I am only 50 pages into reading Carolee Schneemann: Correspondence Course, just out from Duke University Press, and already I am exhausted. Exhausted by the intensity of the letters from a young woman in the Eisenhower era that foreshadow every conflict and conflagration of masculine and feminine identity in the short era of my own life, which began in the 1950s, and comprise what stands to be the foremost testament to the life of an artist in the 20th century and beyond.
You know that you are in the fire when two searing accounts of abortions offer a respite from the rest of the text: a casual journey to a famous back alley specialist in Pennsylvania named Dr. Spencer, which had to be arranged via coded signals from pay telephones to avoid arrest, and a bloodless operation in Havana, satisfied afterwards by a Cuban sandwich with half an inch of fresh ham. And these are the relaxing parts.
A very young Carolee Schneemann had already armed herself to the teeth with the weapons of the flesh. Married to the composer James Tenney, just past her teenage years, she was already mingling with the composer Carl Ruggles, making films with Stan Brakhage, writing to the poet Charles Olson, receiving mash notes from Joseph Cornell and studio visits from Leo Steinberg and resisting the urge to abort them all.
The elements of feeling expressed in Carolee's words are so intense that I had to curl up in the fetal position before continuing: when Monet's Water Lilies ignites in a famous 1958 fire at MoMA, the flames continue up to her studio, just missing her paintings. When Brakhage orders her to peel onions in an apron for his film Cat's Cradle, her level of forgiveness towards him mitigates her desire to set him on fire, too!
Always there are animals, and the acceptance of physical reality and its accompanying tragedies that is the essence of animalism: a neighbor's sheepdog, so familiar to her as it chases bunnies and roots up vegetables, gets wiped out by a vehicle and turned into road kill. Yet somehow stark death gives Carolee strength or, at least, the will to continue.
Reading just the 1950s segment of this monumental book, I contrasted it immediately with the Hamptons myth of the time: artists on the beach, evening drinks, the maitre d' de Kooning, Pollock an afterthought, paintings for sale. Carolee Schneemann's contemporaneous letters destroy that myth forever: her message is that art is a struggle, even a bad choice, but an inevitable one rising from an uncivilized marrow.
As a default mechanism, her young self identifies with Cézanne, because, at the time, she had no choice, but already the elements of her body art to come are bent on twisting Cézanne's figures into the uncomfortable morphology of real life. But make no mistake, as even a close reading of these early letters proves, Carolee Schneemann is not body, but a mind, a mind at war with the received assumptions of conformity that America demands to this very day
Reading Correspondence Course will alter everything you thought you knew about art, and I am only 50 pages into it.
Kristine Stiles, ed., Correspondence Course, an epistolary history of Carolee Schneemann and her circle, 576 pp., Duke University Press, 2010, $29.95
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).