The artist Carolee Schneemann, who fearlessly confronted taboos around sex and gender, has died aged 79.
Schneemann is perhaps best known for her 1964 film Meat Joy, an orgiastic hymn to the human body that featured underwear-clad dancers writhing around together with raw meat and mackerel. It was one of many groundbreaking works created during a 60-year career, in which Schneemann never rested on her laurels.
Her performance, video and body art challenged social mores of the time and often had the power to shock. In Eye Body, from 1963, she decorated her naked body in snakes. Her 1965 film Fuse featured her having sex with her then-partner, the experimental composer James Tenney. For the 1975 performance piece Interior Scroll, she pulled a reel of text from her vagina and read it aloud in public.
A visitor to one of her exhibitions once wrote: “Don’t bring your underaged children or grandchildren. Don’t bring your grandmother or other relatives. Don’t bring your out-of-town guests. The current exhibit is awful. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t art.”
That sentiment was a testament to Schneemann’s desire to rewrite the rules around what art should or shouldn’t be.
Schneemann was born in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 1939. She attended the private liberal arts college Bard in New York, where her teachers told her not to pursue art because she was “only a girl”. Despite being suspended by Bard for painting nude self-portraits, she graduated and became embedded in the thriving New York experimental art scene of the 1960s, adopting a multidisciplinary approach.
Her 1970s performance work Up to and Including Her Limits is symbolic of how she tackled the obstacles she faced as a female artist: suspended naked from the ceiling in a tree surgeon’s harness, Schneemann stretched out her limbs to mark the walls and floor with crayon.
Her later works such as Terminal Velocity and Dark Pond responded to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre by blowing up photographs of the victims as they leapt from the burning tower. Cultural figures both high and low owe a debt to her, from Marina Abramović and Cindy Sherman to Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian West. In recent years, her influence was recognised. She received the Golden Lion lifetime achievement award from the Venice Biennale in 2017.
Talking to the Guardian in 2015, Schneemann summarised her long and radical career: “I think I’m stubborn. In the beginning, I had no precedent for being valued. Everything that came from a woman’s experience was considered trivial. I wasn’t sure if my work would shift that paradigm or not, but I had to try.”