Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939) keeps insisting that she is a painter and is even quoted in the catalogue of this retrospective as saying, in 1993, that she will die a painter. Still, when mentioned, she is usually identified as one of the most influential feminist performance artists of her time. With Interior Scroll (1975/77), she went down in art history for painting large strokes on her naked body and then extracting a text from her vagina as she read from it. Another benchmark is the film Fuses (1964-67), showing the artist and James Tenney (a musician and composer and her partner at the time) having sex. Shot over the course of several years, mostly from her cat’s point of view, the 18-minute film not only is erotic and self-aware, but also investigates celluloid through collagelike editing and physical manipulations, such as burning and scratching the footage as well as dropping it into acid.
The retrospective, titled “Kinetic Painting” and organized by a team led by Salzburg director Sabine Breitwieser, features these signature pieces but also extends back some 60 years to include Schneemann’s abstract canvases from the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the artist was still receiving her formal painting education. Comprising roughly 350 works—among them, documentation of happenings and performances, experimental films and mixed-medium installations—the exhibition is installed in a loosely chronological way, allowing for similar works to be grouped: paintings by genre (landscape, portrait, still life), assemblages, artist’s books, etc. The show leaves no doubt that Schneemann’s practice has been a continuous endeavor to expand painting into space and time.
Her early paintings seem to literally push against the boundaries of the frames. In Personae: J.T. and Three Kitsch’s (1957), Schneemann depicts Tenney lying in bed, his body filling the entire canvas, his left foot cropped by the edge and forced out of the image plane. The desire to break out of the canvas is most obvious in Pin Wheel (1957), Schneemann’s first moving image. A simple mechanism on the back of this gestural painting allows the work to be spun like a wheel of fortune. Once in motion, a colorful explosion of red, yellow and green expands outward, prompting onlookers to imagine the paint splashing about as if it hadn’t dried years ago.
The artist’s assemblages in the adjoining gallery start off with examples from the “Controlled Burning Series” (1962-64). For these, she arranged broken mirrors, smashed glass, torn magazine pages and photographs into small painted crates and boxes and set the interiors on fire, closing the lids to let the contents burn. Having just moved to New York from Illinois, she quickly became involved with the flourishing avant-garde arts scene, leading her to work with the Judson Dance Theater and participate in events with Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg. Although, as Breitwieser and Branden W. Joseph both state in the catalogue, she still saw herself as a painter, these influences fueled her desire to incorporate everyday materials and chance into her work. Rauschenberg’s Combines are among the first things that spring to mind when looking at some of the works here.
Her investigations into assemblage rapidly led Schneemann to start using her own body in her work. In Four Fur Cutting Boards (1963), wooden boards approximately the size of a folding screen are covered in oil paint on both sides and adorned with photographs, plastic flowers, battered rotating umbrellas and blinking colored lightbulbs. The piece went on to serve as the backdrop for one of Schneemann’s most iconic works: “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera” (1963). For this black-and-white photo series shot by Icelandic artist Erró in Schneemann’s studio, she covered herself in paint, grease, chalk and ropes and became a part of the assemblage.
The show then turns to moving-image works, including the filmed performance Meat Joy (1964), the diarylike Kitch’s Last Meal (1973-78), which follows the artist’s cat around, and overtly political experiments like the black-and-white film Viet-Flakes (1965), which features collaged images of the Vietnam War and a soundtrack by Tenney. With Up to and Including Her Limits (1973-76), performance became mixed-medium installation in a work that foregrounds both body and mark-making. The viewer confronts the stage set Schneemann used for a performance that plays on nearby monitors. Two white walls and a white floor form a corner, which is streaked with scrawls, scribbles and words; a harness hangs down from the ceiling. To make the work, she swung around in the harness and painted the surfaces until she was too exhausted to continue.
Many of the works on display from the 1980s onward suggest that sociopolitical commentary, often delivered with an acerbic wit, has been a crucial motivation for Schneemann in her development of an expanded painting practice. The floor sculpture War Mop (1983) presents a mechanized mop cleaning a monitor playing 1982 footage of the Lebanese war. In Vulva’s Morphia (1995), a six-by-six grid of overpainted laser prints of vulvas, reproductions of female goddesses from history books and schematic sketches from biology textbooks are intermixed with six vulva-related statements (for example, “Vulva reads Lacan and Baudrillard and discovers she is only a sign”). The exhibition ends on a less convincing note. The installation Flange 6rpm (2011-13) consists of seven wall-mounted motorized aluminum sculptures, which resemble wings or leaves. As they rotate around their axes, images of the flames in which they were cast are projected on the walls. Compared to works that persuade by allowing reality in—the personal and the political—this seems like pure self-referentiality.