- In the Beginning is Drawing
At this sad occasion of the death of Carolee Schneemann on March 6, 2019, PAJ honors the life and legacy of one of the most important artists of our time. Schneemann has been an abiding voice, a luminous spirit, in the pages of PAJ where her work helped to expand the commentaries on art and performance over the years. When the London-based essayist, playwright, and now Unitarian minister Claire MacDonald and I were investigating performance and drawing for a future project, we spoke with Schneemann on this subject at her New Paltz home, on August 20, 2010. Our conversation was cut short when someone arrived to clean the chimney. That moment remains in our text as a link to Schneemann’s own “What Matters,” her long list of what it takes to get through the day to find time for the art, which follows our conversation.
Schneemann had been a friend for nearly four decades, an artist whose life exuded a roundedness that came from working its way through all the means and materials that characterize the last half-century of American art-making. She started with paintings, collages, constructions, drawings, and watercolors, then moved on to sound and movement pieces, happenings, “kinetic” theatre, added to the photography, performance, film, video, and installations. I have always valued the fierce intelligence and curiosity that informed the model of an artistic work ethic she leaves behind. Schneemann was also a beloved artist in the upstate community of the Hudson Valley where she had lived and worked since the sixties, at the same time forging a great public sense of sociability in multiple arts communities here and abroad.
Notwithstanding, while so much attention has been given to her prolific body of work, it has not been as steadfastly acknowledged that Schneemann was also one of the most brilliant artist-writers of her generation. Her voluminous journals, essays, letters, and performance scores elaborate a highly individualistic and poetic syntactical style that conveys a deep sense of engagement with ideas and the languages of art. She can truly be said to have developed a mode [End Page 1] of performance thinking and her own visual art vocabulary. Several of her distinctive handwritten, sprawling notes in bold flair-pen colors dancing across a page are in the PAJ archive. Her speaking voice had that same lilting quality and forward momentum.
At home, piles of books sat near her desk and beside her bed, filled with protruding papers bookmarking their pages for later reference. She was a life-long researcher around issues of censorship, sexuality, war, natural history, iconography. Her constancy was the emphasis on process, integrity of materials, the working out of problems in space, and dialogue between different modes of perception framing a personal history. Oh, her work goes beyond autobiography—it is really an autobiology. The womanly knowledge evolved from her long years of work and exploration, starting from her own body. Stretching the boundaries, making things with her hands, discovering new ways of understanding the world, loving the ecstasy of presence.
There was always something else about her that was not of New York City. I thought of it as an attribute from another era, a certain warmth and loveliness and empathic manner that charmed her personal relations, the naturalness of the country girl in her who loved the outdoors. Pruning trees led her to Up To and Including Her Limits. Mourning her special cat became the Vesper’s Pool installation. This is the Carolee Schneemann who telephoned me one Sunday afternoon to ask if I could identify a certain yellow flower she had found in the garden. Her drive to understand species of desire for every part of the human body also extended to the lives of plants and animals. This worldly woman was a font of local knowledge. She will not be a stranger in any kind of paradise.
Carolee, Carolee, I will think of your legacy in preparing the groundwork for how to embody artistic freedom, how to carry in your heart the mysteries of human existence, how to dream of other ways of being. Yes...