Long before the world went gaga for Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy and Interior Scroll, those fun, fleshy works in which human forms were both the media and the message, she was developing a body of work of her body at work. At 16, she began studying art at Bard College, which quickly suspended her for the temerity of making a self-portrait in the nude. (She was free, of course, to pose nude for other, male painters.) An untitled watercolor from 1957 in PPOW’s welcome retrospective, “Of Course You Can’t/Don’t You Dare,” shows what the administration was so afraid of: a woman finding herself interesting, and in that interest making something astounding that, in its bold execution, doesn’t wait for a response.
PPOW’s show takes its name from the damned-if-you-do patriarchal bind Schneemann unknotted, and fast. Six years after that portrait, she had made her way through art schools and encounters with a group she called the “Art Stud Club”—artists Stan Brakhage and Joseph Cornell, and poet Charles Olson—whose artistic strategies she already integrated and whose sexism became a muse. Or, as she called it, “anti-inspiration.”
PPOW’s gallery is stocked with boxes equal to Cornell’s blockbuster work, but with boundary-pushing power all their own. During a walk on the beach with Olson, during which he said some dumb things about how women ruin art, she collected the materials from which she made the spiky assemblage Maximus at Gloucester (1963), including lobster traps and broken glass. In the back, PPOW has installed the 1963-65 masterpiece Fuses she made with longtime lover and collaborator James Tenney, a film that proves what Brakhage’s gorgeous if sometimes cold experimental films might have needed was more dick pics.
Of course, Schneemann’s work is far from misandrist. Her drawings and paintings of Tenney that open the show radiate with erotic and amorous interest, and her drawings of Brakhage and his wife Jane, shown here for the first time, are, in their own ways, equally intimate. But herself was Schneemann’s greatest subject. (Apart from darling cat Kitch, who makes several appearances that demand their own show.) Don’t you dare miss the epic show closer, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for the Camera (1963), a collaboration with photographer Erró in which her body and her setting, a former fur factory, merge and shimmer and upset and beguile their way into art history. She moved on to even bigger achievements, but here’s where it all began, in worlds of men saying yes or no to her, and her replying just watch me.