The Abject Feminine:
Carolee Schneemann

Carolee Schneemann, Documentation of "Interior Scroll" performance, Beet juice, urine and coffee on screenprint on paper, 1975
Carolee Schneemann, Documentation of Interior Scroll performance,
Beet juice, urine and coffee on screenprint on paper, 1975.

      American artist Carolee Schneemann is renowned for her experimental multimedia body of work which, spawning a career beginning in the late 1950’s until her death in 2019, explored the body, sexuality, and gender in ways which equally shocked and engaged her viewers in their subject and presentation. While Schneemann’s legacy is best known for her feminist performances of the 60’s and 70’s, to disregard the artist’s own assertions that she is first and foremost a painter, is to omit the most interesting preoccupations with the formal boundaries of painting and drawing. In the interest of this essay, Schneemann’s work will be analyzed according to its exploration of the abject and taboo within the social body and social spaces.

  The abject is that which refers to the complex concept developed by Julia Kristeva in her book Powers of Horror, 1980. In Powers of Horror, Kristeva elaborates on the nature of the abject as functions, behaviors, and aspects of the individual or social body which are deemed to be “too impure or inappropriate for public display or discussion.” These bodily functions or attributes endanger the Judeo-Christian ideology of the divine domination of man over nature and Enlightenment theories of the evolutionary superiority of humans over animals, the aestheticized female body, and the western preoccupation with sanitation and cleanliness. Inkeeping with these concerns, artwork which deals in the abject often depicts either the bodily functions or interior in their uncensored state or their obvious remnants such as blood, bile, and ejaculate. The abject has an especially feminst context, in that the bodily functions of the female body are deemed to be particularly transgressive and corrupt the idealized female body within a patriarchal society and visual tradition. A contradictory society which prizes the product of female reproductive labor as divine yet is repelled by any visible evidence of said labor and attributes them to the impure and unclean.

Carolee Schneemann’s regard for the abject began at an early age, under the influence of her father who was a country doctor in Schneeman’s hometown of Fox Chase, PA. Of her upbringing, the artist remarked that:

“There was always physicality around us,...leaking, spilling out of boundaries, wounded farmers with bleeding limbs, hemorrhages, infections. No fantasy of the sanitized body in this household.”

    In perhaps her most famous and shocking work, the artist utilized her body as a medium by which to both critique the male gaze on the female body and the white-male dominated art world which sought to criticize and minimize her artistry. In Interior Scroll (1975), Schneemann stood nude on a table, in the tradition of a posed studio model, during which she read passages from her book, Cezanne, She Was a great Painter and recounted a litany of misogynistic encounters and reactions that a female artist could anticipate in her career. She would then proceed to slowly unfurl a narrow strip of paper from her vagina, reading from the typed page as it was unwound. The scroll in question contained a screed of her own, a feminsit refusal of a contemporary filmaker and theorist’s dimissive criticism of her work as diarastic and indulgent. This performance shocked and titillated viewers, the latter of which is not readily admitted by most viwers because of the shame imposed upon taking pleasure in the abjected female body.
    This is the conflicting phenomena of the abject which both attracts and repels, that which is innately near to us and at the same time is“cast off.” Even though Powers of Horror would not be published until five years later, Interior Scroll presents the abject female body in the same context as the aestheticized female figure would be for the appraisal of the male gaze whether it be the male artist or consumer alike in a feminist refusal which transgresses taboo.
Carolee Schneemann, Eye Body #11, photo collage, 1963.

Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll,
1975 (Photo by Anthony McCall.)

    As stated earlier, the full appreciation of Carolee Schneemann’s work includes her formal experiments in mark-making, drawing upon the artist's training as a painter. Prior to the performances and multimedia experimentations for which she is most well known, Schneemann began her career as a painter working in a gestural style alongside the abstract expressionist movement which had emerged in the New York art scene which the artist resided. While Schneemann would reject affiliation with the abstract expression group because of its idolization of the anguished artist and domination by male artists, Schneemann was still influenced greatly by Pollock’s “action painting” technique and adapted its philosophy into her work. She believed that what mattered most of action painting was the evidence of the active body in motion. Going beyond the limitations of brush onto canvas, she instead prioritized the aesthetic of activation and began “...adding found matter to the surfaces of her canvases, then cutting them up and adding them to three-dimensional constructions, some with motorized components.”
    Carolee Schneemann was as concerned with dissecting and rearranging how her images were constructed as she was with the way she tore down and reformed the concepts represented within them. In this way she is in keeping with Georges Didi Huberman’s argument that, “the image is best experienced as rend, that the image is a rend. The image gains its power as rend.” In addition to the material rending of medium, does Shneemann not also tear at the social fabric when she transgresses the norms of appropriate female appearance and behavior, whereby that rupture is what creates the work?
    The artist’s Up to and Including Her Limits, (1973), is a work which is reflective of the transition from her early action painting influenced assemblages and her later performance based work. The performance-installation is described in the artist’s own words:
“I am suspended in a tree surgeon’s harness on a ¾” manila rope, a rope which I can raise or lower manually to sustain an entranced period of drawing—

my extended arm holds crayons which stroke the surrounding walls, accumulating a web of colored marks,

...My entire body becomes the agency of visual traces, vestige of the body’s energy in motion.”

    Schneemann performed Up to and Including Her Limits nine times between 1971 and 1976, eventually turning it into an installation consisting of “...a record of the lines her suspended body made in space as she moved it up, down, and across expansive sheets of paper placed on the walls and floor of a corner of a room. Alongside the drawing, stacked video monitors show recorded footage of her performances, while the harness and rope that held her body hangs in the center of this display.” Just as she did in Interior Scroll, the artist uses her body in Up to as the instrument, or the medium, by which she constructs the work. Schneemann’s nude body is partially bound in order to suspend her above the surface of her canvas, the appearance of which draws visual comparison to bondage and Kinbaku. While the flirtation with taboo is not the primary goal of the work, Schneemann was undeniably aware of the provocation and eroticism it could induce. Schneeman’s work has has been crticized by some second wave feminists as being counter productive to feminist ambitions, becuase they considered her explorations of sexuality and gender to be fodder for the male gaze. However, Schneemann has always maintained that her practice is a subversion and refusal of patriarchal definition. In retrospect of her trailblazing career, the artist declared that, “In 1963, to use my body as an extension of my painting-constructions...was to challenge and threaten the psychic territorial power lines by which women were admitted to the Art Stud Club.”