32 Binary terror and the body made explicit

today these works seem like Edenic precursors to the incisions of a post- Lapsarian performative feminism: within twenty-five years of Eye/Body, explicit body work would include such feminist artists as Orlan who, in the 1990s, takes her own “flesh as material” as she undergoes a series of plastic surgery operations to rearrange her bodily “parts” to conform, with ironic mimicry, to women depicted in canonical art (Rose 1993).


Fresh out of graduate school as a painter, Schneemann arrived in New York City in 1961 and became almost immediately involved in performative Happenings. She was inspired by her participation in Claus Oldenburg’s Store several months after her arrival, but cites her first performance-art piece as having taken place before she even hit the city scene. Schneemann created Labyrinth in Sidney, Illinois, in the summer of 1960. A natural disaster – a twister – had ripped through her town and toppled her favorite tree. The artist marked the fallen tree and flooded-out rock walls as an “environment” and invited friends and fellow artists to “encounter” the ruins, asking them to make contact with mud, water, high grass, and branches as she watched through a window (Schneemann 1979:7).

As a graduate student in painting at the University of Illinois, Schneemann had read Artaud’s Theatre and Its Double. She developed a taste for concretizing versus abstracting, literalizing versus symbolizing as a way of inciting a visceral immediacy of address. It was a taste that would carry across her entire career. The tumultuous combination of Artaud with Virginia Woolf, Wilhelm Reich, Simone de Beauvoir, and Cezanne activated in the young painter a drive for “sensate involvement” in her work, both on the part of artist and on the part of spectator. At first, her emphasis on tactility was directly related to the modernist hope in the redemptive power of things as themselves — the idea of the revenge of an object in the face of its arbitrary tutelage to its sign. Her early work thus took the form of “concretions” – material artworks which highlighted tactile sensations in sharp edges, shards, and fragments. In her early work, sensate involvement hovered without clear political articulation around notions of active objects, the object’s gesture, and eyes which touch.

In New York in 1961, Schneemann became involved in the Fluxus movement as well as Happenings. With Dick Higgins she formed a brief and contentious association called “Happenings-Fluxus.” This association began in 1962 with an evening for the Living Theater in which Schneemann offered a piece entitled “Environment for Sound and Motions” with performers Philip Corner, LaMonte Young, Malcolm Goldstein, James Tenney, and Yvonne Rainer, among others. In this piece, performers made out lists of possible actions, positions, and interactions with props, with each other, and with the audience. Each performer carried out the actions with a different rhythm and cadence. The Happen­ ing was thus an encounter between these cadences, rhythms, and a variety of objects, gestures, and sounds (see Kirby 1965, Sandford 1995). Following this



Binary terror and the body made explicit 55

performance, Schneemann was invited to join with Yvonne Rainer and a group of dancers in collaborative experimentation that would become the Judson Dance Theater (Rainer 1974; Banes 1983). Schneemann’s first event with this group took place at Judson Church in January 1963 and was titled Newspaper Event. In this improvisational piece Schneemann began to develop her interest in the material body as both a personal-particular environment and as a social environment “in conjunction with others.” She imagined a plasticity, a kind of nervous system of bodies in interaction, in which bodily parts could be interchanged:

I was thinking of an organism interchanging its parts (phagocyte). I noted five principles; 1) the primary experience of the body as your own environ­ ment. 2) the body within the actual, particular environment. 3) the materials of that environment – soft, responsive, tactile, active, malleable (paper . . . paper). 4) the active environment of one another. 5) the visual structure of the bodies and materials defining the space.

(Schneemann 1979:33)

After Newspaper Event came Chromelodeon and Lateral Splay, both at Judson. In the course of these pieces, Schneemann’s interest in flesh as material began to be provoked by her experience as a female artist in the male-dominated move­ ments of Fluxus and Happenings, pushing her to explore the ways in which material flesh existed in bodies which could not be divorced from the histories of their socio-cultural signification. This preoccupation with a specific tactility – the materiality of flesh and the object-status of the female body relative to its socio-cultural delimitations – generated a turning point, a politicizing point, a feminist turn in her work. It was Eye/Body, (Plate 1.6) begun in 1962 and performed in December 1963 in her own loft, that moved Schneemann across her own threshold. She stepped directly into her environment, entering and becoming her own work.

Walking into Schneemann’s New York loft in 1963 one walked into her work – entering art, penetrating it with a sensate body. Of course, this physical entry into art was happening quite a lot in the late ’50s and throughout the ’60s as the boundaries of aesthetic mediums found themselves bleeding together into “environmental” and “intermedia” expression.20 But Schneemann’s was among the very first American installations to incorporate the artist’s own body as primary visual and visceral terrain. When she transformed her loft into a “kinetic environment,” Schneemann placed her own body into the environ­ mental frame of her art, performing a series of actions in prescient anticipation of the veritable explosion of body art in the later ’60s and ’70s. The environment consisted of 4 X 9 foot panels, broken glass and shards of mirrors, photographs, lights, and motorized umbrellas. Schneemann stepped into her work, and, in what she called a “kind of shamanic ritual,” she incorporated her naked body into her construction by painting, greasing, and chalking herself. Historians have suggested that Eye/Body and Schneemann’s subsequent kinetic theater pro­ duction Meat Joy (performed in 1964 in Paris, London, and New York) “charted



34 Binary terror and the body made explicit

Plate 1.6 Carolee Schneemann, Eye/Body, 1963. Photo by Erro, courtesy of Carolee Schneemann.

a new direction,” and even “anticipated not only the so-called 1960s sexual revolution, but feminism” (Stiles 1993:98, n80; Lippard 1976:122). But in the 1960s Schneemann felt acutely that her work was dismissed as “self-indulgent exhibitionism, intended only to stimulate men” (Schneemann 1990:25).

Importantly, much of her impulse to include her body, explicitly, in her work came from the fact that when Schneemann began constructing the installation in 1962 the artist was fed up with feeling that her gender inhibited her consid­ eration as a serious contributor to the art world. Beyond the dance-identified circles of Judson Church, she felt she had partial status, and was personally troubled by the suspicion that she was included only as a “cunt mascot” in the heavily male cliques of Fluxus and Happenings.21 Her response to this feeling



Binary terror and the body made explicit 35

– covering her naked body in paint, grease, chalk, ropes, and plastic, and incorporating it directly into her work – was to address her mascot-dom directly. Eye/Body established her artists body as “visual territory,” as if to declare: If I am a token, then I’ll be a token to reckon with. But the work also suggested a complex theoretical terrain of perspectival vision on the flip. Eye/Body suggested embodied vision, a bodily eye – sighted eyes – artist’s eyes – not only in the seer, but in the body of the seen.

In Eye/Body Schneemann was not only image but image-maker,22 and it is this overt doubling across the explicit terrain of engenderment which marks Eye/Body as historically significant for feminist performance art. Though there are possible important correlatives that can be resurrected from history – such as, as some suggest, the proto-performance of nineteenth-century hysterics23 – in Eye/Body Schneemann manipulated both her own live female body and her artist’s agency without finding herself institutionalized as mentally ill. Instead, she found her­ self excommunicated from the “Art Stud Club.” George Maciunus, father of Fluxus, declared her work too “messy” for inclusion.24

In 1976, thirteen years after Eye/Body, Lucy Lippard addressed the continuing broad dismissal of women’s art work: “Men can use beautiful, sexy women as neutral objects or surfaces, but when women use their own faces and bodies, they are immediately accused of narcissism.” Lippard suggested that work such as Schneemann’s employed “defiant narcissism” and cited Lynda Benglis’s work as a prime example. In 1974 Benglis printed a full-color advertisement in Artforum in which she appeared as a greased nude in sunglasses, belligerently sprouting a gigantic dildo. The editors of Artforum accompanied Benglis’s photograph with an irate letter on how her ad was “an object of extreme vulgarity . . . brutalizing ourselves and . . . our readers,” about which Lippard wrote:

The uproar that this image created proved conclusively that there are still things women may not do … No such clamor arose in 1970 when Vito Acconci burned hair from his chest, “pulling at it, making it supple, flexible – an attempt to develop a female breast,” then tucked his penis between his legs to “extend the sex change,” and finally “acquired a female form” by having a woman kneel behind him with his penis “disappearing” in her mouth. Nor was there any hullabaloo when Scott Burton promenaded 14th Street in drag … or when William Wegman made his amusing trompe l’oeil “breast” piece.

(1976:104, 125, 127)

Nudity was not the problem. Sexual display was not the problem. The agency of the body displayed, the author-ity of the agent — that was the problem with women’s work.

The live nude was widely used in Happenings as an object, and often as an “active” object, or an object with choice within the improvisational field of an artist’s conception. But Schneemann was using the live nude as more than an active object. Whether she ultimately wished it, the object of her body was



36 Binary terror and the body made explicit

unavoidably also herself – the nude as the artist, not just as the artists (active) object. That the active, creating force of the artist should manifest as explicitly female meant that Schneemann’s “actions” were loaded with contradiction in a culture which aligned active with masculine and passive with feminine.25 As mentioned above, Duchamp’s masquerade of the feminine fitted the construct- edness, the “made,” the authored quality of art. To put on a female profile fitted the pattern of the artist making the object – the object being the feminine, passive principle, that which is put on or put off. In Eye/Body, on the contrary, the clean lines between constructed and constructor, finder and found, subject and object, artist and art, mind and body, were blurred. That which tradition­ ally did the constructing, the “male principle,” was in this case conspicuously, explicitly, and unapologetically “female.” The female here was not simply a Duchampian guise, or better, not only a guise, but somehow both guise and essence. Schneemann could not simply drop the guise of “woman” to appear as essentially a man, an artist – nor did she want to. The constructed and the essential were here inexorably tangled in a very “messy” embrace.

It is useful to consider carefully the dynamics of essentialism in explicit body works by women. Theorist Diana Fuss has explored the political transgression inherent in the feminist employment of essentialism. Linking Lacan and Irigaray, Fuss writes:

Irigaray’s reading of Aristotle’s understanding of essence reminds me of Lacan’s distinction between being and having the phallus: a woman does not possess the phallus, she is the Phallus. Similarly, we can say that, in Aristotelian logic, a woman does not have an essence, she is Essence. Therefore to give “woman” essence is to undo Western phallomorphism and to offer women entry into subjecthood … A woman who lays claim to an essence of her own undoes the conventional binarisms of essence/accident, form/matter, and actuality/potentiality.


As Fuss is keenly aware, the claiming of essence at all fell appropriately under materialist poststructuralist attack, and the issue of essence became an embattled one for feminists. The poststructuralist project to interrogate the political ground of subjectivity (the essentialist bases of any authority) ran full force against the feminist project to claim subjectivity and authority. The post- structural project to “resist” all essentialized subjectivity and the feminist project to transgress by claiming a female essence, generated a certain “stall,” or impasse, in feminist inquiry (Case 1990:7-13). But that impasse has lately led to the philosophical positioning of “both at once” – feminists who bear an Irigarayan “double gesture,” paradoxically essentialist and constructivist at once. Like a Brechtian “not, but” this feminist “both/and” makes room for critical inquiry, political agency, and discursive mobility. This double agency was arguably present as “messiness” in Schneemann’s work even in the early 1960s.

Schneemann’s essentialism was most obvious in her goddess imagery – snakes placed across her body in Eye/Body were allusions to the Goddess. But that



Binary terror and the body made explicit 37

essentialism was tinged with declarations of her own agency – her status as constructor, artist, active creator. She upset feminists on both sides of the essentialist/materialist divide. Rigidly essentialist feminists, such as the Heresies collective in the 1960s, chastised Schneemann for debasing the Goddess with what they read as sexual narcissism in her work. Twenty years later, strictly materialist feminists similarly dismissed Schneemanns work, reading any gestures toward goddess-identified sacrality as always already nostalgic and therefore naively apolitical (see Dolan 1988:83).

But if the both/and tangle of the constructed and the essential generated a “messy” embrace, Schneemann intended this mess. She wanted her body to remain erotic, sexual, both “desired and desiring,” while underscoring it as clearly volitional as well: “marked, written over in a text of stroke and gesture discovered by my creative female will.” In 1979 she explicated her essentialist insistence on female will as strategic:

I write “my creative female will” because for years my most audacious works were viewed as if someone else inhabiting me had created them – they were considered “masculine” when seen as aggressive, bold. As if I were inhabited by a stray male principle; which would be an interesting possibility – except in the early sixties this notion was used to blot out, denigrate, deflect the coherence, necessity and personal integrity of what I made and how it was made.


Schneemann was making it as hard as possible to attribute her active creation to a “stray male principle.” The male/female binarism was thus confused. Was the artist making or finding the object or was the object making the artist? In the 1960s many chose to believe that indeed the object was making the artist – that is, that it was only the conventional appeal of Schneemanns curvaceous and long-legged dimensions that got her any attention at all. Found Object by Great Male Artist might be acceptable, but Found Artist by Great Female Object? Thus Schneemanns efforts to expose and explode her “cunt-mascotdom” were often predictably dismissed as narcissistic exhibitionism, disavowed as simply her effort to ride into the scene on the strength of her object appeal.

In 1963 Eye/Body existed in something of a vacuum. According to Schneemann:

I had no reviews because I was taking people one by one through [Mink Paws Turret, an exhibit in her loft in which Eye/Body occurred]. I was inviting people over to the studio to look at it. I had open house usually once a month, and everybody trooped through. And that was the way to be connected to what was happening to the other artists and critics and people traveling in and out from Europe. I took the photo series [of Eye/Body} to Alan Solomon who was about to be director of the Jewish Museum and making it very vital and wild and I remember that he said, “If you want to paint, paint. If you want to run around naked, you don’t belong in the art



38 Binary terror and the body made explicit

world.” People were always shocking me with closed reactions. I knew I was onto something, but I didn’t know what exactly – I just knew this was really significant. A few other artist’s knew it too, without having any theoretical base for it.

(Schneemann 1992)

That other artists “knew it too” is abundantly clear with historical hindsight. Schneemann was not alone. Female Fluxus artists and early cultural feminists began to use their bodies explicitly in their work, exploring, among other things, the paradox of being artist and object at once – Fluxus artists such as Yoko Ono, Shigeko Kubota, and Charlotte Moorman, and cultural feminists such as Hannah Wilke and Martha Wilson to name but a few. Generally these women’s works were, in Yoko Ono’s words, “rejected as animalistic” by male colleagues in the male-dominated art establishment (Stiles 1993:77). When Shigeko Kubota performed her Vagina Painting (Plate 1.7) at the Perpetual Fluxfest in New York City in 1965 she squatted on the floor and painted on a paper with a brush that extended from her vagina. Her male colleagues hated the piece (Stiles 1993), despite the fact that Yves Klein’s I960 use of nude women as “living brushes” in 1959 had been widely celebrated. Woman as artist’s brush, woman fetishized as phallus was acceptable, even chic. But woman with brush was in some way woman with phallus and thus unnatural, monstrous, threatening, primitive – certainly not artistic. Women artists making actions when “the actors were all men” demanded a certain transvestitism that not all were prepared to employ.26 Some, like Kubota, Ono, and Schneemann, wanted to remain women and wield the brush, that is be both female and artist. Such works were, as David James wrote of Schneemann’s 1964/65 film Fuses, “hardly able to be seen” and, as I have already mentioned, were often dismissed with denigration, accusations of narcissism, sexual innuendo, and mockery (James 1989:317-21).

Despite the pressure of establishment dismissal, the thirty years between the early 1960s and the early 1990s have seen an accumulation and exaggeration of method on the part of feminist artists resisting the invisible barricades which had, for so long, kept women marginalized as subject seeing, central as object seen – marginalized as artist producing, central as art produced. These efforts have been made not by politely knocking on the closed doors of museums, galleries, and performance spaces, but by women creating, ultimately, an insistent scene of their own – sidestepping “Art Stud Club” requirements for inclusion. Though the representation of women artists in mainstream venues is still relatively scant, as Guerrilla Girl posters make clear, what can ironically be called “women’s work” is not, today, readily dismissible. This is due in large part to the fact that women artists in the 1960s, and with great momentum in the 1970s, combined their art with a blatant feminist activism. Some works explicitly addressed the problematic dynamics of being a woman and an artist (Langer 1988). Some works provoked the wrath of the status quo by exploring taboo subjects such as menstruation,27 the male body through a “female gaze,”



Binary terror and the body made explicit 39

Plate 1.7 Shigeko Kubota performing her Vagina Painting Perpetual Fluxfest, New York City, 1965. Photo by George Maciunus.

or active female sexual drive imagined as something other than monstrous and something other than phallobsessive. The body of the artist was implicated in the body of the artist’s work in particularly personal – which was to say political – ways.

Of course, the medium of performance and the notion of an artist s actions (if not explicitly the artists body) were increasingly celebrated by the art world in general. This celebration was notable in particular increase after Jackson Pollocks mid-1950s emphasis on the “action” of his brush and the flight of his paint through air, but is traceable in performative avant-garde lineage back through Duchamp, Dada, and the Futurists. In contrast to the general emphasis



40 Binary terror and the body made explicit

on purely “concrete” actions, however, the works of women could not be approached as if embodied actions transcended social prejudices of gender, race, and class – as if the base and elemental body with which artists, with rapid increase, had become particularly enthralled were not riddled in their materiality with less concrete socio-political significances.

Works by men which did employ the political overtones of the explicit body – such as Paik’s 1962 Young Penis Symphony, in which ten young men, hidden from the audience behind a large sheet of paper, stuck their penises through the paper one at a time – were subject to very different responses than explicit body works created by women. Paik’s piece might have “poked” fun at the spectacle of phallic size and power, but his display remained, under his authorizing signature, in good humor. In contrast, Martha Edleheit has said of her early 1970s paintings of male nudes with penises which “droop” that even her “neutral” eye bothered men “who are not used to being treated so indifferently, or only literally … a straightforwardly presented penis much disturbs them too: mere viewing is a kind of judgment” (Holder 1988:14). While it might be possible to argue that Paik’s piece was in good humor and works like Edleheit’s neutral “droop” or Louis Bourgeois’s Fillete, a two-foot-long penis done in moist-looking malleable latex and hung from a meat hook, were not, it is also possible to argue that “good humor” was extended to male artists and their utilizations of the body far more generously than to female artists.

Another example, also concerning Paik, better illustrates the situation: Charlotte Moorman was arrested, tried, and found guilty for indecent exposure during her 1967 performance of Paik’s 1966 Opera Sextronique in which she exposed her breasts. Paik, however, was found not guilty as the judge deemed it impossible to create “pornographic music.” Moorman had to spend the night in a cell with women arrested for prostitution among other crimes. These women tried to pull Moorman’s hair out when she explained her “misconduct” to them (Dubin 1992:126). As Kristine Stiles writes, “Paik and Moorman’s actions are extraordinary demonstrations of the role the body plays in structuring not only the meaning and presence of objects, but the juridical and institutional practices that control, manage, and litigate that body” (1993:84).

For the woman artist authoring work, the problem was immense. The explicit body itself was not the problem – there had been “exposure” in art for centuries – but the lines by which the explicit body was explicated, by which it was framed, displayed, and, even more importantly, “authored,” had been very well policed, by juridical and avant-garde establishments alike. As Schneemann wrote of Eye/Body and its general dismissal:

In 1963 to use my body as an extension of my painting-constructions was to challenge and threaten the psychic territorial power lines by which women were admitted to the Art Stud Club so long as they behaved enough like the men, did work clearly in the traditions and pathways hacked out by the men.




Binary terror and the body made explicit 41

In the 1960s embodied works by women could not be easily digested into the territorial “bad boy” oeuvre of the avant-garde. Their authorizing signatures were suspect. And very often these works bore autobiographical or at the very least “personal” overtones which challenged the formalism at the base of so much avant-garde practice, pointing to socially and politically contexted experience of form versus abstracted formal principles, a fact which had enormous influence on the broader 1970s generation of feminist performance art.

The 1970s was a decade art critic and historian Moira Roth has called “The Amazing Decade” of women’s art. Feminist performance art burgeoned on the West Coast around Judy Chicago and Womanhouse and in New York among women who had been either excommunicated, like Schneemann, from the “Art Studs Club,” or who were entering the scene with their “consciousnesses” already raised (see Roth 1983). By the 1980s, artists falling under the rubric “female” commanded greater recognition. Interestingly, this recognition grew in direct proportion to the challenging of the stronghold of formalism in the arts, a challenge forwarded by the innovations of feminist painters, photographers, film-makers, and performers such as Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Anderson, Yvonne Rainer, Linda Montano, Nancy Spero, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Louise Lawler, and promoted by editors such as Ingrid Sischy of Artforum and curators such as Marcia Tucker of the New Museum and Martha Wilson of Franklin Furnace in New York. As women artists became more diffi­ cult to ignore, feminist theory and practice gained in complexity, and as theory and practice gained in complexity, women artists became more difficult to ignore. If the 1970s feminists had, in an effort to establish a feminist voice and a feminist stronghold, largely been seeking a “true” or positive or essential image of “woman,” by the mid-1980s artists were able to declare that the “woman” they sought was a cultural construct, a strategic moment, and could move to the more materialist notion that identity is produced through the machinations of representation. Intersecting with poststructuralist theories in a powerfully burgeoning amalgam of French and Anglo-American feminisms, artists in the mid-1980s could better deal with the messy terrain between the essential and the constructed, aiming with a firm theoretical base beyond “essential” woman to analyze how and why meaning and its engenderment is produced. This shifting of emphasis away from essentialized female nature toward a radical interrogation of both engenderment and nature motivated and gained motivation from the general politicization of aesthetics at the backbone of critical postmodernist inquiry.

Feminist critiques of essentialism can thus be said to have grown out of essentialist feminist critiques, as one generation grows out of another. With obvious inheritance from their cultural or essentialist feminist predecessors, the body remained a performative site for a generation of materialist explicit body performers, but the terms of the drama had shifted from, broadly speaking, invocation of empowered female imagery to parodies played out across bodily parts in which identity became a manipulable mise en scene of physical accouter­ ment and “self” became something as shifty as costuming or plastic surgery. One



42 Binary terror and the body made explicit

of the dramas played out across the explicit body became, increasingly in the later 1980s and early 1990s, a drama at the juridical and institutional intersection of porn and art. The issue of the “appropriate” venue for the explicit body became most clearly an issue not only of who bears the right to wield the explicit body in the frame of art – Manet or Olympia? – but, as suggested earlier, who bears the rights to explicate the socio-historical significances of that body and that frame.

Is this part of your assignment? Get trusted writers to serve you on on your task
Our experts will take care of your task no matter the deadline!
Use the following coupon

Order Now