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 Joplin, Yoko 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.