Oral History — October 19, 2017, 1:40 pm

Moral Turpitude

The many transgressions of Carolee Schneemann

Photograph by Cassidy Ellis

From a conversation between Carolee Schneemann and Stephanie LaCava that took place in March at Schneemann’s home in New Paltz, New York. Carolee Schneemann is a multimedia artist. Her performance piece “Meat Joy” was first presented in 1964. Earlier this year, Schneemann received the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Biennale. Kinetic Painting, a retrospective of Schneemann’s work, is on view this month at MoMA PS1. LaCava is a writer based in New York City.

I grew up in a Pennsylvania village. My father was a physician whose medical practice exposed me to bodies, their invisible processes, illnesses, and viscera. Injured people came to the back door as if dad was the hospital, presenting him with bloody arms or injured body parts.

One of my favorite Dad stories: I was learning to sew, and I was upstairs in the house making a cotton square-dance skirt. The needle slipped and went through my finger. I ran downstairs with my bloody finger still stitched into the fabric. I alerted Dad, “Look, look, I really hurt myself.” He studied the finger and said, “Not bad for an amateur.”

He was warm, delightful, charming. He was never defensive or mean. He was great except for being part of the patriarchy. He wouldn’t send me to college. He wanted to send me to typing school. He yelled at me that I was using big words that my brother didn’t understand. And he would talk about my growing up to be a proper mother.

I had a boyfriend in grade school, a farm kid, I think his name was Burt. We were eight or nine and he always sat next to me on the bus. I loved the school bus. It smelled of fuel, old leather, woolly clothing. He’d sit next to me and he liked to touch my skirt. One morning he said, “When we grow up, will you breed my babies?”

I had a keen instinct that I was not going to become a cow. I would observe men pat their pregnant wives’ stomachs as if the stomachs were theirs. I hated that. Even though I was little I would think, “That’s not his stomach.”

I started going from Pennsylvania to New York when I was thirteen or fourteen. We could hitchhike then; it wasn’t dangerous. Everything became dangerous by the mid-Sixties, but at the end of the Fifties twelve-year-old girls could put their thumbs up and somebody would give them a ride. Once when I was sixteen we got all the way to Maine and lived in a fishing cottage in South Harpswell. I was painting ocean vistas, reading Goethe’s color theory, as well as D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form. I was with a girlfriend who was a poet, and I had a boyfriend, a painter, who would turn up every now and then. We had so very little money that a cigarette had to last forever. We ate what fell off the fishing boats and washed up in our inlet, and I gathered wild greens for salad.

Unexpectedly I received a scholarship from Bard—that was wonderful! I had gone to a little country high school because my parents were convinced that I was withering away in public school. At this magical country day school the teacher taught English four hours a day. Everything else was squeezed around it. We read all kinds of poetry and we had to write—if you didn’t write you were sent out into a pasture to play by yourself. The class could write about anything, a Coke bottle, a pet dog, but we had to present writing. I flourished there. My teacher wrote a note and told me, “Keep this with you forever. Your parents won’t want you to go to college, but you have to go.” And she wrote down three names: Antioch, Goddard, Bard.

I applied to Bard against my parent’s wishes. The provost, who gave students scholarships, appeared one day in the infirmary at my high school. His name was Buzz Gummere and he wanted to know why my dad wouldn’t fill out a financial statement. They offered me a full room-board-tuition scholarship.

Bard was revelatory. I loved having my own little room to work in, which I painted black and red. The dormitory housed other young woman who were very caring. One day, I came back to my room and found on my bed a red flannel duffle coat with big pockets and toggles. It was a perfect coat. In one of the pockets I found a container that held a mystifying rubber circle. This was a loan of the secret shared dormitory contraceptive. (The tragedy was that I had to give the coat back so that it would be passed on.)

At Bard my favorite painting teacher told me, “Don’t set your heart on art. You’re only a girl.” All the male English teachers there were famous writers. They would look at your behind and make unpleasant comments about your shape, would they like to fuck you or not. I went to meet with my poetry teacher in his apartment. He was lying under a red blanket with candles around him and a bottle of wine and two glasses. And there was something sticking up under the covers between his legs. I told him, “I forgot to bring my footnotes. I have to go.”

My professors at Bard rejected my proposals to write about Virginia Woolf. Then they refused my intention to write about Simone de Beauvoir. My philosophy professor told me, “Honey, why do you want to write about the mistress when you can write about the master?”

Junior year I was forced to leave Bard for “moral turpitude.” I always hoped that this was a typographical mistake and that I was to be punished for “immoral turpentine.” I realized only recently that my transgression must have been the sequence of anatomically explicit nude self-portraits I was painting in my room. Bard had no life drawing at the time and I was anxious to study a human form.

For some legal reason Bard extended my scholarship to the Columbia School of Painting and Sculpture and to the New School. This was actually beneficial. I moved in with a Bard graduate to her apartment in New York City, utterly thrilling. The building is still there, at 15th Street and 8th Avenue.

The way I met Jim Tenney was mystical. While at Columbia I would stop at a little café at 116th and Morningside Heights, somewhere around there. You could get a big soup with bread for a dollar.

In the café I saw this guy at a back table with sort of wonderful hair, eating like a tiger. He was bent over his plate and he was handsome and thin and had a strange energy. He wasn’t like anyone I had ever seen before. The second time I saw him there I was about to throw up because I lived only on cigarettes and I was carrying a huge portfolio. He was looking at me. I had to leave.

Some months later I put my hair up in braids to go to a Bach and Charles Ives concert that was free for students—New York was so amazing in the middle of May. The pianist was just coming out, and then this skinny guy appeared, late, after everybody else was seated. He came around to the aisle next to me and sat down. We were staring at each other: “What are you doing here?” I wondered. At intermission I looked for him. He was behind a pillar. I didn’t know how to approach him. I went down to the bathroom. When I got back, he’d left the pillar. I hurried downstairs, then back upstairs to look behind the pillar, and finally I came up to him. We said to each other, “I have seen you at the café.” He said he was a composer and pianist studying at Juilliard. I said I was a painter. And he said, “Oh, painting. Well, I’m working with sound as if it’s space.” And I said, “I’m working with space as if it’s movement.” Then we went out for coffee. We only had enough money to share one cup.

Jim was born in New Mexico, he grew up in Colorado, he had that energy, something Western. It’s not like East Coast energy. He slapped his thigh as if the cattle were grazing. We became lovers in his terrible little room with no windows at Juilliard. Unbeknownst to me there was a student from the Philippines next door who would hear us making love. I know that because he turned out to be an artist, and we met in London later. He told me, “I recognize your voice.”

I’m fortunate to have the voice that I do. I’m so upset with young women’s voices. I’m really distressed. There’s the new slur speech where whatever you’re saying you blur it at the end. I was very influenced by old New England artists who have such beautiful, firm, defined language. It was articulated, musical.

In May, Jim had his graduate piano concert. We were asleep in his little horrible room and he got up and put on his only jacket and I said, “Good luck. I hope it goes beautifully. I hope it’s perfect.” He’d been practicing like a mad person: Ives, Werbern. I fell back asleep, and it seemed like barely any time passed before he was back. I said, “How was it?”

“It was yesterday.” He had slept through it because we’d been making love. It was a fucking disaster. His professor never forgave him. His scholarship was taken away. We were completely at a loss, didn’t know what to do. I met a dreadful greasy grocer who owned apartments on York Avenue and I flirted enough so that I got an apartment and then Jim and I had to hide from the grocer and from my parents.

What I’m telling you about the history at Bard is the basis for what I call “Double Knowledge.” There was the knowledge I knew I had to live by and there was the knowledge that the wall of male culture insisted was appropriate, but that was not true to my experience. I carried that sense, very clearly, always.

I inherited a completely male cultural tradition. I had never had a woman teacher for art. I had never found a precedent of woman artists in the art history books available to me. I would discover them later while researching in foreign history books. I felt that I was an outlaw, intruding in a masculine realm.

In the Sixties, as a proto-feminist, my work was deeply misunderstood whenever I used the body, because it was assumed that it was an appeal to male culture. But I was trying to subvert it. I took my films to curators and they said, “This is shit. If you want to paint, put your clothes back on and go paint.” I was rejected by every interesting gallery in New York City.

My sexuality was distracting and confusing to the galleries, though I didn’t understand it at the time. In 1963, when I enacted my Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for the camera, my intention was to be both image and image maker. The traditions of the female nude had always been the central obsession of the male artists I studied, from the French surrealists to the Pop artists. None of these depictions related to my experience. It was my wish to transform and vitalize an actual artist’s female body as part of her materials.

I was one of the first female artists to integrate my own nude body into action photographs. I felt I was physicalizing the kinetic implications of abstract expressionism.

Only an ideal physical body could manage to subvert the traditional expectations of pleasing the male gaze. If our bodies didn’t look appealing we couldn’t have gotten subversive messages through them. We would’ve been laughed away or dismissed as feeble pornographers. There is now marked appreciation for all the pussies I have fought to celebrate. Meow.

Share
Single Page

More from Stephanie LaCava:

Oral History July 25, 2018, 2:37 pm

A Conversation With Anne Waldman

“Perhaps we are finally facing our karma of genocide and slavery and oppression of women.”

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A decorated veteran of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq had his prosthetic limbs repossessed from his home in Mississippi when the VA declined to pay for them.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today