- Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle
If you thought you already had a good sense of Carolee Schneemann's artistic oeuvre and aesthetics from reading More Than Meat Joy ( 1997) or Imaging Her Erotics (2002), think again. Correspondence Course offers a voluptuous, carefully selected and edited sampling from the Getty Research Institute's collection of Schneemann's letters, both written and received, over 45 years (1956-1999). The missives unveil Schneemann's extraordinary gifts as a writer while shining new light on her multiple intersecting and, at times, intertwined worlds as her correspondents include: composer and first husband James Tenny; filmmakers Stan Brankhage and Anthony McCall, who was her second husband; artists Joseph Cornell, Dick Higgins, Allan Kaprow, and Jean-Jacques Lebel; dancer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer; poet Clayton Eshleman; critic Daryl Chin; art historian Amelia Jones; psychoanalyst Joseph Berke; and many other members of her "tribe" too numerous to list here.
Correspondence Course focuses on the flow of words and ideas, but as one stunning color plate of her 22 April 1964 letter to Lebel (plate 5) illustrates, Schneemann's letters were more than just written texts: they were densely layered art objects in themselves, as they were typed, written, collaged, stamped, painted, burned, and otherwise decorated. "Only about a third of the corpus of Schneemann's letters is published here," editor Kristine Stiles informs the reader in the preface, which is all the more remarkable given that the book tightly packs them along with illustrations in over 400 dense pages (xiv). How was that possible? In her insightful introduction Stiles credits Schneemann's "determined will to self-document" for making carbon copies of all her letters as well as saving those she received (xliii). Stiles persuasively argues that the self-documentation was not due to narcissism, but rather came out of Schneemann's prescient sense of the organizational necessity required to secure her place in history, and to make certain that her life and work would be accurately detailed.
In addition to the preface and introduction by Stiles, Correspondence Course is organized chronologically in four sections that approximate four different major periods of Schneemann's life. In the first section, 1956-1968, Schneemann metamorphosed from struggling landscape painter to an internationally known, innovative artist, the creator of expressive, physical, corporal, spiritual, and aesthetic actions she calls "kinetic theatre": Eye Body (1963), Meat Joy (1964), and Snows (1967). During this era Schneemann participated in an array of 1960s avantgarde developments: Fluxus, Judson Dance Theatre, Living Theatre, happenings, environments, and even Andy Warhol's Factory parties. It was also during this period that she made her breakthrough feminist film Fuses, which, as she notes proudly in 1968, was viewed by film directors Michelangelo Antonini and Stanley Kubrick (128).
One year later cultural and personal events prompted Schneemann to travel around Europe and eventually settle in London. The letters included in the book's second section reveal that the years 1969-1975 were "a floating sea of change and insecurities," but also a time of artistic exploration and growth (153). By 1973 Schneemann was happily remarried and back in the US but found herself having to repair the damage to her 18th-century home (by vandals), and to her image (by close male friends) while at the same time reaching out to feminist writers and critics such as Kate Millett and Carol Wikarska.
The third section covers the years 1976-1986, and the fourth, 1987-1999. The focus of these two sections is less on art production — although Schneemann continued to be prolifically creative — than on maintaining her reputation. She struggled to balance her commitments to teaching and art making with the necessity of tending tirelessly to the growing "wave of recognition" of her work (448). Correspondence Course concludes with Schneemann's 1999 letter to [End Page 185] the director of the McArthur Foundation Fellows program denying his request that she write a recommendation letter for a younger artist to...