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BETWEEN EGO AND LIBIDO: On the Work of Carolee Schneemann

In the beginning—painting. The palette of Cézanne shoved through a kitchen blender. Thick and hasty brush strokes fly out from two dislocated centres, flushed reds intersect verdant crescents, the occasional bleeding iris is contraposed against an ochre canvas. Squint and you might think something dreadful had happened to a parrot. Pinwheel (1957) is hung off axis, inviting you to tilt your head one way, then the other, shifting your weight from hip to hip to find its pole. This is no mistake but an experiment in rotation: an artwork produced and designed to be exhibited on a potter’s wheel, spun by the viewer. Now you must attempt the spinning yourself, awkwardly contorting at the beginning of the exhibition. It’s a first lesson in the work of Carolee Schneemann: when the eye moves, so must the body.

‘Body Politics’, the retrospective of Schneemann’s work held at the Barbican in London this autumn-winter, opens with the paintings and drawings she completed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, while a student first at Bard College, then Columbia, then the University of Illinois. Personae: J.T. and Three Kitchs (1957) is a portrait of her long-term partner, the composer James Tenney, whose figure emerges from the same dazzle of late-summer shades used in Pinwheel, languorous on a couch, guarded, stalked and tackled by multiple iterations of the couple’s cat, Kitch. These are the works of a painter training at the high noon of Abstract Expressionism; in Firelights (1960) we see traces of Elaine de Kooning’s influence on the twenty-one-year-old artist—jet conjurations of figures, temporary as flames, emerge through interstices of pink and gold—while in Tenebration (1961) the washed blues of Helen Frankenthaler linger under scavenged materials of fabric, pins and mesh.

This first room will surprise those whose knowledge of Schneemann derives from her later works—films, photographs and performances which, as the exhibition title suggests, centre on her use of her own, often naked, body as well as those of lovers and co-performers. It was this relaxed approach to nudity—or rather a failure to be shamed by it—that led to her transfer, as an undergraduate art student, from Bard College to Columbia University; she had used not only her male partner but also herself as a life model, an indiscretion that would become foundational to both her practice and her self-mythology. In 1991, reflecting on her belief in the inextricable relation between sexuality and creativity, she wrote, ‘I posit my female body as a locus of autonomy, pleasure, desire, and insist that as an artist I can be both image and image maker, merging two aspects of a self deeply fractured in the contemporary imagination’.1