Meet the Artist Behind the First Vagina Monologue

Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera photo series, 1963. Photo: Erró

In 1975, visual artist Carolee Schneemann stood naked on a table in a room full of people, covered herself in mud, and, slowly extracting a scroll of paper from her vagina, read aloud a feminist text. She called the performance Interior Scroll. At the time, she was already a leading figure of the feminist art movement, pioneering female-centric works alongside artists like Judy Chicago and Rachel Rosenthal. 

Now in her 70s, Schneemann is known for reclaiming the female body with a focus on gender and sexuality; in the 1960s and ‘70s, she often appeared nude in her artwork to subvert the male gaze. Her full body of artwork — which spans six decades, various media, and topics like 9/11 and the Vietnam War — is showcased in the book Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting, out this week from Prestel.

It was at the age of 12 that Schneeman knew she’d never be a mother, when one day her mom was sick and she took over the household. “I was cooking a ham and pineapple steak for my dad to come home to after work,” she told the Cut. “My sister knocked over the laundry I had just folded, and my brother came up from the basement with a cut. I just sat on the back stairs, started crying, and put a pin in my finger so that it bled. I pushed my fingers together and said, ‘I promise you never have to do this again. You never have to do this again.’ I didn’t know how it would ever work.” She befriended Janis JoplinYoko Ono, and Andy Warhol as a young artist in New York in the 1970s, when it cost $72 a month to rent a Manhattan loft stretching half a city block. “I had jobs as a dog dryer, I taught Sunday school, I worked as a life model. I did $50 a week to be in soft porn holding a drink in my hand.” 

“I never wanted to do this action,” Schneemann said of Interior Scroll, explaining that she aimed to address taboos in a male-dominated culture. “The vagina had always been suppressed, detested, denied religiously, treated as if it was not a source of extreme pleasure and sensation and power. I’ve always been very concerned with the vitality of the vagina and that denial culturally … the life of the vagina being so richly varied and full of information.”

She thinks early pieces like Interior Scroll often eclipse her entire oeuvre — above all, she considers herself a painter: “Of course, the most important work is what I’m going to do tomorrow.” A double exhibit of her new work opens this fall at P.P.O.W. Gallery and Galerie Lelong. Click ahead to see some of Schneemann’s major works with excerpted artist’s notes.

This Artist Gave the First Vagina Monologue