Known for her performance art, Carolee Schneeman was first and foremost a painter

Carolee Schneemann was a pioneering feminist artist whose work defies easy categorization. Known primarily as a provocative performance artist, she was adamant throughout her life that she was first and foremost a painter. The sheer diversity of work in “Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics” – on view until January 8, 2023 at the Barbican Center in London – may cause viewers to question that claim. However, Schneemann defied the constraints of the medium of painting in the same way that she defied the limits that society sought to impose on her as a woman.

In Schneemann’s early gesture paintings, viewers can see the influence of Abstract Expressionism and the work of Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, whom Schneemaan discovered as a young woman. For instance, Aria Duetto (Cantata n°78) The Yellow Ladies (1957), named after a piece of choral music by Johann Sebastian Bach, features a languidly reclining female nude entangled in a sea of ​​dancing, vibrating brushstrokes. They sweep across the canvas as if Schneemann were painting to the beat of the song. And in Sir Henry Francis Taylor (1961), an eccentric array of materials—including underpants, metal chains, and a photograph of the subject—emerge from thick swirls of paint. Often, the canvas exists rather as a surface to be transformed.

Schneemann soon sought to expand his work beyond the frame. Her “pictorial constructions,” as she called them, feature embellished surfaces that frequently grow into the viewer’s space. In the case of Colorado House (1962), the work takes on an almost sculptural form. With torn and cut segments of what Schneemann considered failed paintings serving as the base, the artist added elements of his everyday life, such as a whiskey bottle label, a broomstick, pieces of fur and brushes. A piece of painted canvas, shaped like a flag, flies overhead, as if to celebrate the artist’s new format.

Schneemann’s own body becomes both canvas and material in the series of photographs “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera” (1963). In the images, the artist appears naked with streaks of paint on her torso and surrounded by studio equipment, ropes and transparent plastic sheeting. For her “Dust” series (1983-1986), she returns powerfully to the canvas to create abstract explosions of paint, dust, ash, broken glass and metal fragments that evoke the devastation of the Lebanese civil war.

Recent scholarship and exhibitions have argued that Schneemann’s performances, films, and multimedia installations can also be considered a form of “kinetic painting”, further challenging the limits of the medium. So, yes, Carolee Schneemann was a painter, but firmly on her own terms.

Thumbnail: Carolee Schneemann, installation view of “Body Politics” at the Barbican Centre, 2022. © 2022 Carolee Schneemann Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London. Photo by Lia Toby, Getty Images. Courtesy of the Barbican Centre.

Comments are closed.