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22 Sep

Five radical works by pioneering artist Carolee Schneemann

To have fun the Barbican’s upcoming exhibition and film screenings, we take a have a look at among the artist’s most shocking and haunting work

Pioneering multidisciplinary artist and feministic icon Carolee Schneemann continues to encourage generations of artists. Known for her potent artworks exploring female sexuality and subjectivity, human suffering, objectification and rather more, Schneemann began within the Nineteen Fifties primarily as a painter before turning to performance art and photography as a rejection of what she perceived as this poisonous macho heroism of up to date painting. 

Born in 1939, she got here of age at the peak of abstract expressionism – a movement described by art critic Marcia Brennan because the “metaphorical embodiments of masculine selfhood” and dominated by the likes of Henri Matisse, Willem de Kooning, and the manly splatters of Jackson Pollock. 

Informed by feminist pondering of the Sixties, she often used her own body as a medium, transgressing taboos and bringing viewers into uncomfortable proximity with the precariousness and fragility of the human form. 

Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics, an upcoming exhibition on the Barbican encompasses six many years of her artwork across her early paintings, sculptural assemblages and kinetic works, solo and group performances, immersive installations, and movies. Specializing in her film work, an accompanying season on the Barbican Cinema will allow visitors the chance to view her 4 extraordinary short movies alongside a number of work touching on similar concerns by Schneemann’s contemporaries, and Breaking The Frame, a portrait of the artist. 

Take a have a look at the gallery above for a glimpse of the work on display in in Body Politics and stills from the Carolee Schneemann movies featured within the Barbican’s upcoming screenings. Below, we take a have a look at five of this radical artist‘s seminal works…


Perhaps one in all her most reproduced works, Schneemann decorated her naked body and, at one point, adorned herself with a real-life snake to create this series of striking images, “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera” (1963).

In an announcement on her website, she recalled: “Covered in paint, grease, chalk, ropes, plastic, I established my body as visual territory. Not only am I a picture maker, but I explore the image values of flash material I decide to make work with. The body may remain erotic, sexual, desired, desiring, but it surely is as well votive: marked, written over in a text of stroke and gesture.”

At a time when so few artists were yet to start out using their bodies in this fashion (Schneemann herself said, “The one artist I do know of constructing body art before this time was Yoko Ono”), “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera” confronts the ambient misogynist surrounding the bodily presence of girls in art. “The feminine nude is an element of a revered tradition, although she just isn’t to take authority over depictions of her nudity. She is simply to be available,” she reflected. “In 1963, to make use of my body as an extension of my painting constructions was to challenge and threaten the psychic territorial power lines by which the ladies were admitted to the ‘Art Stud Club’, so long as they behaved like men, did work clearly within the traditions and pathways hacked out by the lads.”

FUSES (1964-67)

The short film Fuses depicts the artist having sex together with her lover, James Tenney. Unconventionally, Schneemann privileges female pleasure and the feminine standpoint, fairly than framing the encounter unfolding from the attitude of a voyeur. 

“Pornography is an anti-emotional medium, in content and intent, and its lack of emotion renders it wholly ineffective for girls. This absence of sensuality is so contrary to female eroticism that pornography becomes, in actual fact, anti-sexual,” writes cultural critic B. Ruby Wealthy. “Schneemann’s film, in contrast, is devastatingly erotic, transcending the surfaces of sex to speak its true spirit, its meaning as an activity for herself and, quite accurately, women basically.” 

The erotic potential transcends beyond the sexual interaction glimpsed amid the montage of flesh captured on the painted, scorched, and scratched celluloid film. Schneemann incorporates footage of her home, seascapes, scenery, and her cat Kitch. Every thing is rendered sensual.  


Despite her rejection of abstract expressionism as a movement and her association with performance art, painting and drawing continued to tell a lot of her practice. In a piece that challenged the boundaries of painting and combined each disciplines of performance and mark-making, “Up To and Including Her Limits” saw the artist suspended naked above the vast sheet of paper on the ground and partitions, moving over its surface to attract sweeping lines or more focused areas of drawing.   

“I’m suspended in a tree surgeon’’ harness on a three-quarter-inch manila rope, a rope which I can raise or lower manually to sustain an entranced period of drawing – my prolonged arm holds crayons which stroke the encompassing partitions, accumulating an online of colored marks,” Schneemann writes. “My entire body becomes the agency of visual traces, vestige of the body’s energy in motion.”

The physicality of the method owes much to Jackson Pollock’s “motion painting” style, by which he famously flung, splattered, and poured paint onto his canvas. In an extreme evolution of this method, “Up To and Including Her Limits” chronicles the artist’s movements across the surface of the paper.

Having enacted this work nine times between 1971 and 1976, Schneemann turned it into an installation by which the drawing is accompanied by video monitors playing footage of the performances and the harness and cord hang centre stage – a visceral reminder of the sheer physicality of its creation. 

MEAT JOY (1964)

Meat Joy documents the experimental piece by which Schneemann orchestrated eight semi-naked individuals – including herself – interacting with various materials including cooked and uncooked animal flesh, paint, rope, and fragments of paper. By utilizing the human form as a creative material in her work, Schneemann “exposed and confronted a social range of current cultural taboos and repressive conventions.” As naked bodies writhe on the ground in a series of improvised movements, cut to a pop soundtrack, the film is joyous and sensual. 

Meat Joy is an erotic rite – excessive, indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material… Its propulsion is towards the ecstatic – shifting and turning amongst tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon; qualities that would at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent,” writes Schneemann. “Physical equivalences are enacted as a psychic imagistic stream, by which the layered elements mesh and gain intensity by the energy complement of the audience. The unique performances became notorious and introduced a vision of the ‘sacred erotic.’”


Shot on Super-8mm over a period of three years, Kitch’s Last Meal forms the haunting third a part of Schneemann’s Autobiographical Trilogy [along with Fuses and Plumb Line]. The melancholy yet life-affirming short film is a meditation on letting go and the inevitability of loss, documenting the day by day life and routines of Schneemann and her then-partner, artist Anthony McCall. 

Viewed through the eyes of her ailing cat – for whom every meal will be the last – we see what seems like the last days of Schneemann’s romantic relationship with McCall as we also move inexorably towards the film’s deathly conclusion. 

Take a leaf through the gallery above for a glimpse of Carolee Schneeman’s vast body of labor. 

Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics opens on the Barbican on September 8 2022 until January 8 2023

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