman, Exuberant Cat, drawn when she was four. Courtesy of the artist.

Courtesy of the artist.

Courtesy of the artist.

Schneemann is a feminist artist who is known best for artworks that celebrate carnal pleasures, unleash the female body from patriarchal shackles, and advocate for a deep humanism. (Six decades of her practice are currently on view in a landmark retrospective at MoMA PS1 in New York.) She is also known for her special relationship with cats, one that began when she was a child. As an infant, Schneemann was crawling on the floor when she came upon a furry mass on four legs—what she later understood was her first feline encounter.

“I was immediately enthralled,” she says. “I was screaming in excitement, they told me.” One of her family’s cats, Tommy IV—they went through no less than 14 cats named Tommy—would later become a favorite partner-in-crime to an 11-year-old Schneemann. She and Tommy IV had a standing date for adventure time. “Tommy IV knew schedules, and on alternate Wednesdays the cat would meet me either at the front door or the attic door,” she remembers.

If it was the front door, the cat would lead her into “a very wild, savage part of the woods,” she says. “You could see deer and pheasants, and strange kinds of debris.” If it was an attic Wednesday, Schneemann would take Tommy IV up along the rafters of her family home to explore old boxes and trunks.

It’s this ability of cats to move fluidly between the domestic, interior world and the wild outdoors that serves as one of Schneemann’s inspirations—and which has made cats something of a feminist symbol in her work. Indeed, the furry mammals have come to occupy an important place in feminist theory, thanks in large part to Donna Haraway’s advocacy for interspecies communication.

“Cats have always been affiliated with the feminine—often in a very negative, demonic way,” Schneemann says. Through her research, she discovered that women persecuted during medieval witch hunts were sometimes subject to a form of torture in which a kitten was forced into a woman’s vagina so she would be clawed at from inside. Cats were cast as feminine surrogates, she says, because they were “monstrous, powerful,” and beyond male control. They weren’t obedient or controllable as the stereotypically more masculine dog—a man’s best friend—usually was.

For Schneemann, the gendered associations attributed to cats and dogs represent the trappings of centuries of patriarchal control. And it’s precisely the cat’s idiosyncratic nature—the many mysterious and independent lives that felines lead outside of their master’s gaze, as well as their expressive sensuality— that is the source of Schneemann’s fascination.

The sensual abandon that she observed in several of her cats led to one of her best-known collaborations with the species, Infinity Kisses (1981-88), a series of diaristic images in which she captures herself making out—intensely, eyes closed—with her cat Vesper, a morning practice that Schneemann says was initiated by an earlier cat named Cluny. “Cluny was the first kissing cat,” she says, “and you can’t teach a cat to be a kissing cat. It was just an amazing expressivity that she had.”

Schneemann is used to sharing just about everything in her life with her cats, even her morning coffee. As we talk over the phone, Schneemann tells me that her current cat, La Nina, has approached to dip her paw in the artist’s mug. “She loves espresso,” Schneemann says. “No milk, no sugar. She’s putting her paw into my cup as we speak, and she’s licking her paw. It’s the right-handed one today. She’s a wonderful cat, I’m very blessed with her. She’s smart, she’s responsive, she’s loving. Very protective.”

Does she feel that she and her cat know each other deeply? “Absolutely, yes,” she remarks unequivocally. But as with all healthy couples, Schneemann realizes that sometimes her partner needs a bit of space. She knows that her cat requires independence and that she is quite capable of creating her own artistic expressions, as her cat Kitch did once with some shoe polish and a brush.

“The cats sleep with me, or with me and my partner. We walk in the woods,” she says. “We do everything together—except what the cat does on his or her own.”

Tess Thackara is Artsy’s Writer-at-Large.