“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.”