Few artists have had as radical an impact on feminist thought and art than multimedia and performance artist Carolee Schneemann. Born on Philadelphia’s rural fringes in 1939, Schneemann recalled being interested in art and the body’s expressive potential even as a young child. Later, as the first woman in her family to attend college, Schneemann was suspended from Bard College for having the audacity to paint nude self-portraits—although the school had no qualms about her posing nude for her male peers.
When second-wave feminism crested, Schneemann’s body of work was ready to meet it; in fact, some of her earliest artworks prefigured it, like a 1957 nude painting of her then boyfriend, composer James Tenney. She claimed an unapologetically female perspective of desire, one that was relational to men but rejected patriarchal values. (Her heterosexual vantage point sometimes ran afoul of lesbian separatists, who vehemently opposed her film Fuses, discussed below, when it was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1970s.)
As sensibilities changed, Schneemann later felt her work was being met with ambivalence by third-wave feminists. Her output became more elegiac, memorializing friends and colleagues in the avant-garde with whom she collaborated. What didn’t change, however, was her long-held disregard for cultural taboos, whether reading a manifesto extracted from her vagina (Interior Scroll, 1975 and 1977), forcing viewers to confront the horror of war crimes (Viet Flakes, 1962–66), or magnifying the bodies of 9/11 victims hurtling through the air toward their death (Terminal Velocity, 2001–05).
Schneemann died in 2019, two years after receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. Now through January 8, 2023, the Barbican in London is exploring her work in Body Politics, a new retrospective. Here, Barbican curator Lotte Johnson comments on highlights from the show.