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enjoy picks: Carolee Schneemann

mumok collects

enjoy picks: Carolee Schneemann

Eye Body. 36 Transformative Actions for Camera, 1963
10 b/w photographs by Erró (1932), mounted on cardboard
26.5 x 20.5 cm to 34.5 x 26.5 cm
On loan from the Austrian Ludwig Foundation, since 1993

Looking at the series of photographs in Eye Body, one thing is very apparent. We see here a confident woman who presents her body without shame. All of the pictures show the artist Carolee Schneemann in her studio in New York, her naked body painted. Even for the liberal art metropolis New York, this open view of femininity came as a shock. The naked female body has a long tradition in art as the object of desire, going back to the earliest human civilizations, but to date this tradition was only available for passive consumption. Now a woman herself takes control of her own nakedness, creating a series of completely new nudes that are seen today as among the first visual documents of feminist art.

While Schneemann saw this as a form of self-empowerment, her contemporary audience just thought it was pornographic. Critics rejected her work, saying: “If you want to run around naked, don’t bother the art world.”#1# As a student Schneemann had to fight particularly hard, as women were popular as models for nudes but hardly recognized as artists. She was even advised to put away her paintbrush. But she refused to be distracted. The experience of posing herself as her own nude model led to a deeper interest in the differences between the male and female gaze, and she began to specifically research sexuality, gender roles, and social taboos.

Nudity played a large role in the new art form of happenings and performances at this time. By using the body, artists tried to overcome the division between art and life, seeing the private as a socially significant public and political matter. Schneemann was present at many early happenings, and occasionally she played an active role in them. In her wish to bring the naked female body down from the canvas, she also went a step beyond mere painting.

In 1962 Schneemann began to transform her studio into one big environment. She began by integrating objects from everyday life into her pictures and then overpainting them with rough brushstrokes. She added textiles, bottles, fairy lights, and umbrella skeletons into her works—the latter as strange moving objects with small motors. She also began to increasingly use her own body in her work, while the walls of her studio were painted in rhythmical colors. In December 1963 Schneemann then decided to make her own body part of the work of art.

She asked her partner at the time, Icelandic artist Erró, to photograph her amidst animal furs, trash, and tools. In these Transformative Actions for Camera, Schneemann takes on archaic erotic poses within the jungle of her studios and with different materials and her own artworks as part of the scene. She applies paint, fat, and chalk to the artworks and her environment and also to her own body, which thus becomes both a material and a part of the artwork itself. In the black-and-white shades of these photographs, organic and non-organic material can hardly be distinguished. Hair, string, and plastic sheeting are direct parts of the pictures, and the artist almost becomes just another component in this environment. In other photographs she is very close to the camera, gazing directly out of the picture and at the viewer. In many of these pictures there are shards of glass or broken mirrors, which not only lead to optical distortion but also remind us of the vulnerability of the body due to their proximity to the artist’s skin. The order of the pictures in the series is not fixed, but Schneemann does ask for close-ups and full-body shots to alternate.

One striking image is a frontal view of Schneemann’s reclining body with two snakes on it. This very explicit self-depiction not only shows Schneemann’s genitals, it also stands for lust and erotic energy. We see here a body that wants to be desired and that also desires itself. By making use of nakedness, here a woman redefines herself as a subject and demonstrates her artistic and sexual will. As an artist and performer, Schneemann is both the producer and the object of images. She unites the poles of seeing and being seen, as the title of this work states: Eye and Body.

Astrid Robin

1 Carolee Schneemann, “The Obscene Body/Politic,” Art Journal 50, no. 4: Censorship II (1991), pp. 28–35, here: p. 29.


The work is currently on view in the exhibition Re/Actions (curated by Naoko Kaltschmidt), as part of Enjoy—the mumok Collection in Change.