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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.

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