"Carolee Schneemann: Up To And Including Her Limits"
November 24 1996 - January 26 1997

Carolee Schneemann: Up To And Including Her Limits “This presentation of Carolee Schneemann’s work, more than three decades after her leap to the forefront of the cultural establishment’s awareness with the watershed performance work Meat Joy (1964), is inspired by the need to meaningfully assess the influence her work has had and continues to have on artists who emerged during the present decade. The urgency of this need is perhaps an authentic example of those rare occasions in art history when an artistic development that challenges accepted practice and has thereby been deliberately and systematically confined to the margins of collective discourse is suddenly rushed to the forefront decades after the fact, carried aloft on the shoulders of a new generation eager to identify with the purported act of transgression that let to the earlier artist’s exclusion in the first place. While this interpretation has the added attraction of maintaining the old avant-garde mechanism for valorizing the present generation’s taste and insight at the expense of our forebears’ lack of same, it does not seem sufficient to address the range of issues that arise when the artist is a woman, and her search for artistic meaning leads her to employ her own body as both the vehicle for her art and the locus of its expression. Among these issues, one of the most pertinent in terms of the motivation behind this exhibition is attempt to come to terms with the art world’s continuing exclusionist policies, especially in cases when the content of the work directly explores the possibility of inclusion, whether by way of gender, race and/or sexuality. Precisely because she pioneered the broad terrain of artistic practice that is encompassed in today’s’ terms in performance, installation, and video, as well as myriad uses of the body, feminist issues and sexuality, Schneemann’s work becomes key to a larger mission—to gain credibility for these areas today. The continuing refusal to include her art in historical reappraisals of the period in which Schneemann’s work was at its most ‘transgressive’—the 60s and 70s—reflects a numbingly conformist art historical interpretation of the same period. This unfortunate set of conditions has not only left the public ill-equipped to experience Schneemann’s equally challenging works of the past decade, but has also obstructed the current generation’s attempts to articulate its unique relationship to the recent cultural past. This last point bears emphasizing because in order to understand the role that issues of meaning and its exclusion play in the present examination of Schneemann’s art, it seems necessary to offer the possibility that the current collective impulse to re-think her work of the 60s and 70s stems from a desire to look at how and why Schneemann’s development took the turns it did. In so doing, it is possible to pinpoint its radicality to provide insight into the ways in which the issues her work addressed then continue to be manifested in the output of artists working today. It is vital, therefore, that these works not be read as an effort to convey a nostalgic point of view of the art world of the 60s and 70s, nor even of the artist’s unique role with in it. Rather, it is inspired by a series of questions that have gradually become more insistent as time continues to lapse between present-day questions about art’s relation to lived experience, and Schneemann’s initial exploration of the cultural and theoretical problems on which her work is based. At the most basic level lies the question of specific practice. What was the process by which a painter and maker of assemblages expanded her sense of space and identity to such and extent that she literally became incorporated into her own frame? At a somewhat deeper level of engagement, we find the question of the body’s positioning in relation to the subject. With so much performance and installation work addressing the issue of lived experience, how and why was the threshold first crossed between the artist engaged in living her life and the production of work which emerges directly out of themes that are integral to that process? Finally, and with the greatest caution we come to the problem on the body in history. How does the human vessel as medium project itself across time? And if its innovators do in fact represent a new development in cultural expression, can the body discover its capacity for conveying all of the things its interpreters would have it signify? The historical weight of these questions would have felt much lighter only ten years ago. Before Carolee Schneemann’s example, the likelihood of artists transforming themselves into vehicles for their own art seemed remote. Although the practice became more commonplace in the 1970’s, continuity was lost between that experimental decade and the more assertive 1980s. In the more distant past, those visual artists who occasionally strayed into the area of live self-portraiture, or who predate Schneemann in their use of life performance as a vehicle for public provocation—Salvador Dali, Yves Klein, and Claes Oldenberg all come to mind—tended to work under the assumption that their art only made use of these subjects and practices, while its grater significance lay in a much deeper dedication to the more acceptable principles of the avant-garde. In contrast, the boldness of Schneemann’s first mature gestures stems form her tacit declaration that the body is invariably the first point of contention in any debate concerning representation. In particular, by championing the validity of sensual pleasure in an increasingly puritanical society, she also challenged some of the most closely held assumptions in the art world (and, by implication, the larger cultural establishment) about how meaning is derived from visual experience. For this reason, growing portions of that community have take on many of the same concerns that she first articulated three decades ago, in the process transforming them into collective issues.

New Museum curator
Courtesy the artist and New Museum, New York