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I decided to write, since it's so much like a letter
I would make to myself were I someone else.

Carolee Schneemann

Carolee Schneemann wrote this sentence in a letter to her friend Elsa. It is one of the earliest of millions of lines that make up the artist's epistolary practice. What Schneemann underscored in this provocative thought is that she had “decided to write” about herself to herself through the intermediary of her correspondents (Figure 22). Her letters represent the thoughts that she would like to have received about herself from someone else. These stories that she told herself about herself are the records of her passage through the world. They are not only multiple narratives of her worldview but memories of her life. No wonder she made carbon copies of her own letters and saved those of her correspondents for forty years. They were the instruments through which she organized and made sense of her life, “like a letter I would make to myself.”


22. Carolee Schneemann, letter to Kristine Stiles, June 17, 1992

[Full Size]

In June 1994, when I first sat down in Carolee Schneemann's eighteenth-century stone home to read her letters, I realized that her epistolary practice constituted what could be theorized as an autobiography that coupled her textual to her artistic practice. Another statement by the artist in a letter reinforced my observation: “For me,” she wrote in 1956, “to write is to see it.” This line signifies one of the many correspondences

between her letters and her art. It is the sign of the agreement between her hand and her eye, the very interstice that Schneemann visualized seven years later in her body-action Eye Body (1963). Eye Body is a visual enactment of the connection between Schneemann's inner and outer worlds through the organ of sight, a contiguity whose history (or autobiographical “I story”) the artist reinvented when she adapted the term istory. (Istory is the genderless word she used to rewrite the masculine possessive his of history.) The corporeal “eye” and the textual “I” are vividly fluid in the letters, a visuality that is indexed in the ways that she augments her letters with drawings, colorful stamps, and longhand corrections of typing errors with colored pens. Something more than a document, each letter becomes a work of art, displaying her reviewing hand on the page, a hand that intercedes in the impersonal technology of the typewriter to leave a mark of her presence.[1] The more one is immersed in her letters, the more intricate, deep, and enduring becomes the agreement between writing, drawing, painting, object making, and actions.

Once I began to notice these textual and visual correspondences, the shape of a book formed in my mind. I decided to compile a selection of letters by Schneemann and her correspondents, editing them for their aesthetic and cultural content. The book's first title was It Only Happens Once, the term Schneemann used to describe her writing process. That phrase also characterized the ephemeral conditions of her performances and, as such, articulated the dual and interconnected themes of her visual and textual practices, the theme I had identified as the subject of my introductory essay for her selected letters. Two years into the project, however, Schneemann reminded me of a series of photographic self-portraits she had made in 1980 called Correspondence Course.[2] I responded immediately by changing the title of the book to Correspondence Course: Selected Letters of Carolee Schneemann, an Epistolary History of Art and Culture. That title captures the act of communication—which is at the foundation of all of Schneemann's work—and symbolically suggests that those who read the book will also partake in a process of education, a course of learning about Schneemann and her times.

Correspondence Course encompasses forty years of Carolee Schneemann's exchange of letters with visual artists, filmmakers, dancers, poets, and the international avant-garde involved in happenings

and performance art. It also includes letters to and from critics, art historians, students, admirers, friends, enemies, and a host of other individuals involved in her life and in the arts. The letters offer a literary discourse that captures the ethos of the international avantgarde related to performance art and the general culture of experimental art in the second half of the twentieth century. They enable readers to share in the unfolding of Schneemann's art and character. An intimate portrait of generosity, coupled with selfishness and fierce ambition, appears. Her continual effort for professional recognition, her battle for financial stability, her development as a feminist, and the significance of her personal and intimate relationships are all intertwined with similar experiences told to her by her correspondents. The letters reveal personal aspects of her marriages, erotic attractions, and involvements and the tension between her need for a monogamous partner and, at the same time, her vehement insistence on personal autonomy. One is drawn to witness the balance she tried to maintain between her public life and her very private life. All this takes place within the context of Schneemann's search for self-definition, her unusually intense love of cats, her deep experiences of and responses to nature, and her pervasive sense of humor.

The three sections of this essay outline the circuitous route that led me to work on Correspondence Course. The first section tells how I came to read Schneemann's correspondence, how this process required an unusual balance of friendship and our professional roles as artist and art historian, and how that juggling act evolved. In this section, I use the familiar “Carolee” when I recount our interpersonal experiences. My aim in narrating this anecdotal story is to contribute to the demystification of the art historical process of writing about a living artist, making explicit the implicit role that such relationships play in shaping the production of art history, a factor that is often taken for granted.[3] In the second and third sections, as in this introduction, I return to the professional “Schneemann,” when I write about her work. In the second section, I shift from the conversational, storytelling mode to introduce my methodological approach to theorizing Schneemann's epistolary practice. The third section considers Schneemann's art historical contribution. The purpose of such a close look at the process of producing art history is to reveal how the discipline creates itself and its canon. When the subject of art history is a woman, the history of women is at stake.



In 1979, while still a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I served as a research assistant to Professor Peter Selz, then in the process of writing Art in Our Times: A Pictorial History, 1890–1980.[4] Selz kindly entrusted me to make some of the selections for the book since my dissertation research focused on happenings, Fluxus, and body art. One of my choices was Carolee Schneemann, an artist whose work I knew only through texts and illustrations. When Selz initially objected to including Schneemann in his book, I threatened to resign. He graciously acceded and authorized me to write to the artist, requesting an illustration. She responded enthusiastically and later made a point of stating that she realized that as a woman I had been instrumental in her inclusion in the book.

One might imagine, then, that a shared feminism had something to do with my selecting Schneemann for Selz's book. But it did not. At that time, I did not identify with feminism, having been disappointed by the elitism of a clique of art-world feminists in California at that time. I chose Schneemann simply because her work was visually powerful and indispensable for understanding the medium of live, presentational art. Her undeniable originality was clear even if one saw only photographic documents of her happening Meat Joy (1964) or her performance Interior Scroll (1975).[5] As visual images alone, these two works have the power to challenge concepts of the nature of visual art, art history, the institutions of art, art practice, and, certainly, how one might live one's life as a woman. In addition, Schneemann's book More Than Meat Joy had appeared in 1979, providing more access to her performances and to her aesthetic theories.[6]

Schneemann and I quickly became friends after meeting in 1980. I soon realized that to foster that friendship I had to maintain my distance professionally. And I did, waiting to write about her for over a decade. Why? It was more important to become her friend than to advance my career through my close relationship to her. I also recognized that I needed to mature as an art historian in order to grapple with the complexity of her art and its art historical and cultural contexts. Since I was a student when we met, and she an internationally recognized artist, the transition into friendship, although swift, was not fluid. Friendship required that we treat each other as equals, a process made all the more onerous by my being the art historian and her being the

artist. Professionally, I was the one expected to attend to her. So I demanded the same attention to my life as I paid to hers. She always returned it, generously. Nevertheless, this period of waiting to fulfill our professional relationship strained our friendship at times, especially as I increasingly wrote about her peers. Eventually, our friendship created the trust that enabled the privilege and enormous responsibility of editing Correspondence Course, even though, paradoxically, my access to the intimate material of Schneemann's life emerged from what I shall describe as a betrayal.

In the spring of 1994, Bonnie Marranca, coeditor of Performing Arts Journal, commissioned me to edit a book on Carolee Schneemann for the new “Art + Performance” series she and her husband, Gautam Dasgupta, had launched as part of their PAJ Books, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. The series would contain volumes on Rachel Rosenthal, Meredith Monk, and other important figures in performance art.[7] All the books in the series were to be composed of interviews with the artist, selected writings on the artist by critics, selected writings by the artist, illustrations of selected works, a bibliography, and a six-thousand-word introduction by the editor. Marranca's invitation could not have come at a more opportune moment, for I was up for tenure at Duke University. Moreover, both Carolee and I had been eager to undertake a project together, and I thought the book would be fun and easy to finish quickly. Carolee gave the project her blessings. I signed the contract, put the forthcoming book on my curriculum vitae, and immediately spent the small advance I received. A couple of weeks later, Carolee informed Marranca and me that another author had just received a contract from MIT University Press for another edited book of her writings. Although I was upset and felt that my project had been undermined and used for leverage to get the MIT contract, Carolee assured us that the two books were very different.

So that summer I traveled, at my own expense, to visit Carolee and begin work on the book. Carolee picked me up at the airport. We drove amicably to her home through the two-lane rural roads, admiring the flowering countryside until we spotted a huge white rabbit dead in the middle of the road. Carolee stopped the car and pulled the corpse off the road. Given the inauspicious beginning of the project, the beautiful dead animal seemed a very negative portent to me. And it was. Once settled in her home, I asked to see the prospectus for the MIT book, which clearly overlapped with my project in a way that rendered

one or the other redundant. I accused Carolee of betraying and manipulating me into a situation of writing about her. In tears, I explained that I now found myself in an impossible situation from which I could not easily extricate myself, one that was potentially dangerous given my upcoming tenure decision. I was angry and frightened and persisted in confronting Carolee with what I perceived to be her contrivance and duplicity. Initially she feigned misunderstanding and then the “inability to think just now.” She wanted to “take a nap.” I refused to let her go, haranguing her about my situation. Finally, she admitted that she had not been forthright. Then with a smile and a wave of her hand she said, “But there's enough to go around; look around, you'll find something to write about!”

What did I do? I looked around. I found boxes lined up of her voluminous correspondence in preparation for its possible purchase by the Getty Research Institute. When I first sat down to read the letters, I had not conceived of editing a book of her correspondence or of even writing about her writing. I was trying to pull myself together, get some ideas from the letters, and step back from the unnerving confrontation. I had spent money I did not have to come to visit her. I was not scheduled to fly home for another five days. I had to do something. I had to find something to write about. I envisioned my tenure slipping through Carolee's fingers. Then I read that line to Elsa: “I decided to write, since it's so much like a letter / I would make to myself were I someone else.” I began poring through the boxes of her letters. I read every letter in five bleary days, working ten or twelve hours a day. I never even stopped to count them. After the first day, I told Carolee that I wanted to edit the letters for their aesthetic content and extraordinary documentation of the period. Carolee agreed. But when she agreed, I do not believe that she grasped the import of her decision. Nor did she fully comprehend the implications of selling her correspondence to the Getty. At lunch each day, we would regularly put a blanket on the grass and chat about her life. As I asked questions, aided by the content of the letters, I began to consider the immense intelligence and creativity of my friend in a manner that had eluded me before. At one point I exclaimed to her that the letters helped me to understand how immense and significant her oeuvre was. “You're just like your own big home with many windows,” I observed. “But you keep the curtains pulled as a veil, opening only one at a time, so that no one can ever see the whole picture.” She responded immediately:

“Baloney! The curtains aren't closed! No one has bothered to look.” She was right.

But the more letters I marked to photocopy for editing, the more uncomfortable Carolee became. As the days wore on and I continued to read and make notes, she began circling like one of her cats, looking at me, reading over my shoulder, fidgeting. On the last day, after I had finished, she suggested we go to dinner to celebrate. Then in the parking lot of the restaurant before we got out of the car, she lowered the boom: “You know,” she looked at me with determination, “you can't have all the letters; you can't publish everything.” I was completely exhausted and exploded. “It is too late, Carolee,” I reminded her. “I have already read them all, and I know.” I also warned her that if she thought she was vulnerable now—with me, her trusted friend—then she must think very carefully about putting her letters in a public archive. She would remain in control, she retorted, because she would retain the copyright. But I advised her that she could not anticipate what scholars might extrapolate and infer from the letters, and she could not control how they might interpret and use the information discovered in them—even if the letters were never quoted verbatim. This argument was useless, quite simply because she needed to sell the letters to pay her bills, to continue to make art, and to live. It was now Carolee's turn to cry. And she did. “I am still alive!” she shouted. “I have a life to live!” Again, she was right.

The dilemma Carolee and I have confronted revolves around the potential “exploitation of biography for political [and personal] ends,” a process that Catherine Epstein recently formulated as “the politics of biography.” Epstein quotes Philip Guedalla, an English historian writing in 1920: “Biography, like big game hunting, is one of the recognized forms of sport; and it is as unfair as only sport can be.”[8] Carolee's fear, of course, was the possibility that I, an art historian, would treat her as big game, a trophy stuffed and hung on a wall exposed. At the end of the process of reading her letters, she knew that I knew too much about her. She had opened herself and her home to a friend, only to find that an art historian had gotten in. Ours was a double bind: If I behaved as a “professional” art historian, I would record what I knew; if she had not tricked her friend into signing a contract for a book about her, an art historian would not be writing about her. We had each other over a barrel. My knowledge as an art historian made her feel vulnerable, not only to me but in the world. We now realize

just how unprotected, perhaps even defenseless, this sharing of intimate information had made her and how it had confronted me with an ethical dilemma. Should I protect my friend or write about the whole of my knowledge of this important artist and the history of her work?

Schneemann's words—“I am still alive!”—resolved the question for me. As a friend and art historian, I would not contribute to the erasure of the boundary between private and public. I would protect her secrets, maintaining her privacy even if that meant suppressing information from the historical record at the expense of an art historical understanding of her work. In her lifetime, I would tell nothing about Carolee Schneemann's art or life that she did not authorize. This does not mean that I coyly would hold back a “big secret” that might be gleaned by someone else who read her body of correspondence. Rather, I made a personal decision to be sensitive to and respectful of the moral implications entailed by my privileged access to the whole of Schneemann's life—her massive archive, her enormous body of work, her personal emotions and experiences, and so forth. In a period that witnesses the simultaneous development and exploitation of psychobiography and, at the same time, the deconstruction of the very notion of biography itself, scrutiny of one's practices is paramount.

While working on the book, I gave her my working manuscripts. She was astonished and thrilled. It was startling to find her own and others' aesthetic ideas culled from the correspondence and presented in a succinct, lucid, developmental chronology. She began to appreciate her own epistolary history, her aesthetic concepts, and the sheer beauty of her written style in a new way. But she also confronted reliving both the joy and the pain of her past, something she had not asked to do. Even though she could now systematically remember how she had once formulated her ideas about her art, and the ways in which her work and interpersonal relationships were interpolated with current events, she also found her life apparently wrapped up in a manuscript. However reaffirming, it was a double-edged sword. For the art historical process that distilled her words threatened her sense of living in the present, for the future, and, she feared, relegated her life to the past.

I have now been working on Correspondence Course for eight years. It is a very different book from the one for which I originally contracted. In addition, Carolee and I agreed that the contract needed to be renegotiated to include her, since the volume is composed of her

letters. Meanwhile, Carolee has my working manuscript, from which she inevitably began to draw ideas as she developed her MIT book, Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects (2002), for which I wrote the introduction. Meanwhile, my book no longer fit into the Johns Hopkins series “Art + Performance”; the University of Chicago Press decided not to publish it because of competition from the MIT book.


In my introductory essay to Correspondence Course—entitled “At Last! A Great Woman Artist: Carolee Schneemann's Epistolary and Aesthetic Practices”—I argue that the letters are the literary genre through which Schneemann wrote her autobiography and, in part, constructed her identity. This process is the inverse of the one described by the Canadian poet and writer Margaret Laurence in a letter to her friend Adele Wiseman: “Your letters make me feel I actually exist.”[9] Instead of having someone else remind Schneemann of her vitality, the artist uses her own writing practice as a confirmation of her intellectual and emotional experiences and existence, which she extends to others. But Schneemann's method of letter writing is saved from narcissism by her action of writing to someone else, creating interpersonal communication, while at the same time writing to and through herself. In other words, she sets up a situation in which she requires herself constantly to negotiate her self-reflective mediations in relation to her epistolary interlocutors. Her rich correspondences with poet Clayton Eshleman and filmmaker Stan Brakhage are evidence of remarkable, mutual artistic influence, admiration, and support, as well as struggle over aesthetic and personal principles. Particularly in their discussions of gender, over which they battled vehemently, Eshleman and Brakhage's views appeared to pose a real threat to the identity that Schneemann wished to project as a woman and as a woman artist.[10]

In this regard, the question of the nature of self (in both its discursive and performative forms) is pertinent. My approach to this question draws on Paul John Eakin's brilliant study Fictions in Autobiography. In one particularly compelling section, Eakin juxtaposes concepts of autobiography theorized by Paul De Man and James Olney. Eakin notes that De Man holds autobiography to be prosopoeiac (a figure of speech

in which an absent person is represented as speaking, or a dead person is presented as alive and present). Hence autobiography is, according to De Man, “a discourse of self-restoration…by which one's name…is made as intelligible and memorable as a face.”[11] De Man argues that “to the extent that language is figure (or metaphor, or prosopoeia) it is not the thing itself but the representation, the picture of the thing and, as such, it is silent, mute as pictures are mute.” Furthermore, since in writing both readers and writers are “dependent on this language,” De Man concludes: “[W]e all are…deaf and mute—not silent, which implies the possible manifestation of sound at our own will, but silent as a picture, that is to say eternally deprived of voice and condemned to muteness.”[12] Olney takes a more positive approach, positing language to be a “theater of possibility, not privation, through which both the writer and the reader of autobiography move toward a knowledge—albeit mediated—of the self.”[13] But Olney seems to agree with De Man regarding the mediated quality of autobiography in that “the self expresses itself by the metaphors it creates and projects, and we know it by those metaphors; but it did not exist as it now does and as it now is before creating its metaphors. We do not see or touch the self, but we do see and touch its metaphors: and thus we ‘know’ the self, activity or agent, represented in the metaphor and the metaphorizing.”[14]

I theorize that Schneemann's epistolary practice resides at the interface between De Man's and Olney's concepts of autobiography. As she traces out the themes and the conceptual contours of her aesthetic ideas in the letters, these ideas are materialized in drawings. Drawings become the basis for paintings. Paintings transform into assemblages and environments, temporal and spatial operations that become bodily actions in happenings, body art, performances, films, and videos. She discusses all this work in the letters, creating an existential-aesthetic loop that joins her many modes of expression to her life as a process. My interest in the autobiographical character of Schneemann's correspondence is specifically the relationship between the metaphorical and metonymical processes that characterize the contiguity between her writing and her performances.[15] On the one hand, Schneemann's corpus of letters constitutes a textual and therefore a metaphorical and representational process. On the other hand, her corporeal acts (as a performance artist) constitute both a metaphorical and, more important, a metonymical form of presentational connection, communication, and extension of the self into the world. I argue that the continuity

between her discursive epistolary practice and her performative enactments forms a synthesis of the De Man/Olney dialectic. While she may write in the prosopoeiac mode (as De Man would have it), she actualizes that writing in real time, where her body is anything but absent, deaf, and mute. Moreover, in writing her letters, Schneemann only temporarily suspends her body as if absent in the autobiographical act (De Man's metaphorical de-facement). For she restores that body in the presentation of herself as a living subject before viewing subjects (Olney's “theatre of possibility”), a realization that materializes the contingency of human interaction, the phenomenology of which is expressed not as metaphor but as metonymy. Addressing Schneemann's art through her letters, I theorize, evinces not only how the mind unfolds in linguistic time but how the epistolary mind is actualized in the ontology of the performative body.[16]

The experience of reading Schneemann's letters helps one to grasp the breadth of her art historical significance and cultural contributions. To say this is not to suggest that the letters are necessary for comprehending the quality of her art. Ironically, as Schneemann's body made her work famous, it also masked more direct access to her visual art. But in the letters, her nakedness disappears in the phenomena of prosopoeia. In this disappearance, the letters enable comprehension of the problem that critics and art historians have had in looking beyond the physicality of her actual body (the medium of so much of her art) to the body of works (including performance) that she has produced. Her correspondence becomes a course in the totality of her oeuvre throwing open all the curtains to the windows of her artistic house and exhibiting the diversity of her aesthetic achievement.

My intuition that Schneemann's letters constituted an autobiography was confirmed several years after I began the arduous task of reading, selecting, editing, and transcribing them. Research on the book disclosed a statement she wrote in a letter of March 5, 1974, to artists Miriam Schapiro and Sherry Brody on the occasion of her contribution to their exhibition “Anonymous Was a Woman: A Documentation of the Women's Art Festival, a Collection of Letters to Young Women Artists.” Schneemann explained: “All my writing has been implicitly or—more recently—explicitly addressed to unknown ‘young women artists,’ which has been a persistent and desperate need on my part, to serve as possible precedent since my own [role models] were a private company of suicided [sic] or demeaned historical women.”[17] In her letter,

Schneemann included sections of her book Parts of a Body House Book (1974), with instructions that Schapiro and Brody select something from it for their catalogue. They chose an entry dated October 1971, which included the following excerpt: “We are on-lookers, observers to our given definitions, our own integration.”[18] But this statement represents only part of Schneemann's concept of female identity. For although she reflected Simone de Beauvoir's famous theorization of the self-analytic cultural position of women as “other,” at the same time her letters prove that she had already “decided” to write herself into self-definition.[19] Namely, she had already begun the long and solitary process of refusing to regard herself from the outside. In writing to herself, about herself, and for herself, Schneemann made sure that her words were the ones through which she (and those women interested in and affected by her process) would orchestrate the processes of developing a female identity from the inside.

However autobiographical Schneemann's view of herself is in the letters, I do not introduce the letters using the normative biographical manner reserved for the collections of deceased artists. Rather, I rely upon a chronological (instead of thematic) organization to reinforce how Schneemann herself developed a discourse on her life, and in my introduction I theorize, as I noted above, about the relationship between her discursive and aesthetic practices. In this respect, addressing her biography through chronology is biographic without apology on my part. For no matter how self-critical art history becomes as a discipline, with ever more complex theories applied to the practices and institutions of art, some basic chronological groundwork is necessary as preparation for building a structure of criticism. This is especially true when one writes about an artist as central to the discourses of experimental art but as neglected as Schneemann.[20]

Schneemann responded to this neglect by writing her own history and theorizing her own art in More Than Meat Joy, and she continued the process in her MIT book. Critics and art historians systematically rely on both books for their information about the artist, never considering that they may contain erroneous data.[21] Critics also overlook that both books were compiled and edited retrospectively after Schneemann experienced substantive changes in her life, her art, and the culture at large relative to the historical material in these books.[22] Nevertheless, More Than Meat Joy both orchestrated and determined the early critical reception of her work, boosting especially attention to her

performance work at the expense of her more static production. In short, the effect of More than Meat Joy was to co-opt criticism and establish a blueprint for how her history would be written. In this regard, Schneemann is like her peers Allan Kaprow, Joseph Beuys, Hermann Nitsch, and many other artists whose writings have determined critical discourse on their art.[23] Such self-consciousness is fully aware of the intersection of art and its histories, positing the self “explicitly or implicitly behind each sentence or line in a work.”[24] In this way, Schneemann, like her peers, temporarily becomes her own historian, inventing the discourse around her and striking a balance between the modernist notion of a unified self—in all its existential conflict—and the postmodern construction of ironic multiplicity.[25] Moreover, in Imaging Her Erotics, Schneemann dons the discourse of poststructuralist criticism, keeping pace with the competitive market for theory that developed in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet although she plays with modernist and postmodernist notions of theory and identity, Schneemann appears remarkably consistent in her communications to the wide variety of celebrated individuals with whom she corresponded in Europe and the United States. Because of these individuals' own centrality in the construction of culture since the 1950s, Correspondence Course also includes a selection of her correspondents' letters, which amplify the monographic approach with an intertextual representation of an era, creating an unusual hybrid form that operates between literary genres. Correspondence Course is, then, a collection of letters that retains its historical authenticity as a biographical autobiography, as a critical, art historical study of the relationship between Schneemann's aesthetic texts, images, and actions, and as a compendium of a historical period described in the letters of those who lived through and created its cultural discourses.

A primary goal of the book is to examine Schneemann's place in art history. One way this is accomplished is by comparing and contrasting her letters with the epistolary practices of other artists and writers. For example, Schneemann's self-conscious practice of copying her letters is not unlike that of other self-aware artists. Paul Ferris has written that the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas “planned his life [and] set up his biographers in advance…[in a] self-conscious approach to the business of being a poet.”[26] Schneemann's letters merit more than just a casual comparison to those of Thomas, whose flamboyance caused “harm” to his reputation

because he flaunted himself by “doing it all in public [emphasis in original].”[27] So too, Schneemann has been accused of exhibitionism, of flaunting her ideal body. Both Schneemann and Thomas wrote about themselves in the context of other artists and poets. But while Schneemann's letters are a veritable treasure trove of her enthusiastic interest in and support of other artists, writers, poets, critics, and art historians, “contemporary poets receive little attention from Thomas.”[28] Where Thomas was “malicious…about many of his friends and acquaintances,”[29] Schneemann is endlessly supportive not only of the famous but of the unknown, whether graduate students, friends, or even enemies. For Schneemann such behavior was part of her personal code and investment in what she often referred to as “my tribe.”[30]

Schneemann's “tribe” receives gracious, encouraging epistles—until someone crosses her or perpetrates what she might consider an injustice against her. To be the recipient of one of these antagonistic letters means that one is either a close enough friend that she can safely unleash her anger or an enemy she can afford to offend. When she recoils, she is like an angry dog, teeth bared. In such letters, Schneemann begins a series of drafts that she works and reworks, sometimes writing notes in longhand, then typing and editing the letter, and finally retyping it in duplicate, saving the carbon for her archive.[31] She used this very careful, self-censoring method especially with friends, but she also made it a habit to write multiple drafts and copy her letters. So too, Dylan Thomas “was a careful, often laborious drafter of letters throughout his life, [and] original versions were polished up and written out again.”[32] Schneemann and Thomas, in this regard, are very different from someone like Virginia Woolf, whose letters have been described as written in “haste.”[33]

Such are the kinds of comparisons that I explore in my introduction to Correspondence Course. In this survey, I have briefly introduced the scope of that work. My aim is unabashed. I hope to intervene in and hasten the cultural process of determining Schneemann's place in history, especially by considering her correspondence in relation to artists and writers whose historical reputations are secure. In addition, I compare and contrast her epistolary practice not only to that of Dylan Thomas and Virginia Woolf but also to that of Mary Cassatt, Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Georgia O'Keeffe, Marcel Proust, and many other artists and writers, quite simply because they must be considered her historical antecedents and therefore her artistic peers.



Is Carolee Schneemann one of the great women artists that Linda Nochlin forgot in 1971 when she published her highly influential essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”?[34] Nochlin's own account of what constitutes great art begins to answer this question:

The problem lies…with [a] misconception…of what art is: with the naïve idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is almost never that, great art never is. The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form, more or less dependent upon, or free from, given temporally defined conventions, schemata, or systems of notation, which have to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation. The language of art is, more materially, embodied in paint and line on canvas or paper, in stone or clay or plastic or metal—it is neither a sob story nor a confidential whisper.[35]

One look at Schneemann's art is enough to confirm that it is neither a “sob story nor a confidential whisper,” the terms Nochlin used to criticize certain directions in feminist practice of the late 1960s and early 1970s. By contrast, Schneemann's work has been erotically scorching, irreverent, and intractably headstrong. She has pressed against the boundaries and definitions of what art might be by violating culturally proscribed behaviors for women (both in and outside the institutions of art). She refused to fall in line with minimalist, structuralist, and conceptualist aesthetics that dominated the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the same time, her work is always aware and expressive of the changes in cultural forms and is equally informed art historically. Schneemann's conceptualization of the possibility of form after Cézanne reflects her theory of how the eye may continue Cézanne's proto-cubist, fractured picture space off and away from the picture plane into the real time and action of the body extended in actual space. Her letters show how she develops different aspects of her art, recycling aesthetic ideas and responding to changing aspects of experimental art; new media, intermedia, and multimedia; film and video; and cultural theories such as feminism and poststructuralism. In other words, her work participates in and continues the discourse of modernism as much as it contributes to determining the narratives of postmodernism.


Nochlin, in her argument about the art historical construction of great art, cautioned that “no serious contemporary art historian” believes “the fairy tales” told about “great artists,” such as “struggles against the most determined parental and social opposition, suffering the slings and arrows of social opprobrium like any Christian martyr, and ultimately succeed[ing] against all odds…because from deep within himself radiates that mysterious, holy effulgence: Genius.”[36] Although the sobriety and self-conscious earnestness of a postmodern, deconstructive culture mitigates against such myths, it institutionalizes a double standard by merely replacing the old canon with a new one. For “great artists” continue to be identified all the time, just as “genius” awards are given annually. So when Nochlin asked the provocative question—“If Giotto, the obscure shepherd boy, and van Gogh with his fits could make it, why not women?”[37]—she ironically poked fun at the hyperbolic “hardships” attributed to male “genius” and was simultaneously attentive to the social obstacles that confront women's ability to achieve greatness. But what if such hardships are, indeed, not “fairy tales” but real? Then Nochlin's question—“Why not a woman?”—becomes a rhetorical one.

Carolee Schneemann did fight against the most determined parental and social opposition, one that included having her father call her a “monster of nature” because she refused to have children in order to pursue her art in her way.[38] Nochlin also points out that the majority of women artists came from families where a close male relative was an artist. Not Schneemann. Moreover, what if one actually did suffer the slings and arrows of social disrepute? In this respect, Schneemann's display of her nude body in the early 1960s was seen as vulgar, pornographic, and inappropriate and was dismissed as a device for gaining attention.[39] A decade after the movement of body art (which she pioneered in her unprecedented action Eye Body) had become an acceptable genre of visual art, the very same body she had used throughout the preceding two decades was no longer a viable medium. Suddenly she had become too old to perform nude, if one considers the view of Fluxus artist Dick Higgins, who wrote to Schneemann in 1981 to suggest that she find a “younger” surrogate:

I think your strategy is wrong at the moment. You aren't recognizing that you are a master now (in the sense of master-artist, not of a male), that what you have been doing you have tried to do entirely yourself with your body as your instrument. But that instrument itself has changed. You're a beautiful woman, of course, but the very

nature of desire and potential for desire changes as one matures. You're less a Hollywood desire-object fetish as a physical entity than you once were…. What you need is, I think, to take a special kind of apprentice, to teach what you know on a one-to-one basis, and to find yourself a beautiful young woman to work with, not necessarily as a lesbian lover, but as a surrogate for yourself in certain performance situations so that you can maintain your masterly objectivity.[40]

The paradoxical, ironical, and maddening aspects of Higgins's suggestions are too obvious to require comment. Schneemann's entire career, like the life of women in general, has been caught in this contradiction, an age-old social problem that Schneemann's work not only depicts but represents. Moreover, many younger artists, including numerous imitators around the world, have received more critical attention, museum and gallery exhibitions and financial support, grants and other kinds of funding, teaching positions, new studios, and so on than she has. The perfect example of this neglect is the response I received in 1995 when I proposed a retrospective of Schneemann's work to a wellknown museum in the United States. The chief curator, a man, turned down my proposal with the explanation that his audience would be “better served by an apple than the stem.”[41]

Given such odds, why does Carolee Schneemann still radiate?[42] The answer cannot be that she is simply a genius. It is that, like any person accorded such accolades, she possesses “something special” that is not mysterious at all: dogged persistence. In this regard, it is far more compelling to observe how hard Schneemann has persevered to achieve her goals. Her indefatigable energy, her steadfast involvement in international culture, her insistence on creating work that expresses her experience of truth, and her refusal to accept inherited conventions for the behavior of women or women artists are all aspects of a rare will, determination, mastery of many fields of creative expression—and talent. Cultivated by education and personal rigor, she has studied the world and transformed her understanding of it into a visual and textual language that simultaneously constitutes and represents the culture of her time.

While the title of this essay about Correspondence Course celebrates Nochlin's groundbreaking essay, it also suggests an ironical gasp of “at last!” This irony calls for the paradoxical recognition that unless one is understood as “great” in her own time, she will not receive the support she needs and deserves. By all the criteria that Nochlin herself provided,

Schneemann is a great artist. While it is beyond my purpose here to quarrel with Nochlin's definition of great art, it must be asked how the art historian's criteria prevented her from identifying “a great woman artist” in her midst. How, for example, would a “self-consistent” language of form, independent of social and cultural conventions, be identified? How could that form exist apart from culture and simultaneously be identified as aesthetic? How could artistic production ever exempt “personal expression” and “individual experience” from its results?[43] Most important, Nochlin's criteria for the tools of great art are too conservative and were even when she wrote the essay. Such criteria made it impossible for Nochlin to recognize how Schneemann—an artist whose body figured prominently as the medium of art—extended the medium of painting and sculpture into real time and space and insisted that it was a woman's right to do so.

It should be clear that my aim is to validate Carolee Schneemann's work. As a scholar, I will not contribute to the normative art historical paradigm that demands that she die in order to garner serious art historical attention and respect. I further refuse to be cowed by the dogmas of new art historical methodologies and theory that naively suppose a scholar is somehow lacking in critical acumen if she resorts to biography, much less celebrates an artist. I want to celebrate Schneemann's life's work in her lifetime. Why? Because Carolee Schneemann is, as she shouts, alive! I have staked my professional reputation, and I continue to stake it, on my scholarly conviction that Schneemann's art warrants more critical attention. Reading her letters makes the need for this acclaim manifest. For in them one finds the ways in which Schneemann consistently extended contemporary discourses into a visual and textual vocabulary of forms and ideas convergent with and expressive of the central themes of her time: the authority and fragility of the human body in the late twentieth century; the significance of gender in rethinking and reconstituting the social conditions of Western epistemology; the tenuous connections between disease, death, loss, and friendship; love and its fury; the intersection and intertextuality of contemporary media in the move from a unified modern identity to a multiple postmodern multiplicity; the growing interdependence of humans, animals, and nature in the postbiological age; and, perhaps the most daunting challenge of all, the representation and study of sexuality—that immense, mysterious territory that structures individual experience and interpersonal relations and invisibly shapes culture at large. At last, a great woman artist!



1. A number of artists write such visual letters. See, for example, Joseph Cornell, Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993); Briefe von Jean Tinguely an Paul Sacher und gemeinsame Freunde (Letters from Jean Tinguely to Paul Sacher and common friends), ed. Margrit Hahnloser (Basel: Museum Jean Tinguely and Benteli, 1996); and Letters from H.C. Westermann, ed. Bill Barrette (New York: Timken, 1988). [BACK]

2. Schneemann's performance Correspondence Course was initiated by an invitation from Paul McCarthy and Allan Kaprow to participate in a special issue of The Dumb Ox that they were coediting on the relationship between text and image. They instructed their guests to “provide both text and illustrative material to relate to your work in performance or action art.” Schneemann answered with ribald, wildly self-satirizing, and irreverent photographic actions. The photographic actions were paired with letters that she either received or wrote, letters that vividly exhibit the absurd and/or disrespectful treatment of artists. For example, in response to the correspondence from the “Feminist Art Research Center, Canada,” Schneemann photographed herself reflected in a mirror, wearing “studious” clear-plastic framed glasses. But she is topless with her shorts pulled down just above her pudendum, and she is sticking her tongue out at the camera while holding her hands up by her ears, wagging them at viewers. Another photograph shows her mirror reflection, this time from behind. Again she is topless with her pants down, a feather duster stuck between her buttocks! This photograph accompanies her letter to the German editor of a book on feminist art history in which she points out that her slides for illustrating the book have not been returned in a year and that she has not received the promised honorarium, a paltry $50. Here is a sampling of such letters she received as they appear in the original, grammatical errors intact!

From Student—Massachusetts


From Filmmaker NYC


From Feminist Art, Research Centre, Canada

We are a non-profit organization with no funding; we cannot pay for your contribution but will give your work a lot of exposure In order for us to make a wonderful festival and library, we need your material yesterday!


3. This is particularly true if one considers more intimate relationships such as those between couples like Rosalind E. Krauss and Robert Morris; Lucy R. Lippard and Robert Ryman, or Lippard and Charles Simonds; Clement Greenberg and Helen Frankenthaler; Barbara Rose and Frank Stella; and many others. My interest in the personal relationships that shape art and its histories dates from my essay “Unbosoming Lennon: The Politics of Yoko Ono's Experience,” Art Criticism 7, no. 2 (1992): 21–54. I gave the first version of this paper in 1990 at “Feminism, Performance, and Postmodernism,” a symposium organized by Kathy O'Dell and David Jocelet at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, in which Carrie May Weems, Anne Wagner, and others participated. At that time, Wagner expressed admiration for my paper and explained her intention to draw upon it, so I sent her a copy. Six years later, Wagner published Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O'Keeffe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), a study that, in part, explores these artists' relationship to their male partners and that certainly reflects another dimension of the interaction between art professionals in terms of her own marriage to the eminent art historian T.J. Clark. [BACK]

4. Peter Selz, Art in Our Times: A Pictorial History, 1890–1980 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1981). [BACK]

5. I first encountered pictures of Schneemann's work in Udo Kultermann's Life and Art (New York: Praeger, 1971). It is symptomatic of the neglect of Schneemann that she was left out of the two most influential books on happenings published in the 1960s, even though one might make a case for Meat Joy as one of the most significant happenings of the period. These two books are Michael Kirby's Happenings (New York: Dutton, 1965) and Allan Kaprow's Environments, Installations, and Happenings (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1966). The only author who included her in a study of happenings was Al Hansen. See his A Primer of Happenings and Time/Space Art (New York: Something Else Press, 1965). Inclusion in Hansen's book, however, may have been more of a curse than a blessing. For, as I have noted elsewhere, Hansen “posed a dilemma to himself and his colleagues….[Even though it was] to his life-long credit, he remained unmanageable. [Moreover, he was] seldom seriously discussed.” See Kristine Stiles, “Battle of the Yams: Contentless Forms and the Recovery of Meaning in Events and Happenings,” in Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957–1963, ed. Joan Marter (Rutgers, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999): 118–29. [BACK]

6. Carolee Schneemann, More Than Meat Joy: Complete Performance Works and Selected Writings, ed. Bruce McPherson (New Paltz, N.Y.: Documentexte, 1979). [BACK]

7. Since the spring of 1994 a number of these excellent monographs have appeared. [BACK]

8. Philip Guedalla, Supers and Supermen: Studies in Politics, History and Letters (London: Fisher Unwin, 1920), 233, quoted in Catherine Epstein, “The Politics of Biography: The Case of East German Old Communists,” Daedalus 128, no. 2 (1999): 1. [BACK]


9. Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman, eds. John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 3. [BACK]

10. Eshleman was one of the first poets to recognize the unique character of Schneemann's writing, inviting her to publish in his poetry review Caterpillar 8–9 (1969). But Robert Kelly was the first poet to publish Schneemann. See her “Hormones Circling” in his mimeographed journal Matter (1963), unpaginated. Jerome Rothenberg and David Antin followed Kelly, publishing “Meat Joy Notes as Prologue,” in Some/Thing 1, no. 2 (1965): 29–45. Her friendship with Brakhage dates from the 1950s. Their correspondence before the 1970s was stolen from her home in the late 1960s when she was living in England. I hope that it will resurface in the future. [BACK]

11. Paul De Man, “Autobiography as De-facement,” Modern Language Notes 94 (1979): 920–23, quoted in Paul John Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), 186. [BACK]

12. Ibid. [BACK]

13. Ibid., 188. [BACK]

14. James Olney, Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972), 30, 31, 34, quoted in Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography, 188. [BACK]

15. For the theorization of the role of metonymy in augmenting the metaphorical capacities of visual art, see Kristine Stiles, “Synopsis of the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) and Its Theoretical Significance,” Act [New York] 1 (Spring 1987): 22–31; and Kristine Stiles, “Survival Ethos and Destruction Art,” Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 14, no. 2 (1992): 74–102. [BACK]

16. Recently, Richard Poirier has published a book that explores similar themes. See Poirier's Trying It Out in America: Literary and Other Performances (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999). [BACK]

17. See Miriam Schapiro, ed., Anonymous Was a Woman: A Documentation of the Women's Art Festival, a Collection of Letters to Young Women Artists (Valencia: Feminist Art Program, California Institute of the Arts, 1974), 116. In her letters, Schneemann writes about having read the journal of the Russian artist Marie Bashkirtseff; as a romantic young woman, she must have felt as if it was written for her. It is typical of Schneemann that she would then want to write for other younger women artists. See Marie Bashkirtseff: The Journal of a Young Artist, 1860–1884, trans. Mary J. Serrano (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1919). In this regard, one of the most rewarding aspects of working on Correspondence Course was to observe how my female research assistants, Erica James, Elizabeth Kyle, and Alexandra Tuttle, all responded to the manuscript, personally identifying with Schneemann's developmental process and entering imaginatively into her times. [BACK]

18. Schapiro, Anonymous Was a Woman, 116. [BACK]

19. The Second Sex was published in English in 1952, and Schneemann read it in the 1950s. See Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Alfred

A. Knopf, 1952); originally published as Le deuxième sexe (Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1949). [BACK]

20. It may come as a surprise to hear Schneemann described as “neglected” when so many books, articles, and dissertations mention her work or interpret one or another of her performances or films. Yet she has only two works in museum collections, and she has had only one major museum exhibition—at the New Museum in New York, in 1996—unfortunately billed as a “retrospective.” In this exhibition, the museum squashed a tiny, poorly installed sampling of her work into the front of the museum's already small space (cramped at that time because of renovations). It reserved the back of the museum for three installations by younger artists whose work had nothing to do with Carolee Schneemann's. A screening space for documentary videos of her work and her own films was set up in the middle of the exhibition in broad daylight. Light interfered with the clarity of the images, and noise from the videos and the gallery disrupted viewing of both her static and filmic works. The catalogue was skimpy, inexpensively produced, lacking in an extensive biographical and aesthetic survey of her work, and printed primarily in black and white. The entire affair was shocking, disrespectful, and painful to witness, especially since other institutions might imagine from it that she had already had a retrospective and that her work was overrated, even though such a judgment would reflect the unworthy exhibition rather than her art. [BACK]

21. For example, the subtitle of the book is Complete Performance Works and Selected Writings. But the book is not a complete compendium of her performances: missing, among other very interesting performances, is Aggression for Couples (1972), a private action she did in London in 1972 with filmmaker Anthony McCall. Photographs from this action are included in Correspondence Course. [BACK]

22. Feminism had entered the mainstream. The sexual revolution had gone sour. Drug experimentation had hardened into cocaine and heroin addiction. Hippie love had turned to the rancor of punk. The arms race had escalated. The United States had been humiliated as morally corrupt and had lost the Vietnam War. Schneemann herself had been divorced and remarried, and, she—like her times—had changed. [BACK]

23. Part of the explanation for why so many artists associated with performance and other aspects of live art have resorted to writing is that criticism and art history have been so slow to acknowledge, understand, and theorize this genre of visual art. [BACK]

24. See Ron Silliman's superb essay “Who Speaks: Ventriloquism and the Self in the Poetry Reading,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 369. [BACK]

25. She pointed out, in a telephone conversation with me on August 1, 1999, that she always tries “to obliterate a self” in her work. [BACK]

26. Paul Ferris, introduction to Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1985), ix. [BACK]

27. Ibid. [BACK]


28. Ibid., xv. [BACK]

29. Ibid. [BACK]

30. This is the name that she—and several other artists of her generation, most notably the French poet and pioneer of happenings, Jean-Jacques Lebel—give to the small group of visual artists, composers, and dancers who, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, forged the medium now called performance art. [BACK]

31. I have not included such letters in this collection because of the length of the book. But in them one has the opportunity to observe the process of her self-restraint. I leave these letters for future scholars, in the hopes that a careful examination of her editorial process will be undertaken in relation to the equally careful polish of her art, which sometimes has been erroneously dismissed as messy and undisciplined. [BACK]

32. Ferris, introduction to Dylan Thomas, xi. [BACK]

33. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, eds., The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. 6, 1936–1941 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), xii. [BACK]

34. Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in E. Baker and T. Hess, Art and Sexual Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1973), reprinted in Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 145–78. [BACK]

35. Ibid., 149. [BACK]

36. Ibid., 155. [BACK]

37. Ibid., 154–55. [BACK]

38. Among artists who immediately come to mind who have written about their decision not to bear children in order to practice art are Mary Cassatt, Eva Hesse, Harriet Hosmer, and Georgia O'Keeffe. In this regard, it is also interesting to note that in Schneemann's correspondence, there are few love letters (though perhaps she has not made all her correspondence public, even to me). The few letters between the artist and her first husband, the experimental composer James Tenney, are especially poignant and full of mutual interdependence and longing to be together whenever apart. These letters also chronicle both the torturous role that abortions and her refusal to bear children played in their lives before Roe v. Wade, as well as the grievous end of their intimate relationship (even while the couple remained close friends). [BACK]

39. I discuss the issue of Schneemann's breaches of socially prescribed decorum in “Schlaget Auf: The Problem with Carolee Schneemann's Paintings,” in Carolee Schneemann: Up to and Including Her Limits, exhib. cat. (New York: New Museum, 1996), 15–25. A good example of the kind of exaggerated description of Schneemann's work is a description of Meat Joy as an “orgy like dance program,” to which “Carolee Schneemann was drawing sellout crowds.” See Jerry Hopkins, Yoko Ono (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 47. [BACK]

40. Dick Higgins to Carolee Schneemann, March 10, 1981. [BACK]

41. I discussed the “apple/stem” problem in “Debate: The Empty Slogan of Self-Representation,” Siksi [Helsinki] 12, no. 1 (1997): 87–90, and in “Never Enough Is Something Else: Feminist Performance Art, Probity, and the Avant-Garde,” forthcoming in Avant-Garde Performance, Textuality and the

Limits of Literary History, ed. James M. Harding (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 239–89. [BACK]

42. As Nochlin so brilliantly pointed out in “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” the conditions for the production and reception of “great art” have made it nearly impossible for women to achieve. Schneemann certainly has made art in a period when it was relatively easy to study such things as the nude figure. I say “relatively” because a fascinating letter included in Correspondence Course describes how Tenney did not want Schneemann to model nude for her painting class, even though she insisted that all her fellow students take turns doing so. [BACK]

43. The work of such artists as John Cage and Andy Warhol had already shown in the 1960s that such a goal was elusive, if not impossible, as silence and appropriation came to signify their individual styles. [BACK]

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