Carolee Schneemann, the tirelessly inventive artist whose best-known works dealt with sex and gender, has died at age 79. While she remains most famous for performances in the 1960s and ‘70s and documentation thereof, including Meat Joy (1964) and Interior Scroll (1975), Schneemann’s practice spanned painting, sculpture, installation, photography, and more over the course of her 60-year career, which also included a good deal of work about her cats—though she always identified primarily as a painter.
In a 2017 interview with artist Pipilotti Rist for Interview magazine, Schneemann said:
I’m now working with computer systems and elaborate projections, and I’m working with the imagery of dead bodies from Syria. But the way I understand composition and form and my ability to enter into material all comes from my disciplines and my commitment as a painter—my energy, my arm, my eyes, my sense of space and form and time. It’s a wonderful realm for me. I never leave it.
Born in 1939 in Philadelphia’s northern suburb of Fox Chase, she studied at Bard College, went on to earn an MFA at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and then moved to New York City. There, she was part of the coterie of avant-garde artists and performers who established the influential Judson Dance Theater in the early 1960s. “We were all, you know, like blind with self-determination, that we were going to do something wonderful,” she recalled in a Smithsonian Archives of American Art oral history interview in 2009.
In the same interview, asked about the challenges of being a woman artist making work about the challenges of being a woman, Schneemann said:
It was also used against the seriousness of the work, you know: If she's so sexy and so attractive, the work has got to be kind of stupid; or it can't be as smart as she wants us to imagine it is. And it occurred to me that watching [Louise] Nevelson and other artists who had been exotic or beautiful that so long as male culture felt they wanted to fuck this female, her work was always going to be denigrated and marginalized. And when she got old and they didn't feel that sexual confusion, oh, they might look at the work more clearly.
Over the ensuing half-century, Schneemann became one of the most influential contemporary artists in the U.S. She was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1993 and a United States Artists fellowship in 2011. In 2017, she was awarded the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. That same year, she was the subject of a major retrospective, which originated at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg and traveled to the Museum of Modern Art’s Queens-based kunsthalle, MoMA PS1.
When Rist asked if Schneemann could stage the retrospective in her hometown in upstate New York, she replied:
No, because they’d trash my house. They’d burn down my barn. They’d chop down my trees. They might even think they should rape me. My work is all about forbidden aspects of the female experience. If I have a piece that says “blood” or “vagina” or “intercourse” or “sex,” that would have no deeper meaning to them than to be provocative. And it’s very dangerous for a woman living alone in the countryside.