by Jarrett Earnest
An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle
Just finished a wonderful book, Carolee Schneemann’s collected letters, with correspondence to and from, which is very nice, endlessly preferable to the single-side such books often give you.
The delight is that it shows how deeply literary she is, that her work is not just the product of the “ecstatic body,” as it’s often caricatured, but indeed a very interesting mind. For instance, she talks about her love of Proust (“He gave me the permission to bring in what I was obsessed with—Jim’s underpants, cats, shards of a pot which were not permitted in culture, things that had holding power”) and how for the most part her audience has been a small group of poets. The important reveal is the conceptual evolution of her work from the riotous paintings of the 1950s into performance, insisting that we understand her project in relationship to Cézanne and painterly aesthetics—something that contemporary discourse on performance art is still not equipped to do, reading it through conceptual art’s supposed rejection of traditional aesthetics and formal concerns. (How lovely then when Schneemann exclaims, “I consider myself a painter still and forever (no matter what ‘medium’).”)
It is, of course, filled with strange and wonderful exchanges. For about the first 20 years, every letter has some mention of her cat, Kitsch, who, in contrast to what its name might have you think, plays a very sincere part of Schneemann’s emotional life. The book begins with her early letters with Joseph Cornell, who encouraged her from the 1950s until his death. In one message, alongside esoteric evocations of Caliban and Ariel (the Sea and the Mirror must be here, too), Cornell writes, “I heard from a mutual friend (not Tenney) that you had been trying to raise money for your trip. …Would you allow me to wire you at least $250 ‘noblesse oblige’… for the very (lovely) inspiration of the weekend?” That trip, to Paris in 1964, featured the historic debut of Meat Joy.
The real meat of this big book (500 pages), as I’m sure you might guess, is the complex exchanges with the artists/peers she was talking to—Allan Kaprow, Yyonne Rainer, and more than anyone else, Stan Brakhage. I didn’t fully realize how bound up and important Schneemann and Brakhage are to each other—that her first husband, James Tenney, was S.B.’s best friend, so that they begin writing to each other in the 1950s, when C.S. was still a painter proper (by the way, he continued to value her most as a painter). Their exchanges are very moving; as she writes to him later, “My friendship with you is more mixed with appreciation, apprehension, closeness, despair, bitter hurt, fragmented love than any other.” The conversation, especially by the 1970s, has a lot to do with gender and aesthetics, and it gets interesting on both sides, as in a 1975 letter from Brakhage in which he responds to her accusations of not publicly recognizing/valuing her films by ascribing to his ambivalent feelings for her films his inability to “see” them. Through their lifelong conversation one sees the mutual influence of these filmmakers on each other and their art, which is much more nuanced and complicated than it first appears.
More than anything the letters give you a portrait of what it means to really be an artist, as trite or goofy as that may sound. For someone like me who encountered her as already enshrined legend, it is amazing to see how very little real support or recognition she received until very recently (the 1990s, really). In the letters we see battles and a huge amount of antagonism (from the public to artists, men and women, like Agnés Varda who apparently mocked her Interior Scroll (very good fiery letters to her!)). There was no reason she should have continued to do her work unless she had to.
I think the epistolary form has a lot to do with the idea of performance art in many ways, so this book works brilliantly given the artist and thinker at the center of its cyclone. It makes me think of Auden in the introduction of Wilde’s letters: “Yeats said of Wilde that he seemed to be a man of action rather than a writer. What Yeats should have said, I think, is that Wilde was, both by genius and by fate, primarily an ‘actor, a performer.’” Overall, what emerges is a profound sense of Schneemann’s role as an interlocutor, a key actor in the artistic and intellectual community of the later 20th century, connecting people and ideas in a way that cannot be underestimated.
more soon, J