Artist Carolee Schneemann, whose groundbreaking works of feminist performance art in the 1970s would indelibly shape the art form’s future, has died at the age of 79. Her gallery, Galerie Lelong, confirmed her death to Artnet on Thursday.
As an artist, Schneemann centered her often nude body in her practice, both challenging how male artists have long fetishized and objectified the nude female form in art, but also drawing attention to the creative force of the female body (or more specifically, the vulva) as many women artists were doing at the time. Her 1964 film “Meat Joy” featured naked participants writhing in paint and raw meat, a simultaneously disgusting and erotic celebration of the body.
Her now iconic 1975 work “Interior Scroll” found Schneemann climbing atop a table, posing naked, and pulling out a long scroll of paper from her vagina on which she had recounted criticisms from a male peer about the irrational, inherently feminine nature of her work. Her interests were clear even from when she started as an art student in the 1950s, when she was kicked out of Bard for painting herself naked. (Scheenmann went to college despite her father’s objections; he refused to pay for a woman’s education).
The frequent messages of Schneemann’s work, especially that the female body still demands to be reclaimed in fine art on the terms of those who exist in them rather than those who love to look at them, still resonate in 2019. She dodged criticisms as an artist by both men and women that still bubble up today; that she was a narcissist for using herself as a subject, that her works were too pornographic (such as her “Fuses” film featuring her and her lover having sex) despite the fact that male artists have been free to make explicitly sexual work for centuries.
“I was reacting against Pop Art, with its slick mechanistic polish of the female form,” she told the New York Times in 2016. “And against masculine eroticism, which I felt was prurient and suppressive to what our lived experience could bring forward.”
The grotesque, harsh gaze Schneemann placed on her body and others was an affront to delicate, hyper-feminine stereotypes of women, which were just beginning to break down in culture as the women’s movement in America was taking to the streets. And even now, what Schneemann’s work asked of its viewers, to witness the female body in all of its lived experience and as an author of art, not just a subject, is still worth asking today.
Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified the subject of “Fuses.” The video depicts Schneemann’s lover, not husband. Jezebel regrets the error.