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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

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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.

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