Few artists have had such a radical impact on feminist thought and art as multimedia and performance artist Carolee Schneemann. Born on the rural outskirts of Philadelphia in 1939, Schneemann recalls being interested in art and the expressive potential of the body from early childhood. Later, as the first woman in her family to attend college, Schneemann was suspended from Bard College for having the audacity to paint nude self-portraits, although the school had no qualms about she poses nude for her male peers.
When second-wave feminism reached its peak, Schneemann’s work was ready to deal with it; in fact, some of his early works foreshadowed him, such as a nude from 1957 painting by her then-boyfriend, composer James Tenney. She claimed a resolutely feminine perspective of desire, relational to men but rejecting patriarchal values. (Her heterosexual views sometimes ran counter to lesbian separatists, who Vehemently opposed his film Fusesdiscussed below, when it was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1970s.)
As sensibilities changed, Schneemann later felt her work was met with ambivalence by third-wave feminists. Her output became more elegiac, commemorating the avant-garde friends and colleagues with whom she collaborated. What hasn’t changed, however, is her longstanding disregard for cultural taboos, whether it’s reading a manifesto excerpted from her vagina (Inner Scroll1975 and 1977), forcing the viewer to confront the horror of war crimes (Vietnamese flakes1962-1966), or enlarging the bodies of 9/11 victims hurtling through the air to their deaths (terminal velocity2001–05).
Schneemann died in 2019, two years after receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. Until January 8, 2023, the Barbican in London explores his work in Body Policy, a new retrospective. Here, Barbican curator Lotte Johnson comments on highlights from the show.