Carolee Schneemann, Kinetic Painting at MoMA PS1

Above: Installation view, Kinetic Painting. Image © Artifactoid.

Museum retrospectives give viewers the opportunity to fully understand the career of an artist in-depth. The variation between the distinct styles of the artist’s work over decades is visible, as is their impressive generative capacity. One example of a great retrospective was the Constant Nieuwenhuys exhibit at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, where the artist’s whimsical, emotional and painterly techniques segued into highly conceptual and architectural ones spanning from the mid-century to present day.

Carolee Schneemann’s current retrospective at MoMA PS1 titled Kinetic Painting is special because it demonstrates Schneemann’s transformation from beginning in the postwar period as a female artist working within the confines of the masculine genre of abstract expressionism, to an artist who masterfully approached a diverse variety of media, fearlessly implementing new ideas. She created works, which, whether or not she intended them to be, were radical and activist.

On view through March 11, 2018, Kinetic Painting includes Schneemann’s paintings, sculptures, films, drawings and performances, ranging from interactive social experiments with friends, lovers, and pet cats, to pieces dealing with violence, mourning, grief, sex, gender, and the politics of the female body. For instance, in the below work, Vulva’s Morphia (1995) Schneemann problematizes if womens’ understanding of their own anatomy/physiology is defined in masculine terms.

Carolee Schneemann, Vulva’s Morphia, 1995. Image © Artifactoid.

Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll (detail), 1975. Image © Artifactoid.

Historically, Schneemann was part of the global avant-garde movement of Fluxus artists of the 60s and 70s who refuted the market and confronted the structures in place. Today, her influence continues to inspire creators such as New York-based performance artist and painter Theresa Byrnes who has previously been interviewed on Artifactoid. The above image depicts detail of the original manifesto that Schneemann pulled out of her vagina during the 1975 performance of Interior Scroll, one of her most famous and controversial works.

While Schneemann is most widely known for her performances, she has always defined herself first and foremost as a painter. Throughout her oeuvre, the two media are inextricably connected. As part of Schneemann’s love for painting, she is also interested in the limitations of painting and  ideas that may only be able to be expressed through performative action. Both this philosophy and her critique of abstract expressionism are revealed in works like Up To and Including Her Limits (1973-76), detailed in the below video clip courtesy of © MoMA:

When Schneemann debuted as a painter, the challenges for female artists were severe. After World War II, abstract expressionism emerged as a masculine, all-American painting style which flourished in the patriotic environment of the U.S. at the time and dominated the art market. Female painters were unable to reach the same level of success as male painters within this framework.

Siwin Lo, PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, notes,
“The climate of the art world before the 1960s in New York was a profoundly masculinist one, even though there were women who managed to attain some degree of recognition. In many cases, women artists had to navigate promoting themselves in an environment where they were considered women first, and artists second. For some, such as Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler, their careers were read largely through their relationship to their male partners, a tendency that we still see in the discussion of many women artists. For Carolee Schneemann, coming up in this type of scene, the desire to be seen as herself as well as the desire to make art as herself would have been understood as contradictory. The fact that she was punished for painting herself nude really crystallizes the assumed incompatibility between the body painted, and the artist painting—for the art schools of Schneemann’s time, these two could not co-exist in the same person. By refusing to separate herself between being the object and the maker of her kinetic paintings, she points to the gendered hypocrisy of Abstract Expressionism, as if to say, “if Pollock famously locates himself within his paintings,* why can’t I?”
Confronted with these challenges, Schneemann was a pioneer and fearless visionary. However, she generally didn’t view her own work as shocking or radical even though others did. And, while she has achieved a major museum retrospective such as Kinetic Painting, she experienced a deluge of backlash and criticism throughout her entire career. There were critiques that her work was narcissistic, diaristic, and pornographic, among other things. Despite this, she kept creating, following her truth, and providing an original perspective, which I think can be a lesson to us all.

Installation view, Kinetic Painting. Image © Artifactoid.

“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.” -Jackson Pollock, quoted in Kirk Varnedoe, Jackson Pollock (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 48. Courtesy Siwin Lo.

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