THE HELD ESSAYS ON VISUAL ART
Like a Glowing Worm
In the fall of 1957, a young Carolee Schneemann hosted Leo Steinberg in a borrowed studio to discuss her paintings. Schneemann’s intellect and ambition were propelling her toward prominent critics; she’d hosted a rushed Parker Tyler a few weeks before. Steinberg, still a graduate student, had taken up art criticism to put off finishing his dissertation, and met Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg during this same period.1 He had just authored a catalogue essay for the exhibition The New York School: Second Generation, tacitly conceding that Abstract Expressionism had over-ripened into a strange sort of post-apex phase. The two of them met as linguists and explorers, looking for new terms to describe not only Schneemann’s work, but also the changes beginning to pulse through postwar American art.
The first thing Carolee Schneemann noticed about the art historian was his strong sense of the room’s boundaries. He was completely alert to what was in front of him. “He came into your house like a cat, nervous and sniffing one wall after another,” Schneemann wrote to the writer Naomi Levinson, whose home Schneemann was borrowing for the visit. Schneemann’s refugee status was at once a choice, a necessity, and a handicap. She was taking time off from Bard College in order to attend eight-hour figure drawing sessions in New York City, working intermittently at a potter’s studio in Vermont, and taking the train back and forth to meet with those who would, over the next decade, become her creative milieu. This was still six years from “Eye Body,” her series of large-scale painting/sculpture installations that incorporated her own nude body within a scene of large paint-smeared panels, broken umbrellas, and rubber snakes. For now, her work was discrete and portable; it could be merged with a friend’s living space, perched on an occupied wall. Steinberg sniffed, differentiating it all.
In the front room of Levinson’s house, Schneemann showed the paintings, going through the ritual—a familiar one for artists—of explaining and decoding her own work. We know that one of the paintings they discussed was Mill Forms—Eagle Square, which she had begun in the previous few months. To make sense of Mill Forms’ composition, which was built from rich, meaty brushstokes, and featured a uniquely kaleidoscopic rendering of space, Steinberg, a consummate art historian, reached for the parts of the canon most available to him. He cited the line-heavy figures of Georges Rouault, and Claude Monet’s evenly-loaded brushstrokes—anything to account for how utterly active the paintings felt. Schneemann considered this possibility, although Steinberg’s canon wasn’t quite hers. While she loved Water Lilies, it was Paul Cézanne’s shifting planes that had captivated her since childhood, as well as irregular spatial details like the open doorway behind the seated Alessandro de’ Medici in Jacopo Pontormo’s portrait of 1534.
Steinberg, though, was adamant that Cézanne was “not available to painters,” because he “tried to make the landscape.”2 I have to confess, I have no idea what this means. Perhaps Schneemann mis-remembered the critic’s words; perhaps Steinberg thought (mistakenly, in my mind) that Cézanne was trying to make landscape rather than to make the effects of looking at landscape. But I digress. Schneemann’s response was generous: she resolved to herself that it was possible to carry certain painters “on her back,” caressing them inwardly, even as the canvases gave off other references, like a foreigner’s lilting accent that she cannot hear herself.3 The critic listened to Schneemann as she interjected; she responded to his readings and mis-readings, each painting serving as a crucible of failure and almost-friendship.
A tense moment came when Steinberg compared Mill Forms to his friend Paul Brach’s abstract paintings—a comparison she perceived as “a sophisticated assault.”4 Schneemann explained to Steinberg what was wrong with Brach’s brushstrokes—they were too self-sufficient. They lay on the canvas like little organisms, she said, and “could only build on themselves.”5 As a devotee of experimental biology, especially the work of 19th-century Scottish mathematical biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Schneemann sought to use brushstrokes to evince growth patterns in many different directions, merging up with down, performing the work that the eye had to do to apprehend depth and motion.
One or two drawn diagrams later, Steinberg had changed his initial idea. Paint and motion were commensurate, he decided, because painters were constantly assimilating and translating what they saw. Translation itself was a kind of motion. This idea would stay with Steinberg for years; when he wrote about Picasso for the third time in 1988, for instance, it is hard to imagine that he was not thinking of Schneemann’s performance works like Meat Joy: “The space of the Demoiselles is a space peculiar to Picasso’s imagination,” he insisted:
Not a visual continuum, but an interior apprehended on the model of touch and stretch, a nest known by intermittent palpation, or by reaching and rolling, by extending one’s self within it. Though presented symbolically to the mere sense of sight, Picasso’s space insinuates total initiation, like entering a disordered bed.6
For decades Steinberg’s writing would repeatedly appeal to the body, calling forth Schneemann’s argument: to see is to feel.
In her letters, Schneemann’s memory of the visit centers on the power she felt: the way her exchange with Steinberg buoyed her thoughts and mood; the intense mutuality of their ideas; her channeled enthusiasm. As she wrote to Levinson later in bold, bright upward inflection, “My pleasure was enormous and I think his was too?” She noted Steinberg’s voice, recalling the way his Russian growl sounded out “a most delicious and palpable language in intimate tones so that one wonders if one is excluded or drawn in.” Above all, she perceived her intellectual enmeshment with the critic as a mix of feeling mirrored, conjoined, and a little abject:
Most of all when I closed the door on him I was Humble. Eve [Bailey Lerner, Schneemann’s godmother] said that only happens between two superior people—we only feel superior with those who are stupid—whom we want to impress with our superiority. When a superior one gets the superiorness [sic] of another then that one is humble! I told Eve I felt like a worm—a glowing worm.7
I suspect this reference was no accident. The worm is an arthropod that moves through the world by way of muscular contraction; it has no lungs and respires through its skin. It is a blind seeker that travels relentlessly through matter rather than on its surface. And in many ways Schneemann’s arthropodity feels familiar to me—a raw, impulsive craving of the intellect. In fact, the incandescence and porosity that she invokes here approximates the process of learning itself. More broadly, it speaks to the studio visit as a theater of learning. A mix of pedagogy and social convention, “the studio visit” is a strange mode that begs for more thought.
Studio conversations can be perfunctory and invasive. At their worst, they are spaces of cold and decorous judgment, spaces where public consciousness trespasses on an idea still in formation. But in spite of the sexual politics at work in this conversation—after all, Schneemann was young and hot—her experience with Steinberg deviates from most case studies of straight, older male critic with young female artist. It also undercuts the traditional power dynamics of the studio visit. Schneemann engaged in a consensual exchange of power with Steinberg, as she had with countless other interlocutors. Stan Brakhage, for instance, a close friend with whom she exchanged dozens of letters in this period, drew just as much from the dialogue as she (if not more), as did Joseph Cornell from the letters he and Schneemann wrote to each other. When makers speak about their objects, they hold tremendous potential to pervert structures of authority.
Here, then, is what I take from Schneemann and Steinberg’s example: we tend to think about the studio visit in terms of the Latin source, visitare, which emphasizes vision. Seduced and emboldened by the prospect of seeing, we even imagine we can penetrate the object. We plunge into the thick of it, attempting to pass through the most obdurate of materials. But as the silences, conflicts, and mis-readings begin to pile up around the object, seeing becomes merely a means to an end. We find ourselves instead caught in the passing-through, drawn into an assembly that embodies the Latin transire—translation, transfiguration, transition, transit. Such dynamics are possible even when the artist herself is transitory. Schneemann’s itinerancy in 1957 was no anomaly, after all, especially for women artists, and it is alive and well today, when so many artists rely on their computer as their primary tool.
The sonic aspects of the experience are crucial to this taking place. Steinberg’s growl, the swell of Schneemann’s responses, the soft scratch of the pen as Steinberg tried to approximate the geometry of her gestures—this range of pauses and interjections is the grid within which power play happens. Thus we can take Schneemann’s arthropodity as a kind of transparency; a transparency to sound, sight, and suggestion, and therefore a chance to think about voice as a powerful force distinct from language. They charted an intimacy together even as Steinberg read some of her paintings incorrectly. As Schneemann later remarked, the act of engaging with and potentially collapsing into visual material, is akin to getting into a trance. “To be drawing, to be observing, to be in conversation, that was the best sense of self for me,” she observed in 1999. “So it’s for me a little bit like when you are an athlete running and go into a rigorous euphoria. This is where it really happens for me, in performance, it is shamanistic, an ‘in-trance.’”8
I know many young artists who characterize the studio conversation this way, in its best state. A good visit is physical, but can quickly turn immaterial. The studio’s interior qualities and all the objects within it create permissions for and limits on the conversation, but it is also always slipping outward into oblivion. It has important implications in the moment (What do I need to remember? Will I be written about? How will this work change in relation to this encounter?)—but is also a way for the participants to step outside time. The studio visit’s co-shamanistic quality can become an intellectual wormhole, slowing down an experience and giving it sensual, erotic contours. Everyone knows a studio visit can lead to sex; it’s an artworld cliché. One wonders, however, if the conversation would have been as sustained, and the resulting glow as strong, if Leo and Carolee had simply disordered the bed, rather than produce the worm-hole environment they did.
There is still a lot of open space for the former to act as a natural coextension of the latter, with strange terrain in between. Schneemann took intimacy so seriously, in fact, that she would spend her career expanding on the premise told to Steinberg. Her performance works of the 1960s splintered the boundaries between seeing and feeling, and more urgently, they eliminated the standards of decorum that separated different types of feeling. Behavior became simply a means for change, an exploration of the many ways to attain “rigorous euphoria.” In his 2004 – 05 series “Studio Visits,” Clifford Owens expanded on these questions by inviting canonical performance artists into his studio to make artwork together using his body. Each encounter was drawn from each visiting artist’s working methods, and violated the sense of decorum that separates artist from visitor during studio dialogue. While some of his invitees declined, Schneemann was willing and interested. She showed up to Owens’s studio and rubbed lotion onto his nude body. “This simple act brought us physically close, there was a shared intimacy,” he remembers.9
The resonance and poignancy of Owens’s invitation almost fifty years after Schneemann’s conversation with Steinberg shows us that while studio dynamics are pliable, they may not be evolving as quickly as we might like. Works of art can still become slaves to a dialogue that serves to amplify the voice of the most powerful person in the room, rendering the artist invisible. The critic and the curator, ghosts of their more elite and gendered counterparts of the fifties, endure despite birth control, assertiveness training, cognitive behavioral therapy, Pell Grants, and Title IX reforms. But the way that Schneemann handled Steinberg’s silences and responded to his readings and mis-readings offers us a kind of model: it is important to summon the kinds of ambitious listening and permeability that can spark total convergence, an even hedonism. There is much to enjoy. There is a glow that lies beyond the rigidity of language; surprisingly, we can use language to enter it.
- In Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, Steinberg categorized his art reviews from the mid- to late-1950s as having been “done for monthly magazine columns by a truant art history student.” And regarding his meetings with Johns and Rauschenberg, the record is unclear. He states he was “never friends” with Abstract Expressionist artists, instead meeting them at “various ways,” e.g., at dinners with curator Alfred Barr. But his writing about Robert Rauschenberg’s work, chronicled in his extended lecture “Encounters with Rauschenberg,” speaks to a level of intimacy that is usually attained through visits to the artist’s studio. It is safe to say, however, that Steinberg met Rauschenberg and Johns during this period, which he chronicles in “The gestural trace: Leo Steinberg,” oral history interview with Richard Cándida Smith, Art History Documentation Project, Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 2001), 59 – 63.
- Letter to Naomi Levinson, September 7, 1957, Carolee Schneemann Papers, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Reprinted in Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 14.
- Leo Steinberg, “The Philosophical Brothel,” reprinted in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford University Press, 1972), 63.
- Letter to Naomi Levinson, September 7, 1957.
- Carolee Schneemann in a telephone conversation with Kristine Stiles, August 1, 1999. Reprinted in Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle, xlii.
- Nick Stillman, “Clifford Owens,” BOMB 117 (Fall 2011).