This exhibition brings together three compelling and provocative artists – Susan Hiller, John Latham and Carolee Schneemann – who coalesced briefly in London at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ’70s. This trio represents not only a metaphorical meeting of minds, but a shared language around ideas of material and conceptual experimentation, as well as destruction and dematerialization in art. Fire is a central motif, with Latham and Schneemann taking a torch to their book and box works respectively – in what he dubbed his Skoob works (books spelled backwards) and she called Controlled Burnings, which gives the exhibition its title. Hiller also reduced whole bodies of her own paintings to ashes, storing them in glass vials for her longstanding, annual Relics series, shown here as the incendiary Hand Grenades (1972). If painting was one of many starting points for all three artists, it was the eventual transformation of their extensive object-based, conceptual and performative practices through the ritualistic use of, not just flame, but spit, glue, violence and dreams (to name just a few of the alchemical forces involved), which ultimately grouped them together as pioneers of an emerging, alternative and transgressive international art scene.
The earliest works here are Latham’s paintings featuring metallic or machinic fragments and configurations of books – variously splayed, burned and sprayed – as though knowledge itself had been distorted and stuck in place for so long that only a radical baptism of fire could rewire and release its messages anew. Schneemann’s box constructions from the same era are flame-licked interior worlds, containing personal memorabilia and studio detritus alongside shards of self-reflexive glass and mirror. Hiller’s handprint paintings, cut and sewn-up canvas blocks and Home assemblage, all tackling gender stereotyped notions around art making, also suggest an annihilation of art-historical precursors, especially of self-portraiture and auto-biographical tropes.
If Schneemann’s early sculptural constructions of broken glass and burnt wood were made in advance of her move to London, it was during this time that she sought to go beyond the assemblage into works that moved off the canvas or the wall, as in One Window is Clear (1965), in which audio tape spills onto the floor, evoking a soundtrack no longer heard. Entering increasingly into the realms of performance and dance, a Controlled Burning box work of 1962 pays homage to Yvonne Rainer, who performed in Schneemann’s first piece for the Living Theater, Glass Environment for Sound and Motion (1962), and who would take part in many more Judson Theater performances. Schneemann first visited London in 1964 to stage her famous and controversial Meat Joy, which would bring what she called “flesh jubilation” to the UK and led to her returning five years later for an extended and highly productive period.
Latham too was entering the most provocative phase of his career, staging the Skoob Tower Ceremonies (1964-68) – burning three-meter-high stacks of books outside the Law Courts, the British Museum and at the ‘Destruction in Art Symposium’ of 1966. This was the same year in which he performed the Spit and Chew event that saw him fired from his teaching post, for masticating and distilling the pages of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture with his students.
Hiller moved to London from the US a year or so before her ‘Fluxus Friend’ Schneemann, forming part of a cadre of outspoken artists foregrounding feminist discourse, performance, female representation and solidarity. This fervent atmosphere of collaborative discussion and practice orbited many innovative Sixties London venues such as Gallery House (now Goethe-Institut), AMP (Art Meeting Place) and Arts Lab, where Schneemann lived briefly upon her arrival in 1969. There were also independent, like-minded spaces, such as the short-lived Signals as well as Lisson Gallery, where Latham showed from 1970 onwards and where Schneemann met her partner-to-be, the artist Anthony McCall.
Together and separately, these artists interrogated and deconstructed the act of painting and sculpting into performative, ritualized and bodily potential – fueled by fire, threatened by existential danger and united by radicality.
508 W 24th St, New York, NY 10011