P·P·O·W is pleased to present Of Course You Can/Don’t You Dare, an exhibition of historic mid-twentieth century works by Carolee Schneemann. This presentation marks the artist’s seventh solo exhibition with the gallery, and the first major display of her work in New York since her death in 2019. The paintings, drawings, assemblages, and film on view highlight Schneemann’s visual investigation into gesture, movement, and materiality from 1957 through the mid-1960s, while simultaneously pointing to the artist’s contemporaries, whose work and advice Schneemann strategically saw as both inspiration and “anti-influence,” a coinage Schneemann applied to her utilization of the often-contradicting guidance offered at the start of her artistic career.
Opening the exhibition is a series of rarely seen drawings depicting Schneemann’s then partner, experimental composer James Tenney, and their cat Kitch. The couple’s creative investigations developed in parallel through their collaboration of over ten years, as exhibited here in works Personae: JT and Three Kitch's (1957) and J. & C. (1962), and culminated in the film Fuses (1963-65), an ode to feminine pleasure, heterosexual eroticism, and love. These early paintings and works on paper concurrently correspond to Schneemann’s experience teaching in Bennington, Vermont, and pursuing her Master of Fine Art at the University of Illinois, Urbana, from 1957 to 1961. During this period, Schneemann navigated the contradicting critiques given by her professors who exclaimed “Of course you can/Don’t you dare,” declaring the young artist’s depiction and activation of her own nude body—as seen in the Untitled (Self-portrait with Kitch) (1957)—as narcissistic, a criticism never levied on her male counterparts. Schneemann later proclaimed in her written statement about Fuses: “There were no aspects of love-making which I would avoid; as a painter I had never accepted the visual and tactile taboos concerning specific parts of the body.”
During the early years of their partnership, Tenney introduced Schneemann to filmmaker Stan Brakhage and his then wife Jane. Schneemann and Tenney were particularly close to the couple: they appeared in several of Brakhage’s films (Loving, 1957 and Cat’s Cradle, 1959), and Schneemann’s drawings of Stan and Jane, along with the assemblage Window to Brakhage (1962) are exhibited here for the first time. In a 2009 interview for the Archives of American Art, Schneemann explained, "It's the influence of my painting that inspired or motivated Stan to leave black-and-white film and begin to look more intensively at nature and natural form…I felt he was in a dead end with the black-and-white psychodramas with his amazing visuality and eye. Tenney brought us to music and to structures of composition.”
Brakhage connected Schneemann and Tenney with artist Joseph Cornell, whom Schneemann would later assist for a short period. During this time, Tenney and Schneemann also made important, generative visits to poet Charles Olson and musician Carl Ruggles. Many of the works presented in this exhibition explore Schneemann’s relationships to these male counterparts, or as the artist referred to them, “Art Stud Club.” The works Schneemann generated in tandem with and in opposition to these male peers were both positive and negative reflections; as she explained: “Works that I hate have also been inspirational; they helped me know exactly what I wasn’t going to do. Some of my anti-influences have been contemporary works not considered reactionary in any way, or at least not in the time of their realization.”
If the relationship between Schneemann and Tenney was one of equals, the same could not be said for her experience with Brakhage, Cornell, or Olson. In 1962 Schneemann and Tenney embarked on a pilgrimage of sorts to Gloucester, Massachusetts to meet Olson. For months after the trip, Schneemann worked on a massive construction, Maximus at Gloucester (1963) using driftwood, lobster traps, nets, and debris collected while walking on the beach with the poet. As the artist recounted in 2007:
Walking with the great man he asked me what I did. And I said, “I’m a painter and I’m using dimensional elements and even movement and speech.” Olson, hulking, shook his head, and said, “Well, you probably don't remember, but when the Greeks let the cunts begin to speak, theater was destroyed.” And I thought, “Oh, this is something important.” Amid all the other resistances, here's my cultural hero telling me again: “You can do whatever you imagine you should do, but don't expect us to respect it. And maybe, maybe you have to shut up.”
Schneemann did no such thing. That same year, Schneemann activated her painting constructions in her iconic series Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for the Camera with her friend Erró behind the camera. Her ensuing art career continued to be riddled with censorship, which both stymied and stimulated her deconstruction of patriarchal conventions for the next four decades – leaving the next generation a new path to traverse.
Carolee Schneemann (1939- 2019) received a B.A. in poetry and philosophy from Bard College and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois. Her work has been exhibited worldwide, and is in the permanent collection of major public institutions including Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Centre Pompidou, Paris, France; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA; San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, CA; Tate Museum, London, UK; The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; among many others. The comprehensive retrospective Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting traveled from Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, Austria (2015), to the Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, Germany (2017) and MoMA PS1, New York (2018). And in 2022, the major survey Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics was on view at the Barbican Art Centre, London, UK. In 2017, Schneemann was awarded Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion, honoring lifetime achievement.