Carolee Schneemann, artist known for taboo-breaking performances, dies at 79

Ms. Schneemann, at her home near New Paltz, N.Y., explored gender, sexuality, and the body politic.
Lauren Lancaster/The New York Times/2016
Ms. Schneemann, at her home near New Paltz, N.Y., explored gender, sexuality, and the body politic.

WASHINGTON — Carolee Schneemann, a painter and performance artist whose taboo-bursting works explored gender, sexuality, and the body politic, often by using her own nude figure as a canvas, died Wednesday at her home in New Paltz, N.Y. She was 79.

The cause was breast cancer, said Wendy Olsoff, co-founder of PPOW, a Manhattan gallery that had long represented Ms. Schneemann. Her mid-1990s installation ‘‘Plague Column’’ was inspired by the illness, Olsoff said, but the artist largely avoided publicizing her struggle with the disease.

Ms. Schneemann described herself primarily as a painter, but in a six-decade career, she leaped among photography, collage, assemblage, film, dance, multimedia installations, and ecstatic works of performance art. Among her most indelible was a piece called ‘‘Interior Scroll’’ (1975), in which she stood on a table and slowly pulled — and read — a feminist screed from her vagina.


Her goal, she once wrote, was ‘‘to eroticize my guilt-ridden culture and further to confound this culture’s sexual rigidities.’’ ‘‘The life of the body,’’ she added, ‘‘is more variously expressive than a sex-negative society can admit.’’

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Ms. Schneemann was largely shunned by the art establishment until the Museum der Moderne Salzburg in Austria held a massive retrospective of her work in 2015. Two years later, the show traveled to MoMA PS1 in Manhattan, and Ms. Schneemann received a lifetime achievement award from the Venice Biennale.

‘‘She was pushing against some very powerful barriers — not just against women artists, but against women artists who were deploying their bodies as a kind of political gesture,’’ said her friend Dan Cameron, who curated a 1996 retrospective of her work at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan.

Ms. Schneemann and artists who followed in her footsteps, including Cindy Sherman and Marina Abramovic, ‘‘were essentially saying we have been made into objects by men, and the very thing that has caused men to objectify us, we’ll take ownership of,’’ Cameron added.

Originally grouped among the abstract expressionists, Ms. Schneemann had begun to take a more experimental approach by the early 1960s, when she moved into a former fur manufacturer’s workshop in Chelsea and became a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater.


Building on the improvisatory, chance-based philosophies of composer John Cage and performance artist Allan Kaprow, the group performed works such as Ms. Schneemann’s ‘‘Meat Joy’’ (1964), in which eight underwear-clad dancers writhed and rolled across the floor, playing with raw fish, chickens, sausages, wet paint, plastic, rope, brushes, and scraps of paper.

Ms. Schneemann described the piece as ‘‘a celebration of flesh as material.’’ While the concept endured, its execution sometimes proved challenging; Ms. Schneemann recalled a London performance in which her leading man was drunk and, according to The Guardian, ‘‘one of her chickens got stuck in a sink, causing a flood of bloody water.’’

With the Judson group, Ms. Schneemann performed in works such as ‘‘Site’’ (1964), by conceptual artist Robert Morris, playing the nude model in Manet’s painting ‘‘Olympia.’’ Around that same time, she devised a series known as ‘‘Eye Body,’’ in which the Icelandic artist Erro took pictures of Ms. Schneemann posing with feathers, shards of broken glass, and snakes.

More controversial was her film ‘‘Fuses’’ (1964-67), which showed Ms. Schneemann and her partner at the time, composer James Tenney, having sex. Their coupling was abstracted and obstructed through the use of collage, superimposed images, and scratches on the celluloid.

In 2016, Ms. Schneemann told The New York Times she had been vilified by feminist critics who accused her of ‘‘playing into male fantasies.’’ Others ‘‘called it narcissism,’’ artist Marilyn Minter told The Times. ‘‘Today it would be called slut-shaming. I wish I had had the language to defend her, but it registered that this is someone who’s really making a giant move.’’


‘‘I never thought I was shocking,’’ Ms. Schneemann told The Guardian in 2014. ‘‘I say this all the time, and it sounds disingenuous, but I always thought, ‘This is something they need. My culture is going to recognize it’s missing something.’’’