Radical performance artist

Born: October 12, 1939;

Died: March 6, 2019

CAROLEE Schneemann, who has died aged 79, always insisted she was a painter, not a performance artist, but the radical American artist created seminal and frequently shocking works which, in the use of her own naked body as expressive force, never failed to provoke. “Don't bring your underaged children or grandchildren,” wrote one gallery visitor to a showing of her 1967 film Fuses, in which Schneemann makes love to her then-husband, James Tenney, apparently seen through the eyes of their cat. “Don't bring your grandmother or other relatives. Don't bring any of your out-of-town guests. The current exhibit is awful. I don't know what it is, but it isn't art.”

Schneemann polarised her audiences. Critically ignored until the 1990s, her pioneering work opened up the female experience of sexuality at a time when all depictions and discussions of sensuality were dominated by a “patriarchal morality” to which she, and many other contemporary women artists, did not subscribe.

Born in 1939 in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania, Schneemann (who had taken on this surname as a way of distancing herself from her family's low expectations) won a full painting scholarship to Bard College, Illinois, from which she was briefly suspended for “moral turpitude”, eventually studying for an MFA at the University of Illinois. Her early works were in a neo-Dada style with expressive strokes of paint on canvas, although very soon the attitude of her teachers and the male-dominated hierarchy of the 1960s artworld engendered a strong and individual feminism. Schneemann began experimenting with “happenings” in 1962, inviting friends to work through the tornado-damaged detritus of her garden in Illinois for a work she called A Journey Through a Disrupted Landscape.

In New York, she scraped a living working as a life model, a porn film extra (“you only had to stand there in a black dress”) and teaching at Sunday School. She participated in happenings organised by Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg and Yoko Ono, amongst others, reflecting her own experimentation.

An early foray into painting “beyond the canvas” was Eye Body (1963), a series of theatrical stills of Schneemann imagined as part of the landscape of canvas and paint. Nude, smeared in paint, glue and feathers, sometimes seen close up through a shattered mirror, sometimes recessed into the materials around her, the work was rejected as narcissism by her tutors – a repeated criticism of her work for decades - but Schneemann wanted to repossess the female nude from the male-oriented art historical tradition.

In 1964, her work Meat Joy, a writhing of semi-nude performers, raw fish, chicken, sausages, rope brushes, plastic and paint, shocked a new audience, to the extent that one man at the premiere in Paris tried to strangle her. As always, it was the idea of women's sensuality having as much right to exist as men's, that underpinned the work.

Schneemann called Meat Joy a response to the 1960s “male artistic obsession with giving birth”, claiming the female experience for their own. In 1967, she took things a stage further with Fuses, the film itself painted and marked by the artist to an experimental soundtrack by her composer husband. “I had never seen anything in my culture that corresponded to what sexuality felt like. I wondered what it would look like, if it would be different if I filmed it. It turned out it was different,” she said. It was rejected by America's 1960s feminists as “playing into the male tradition”, a conclusion which Schneemann struggled with.

And yet her work was accepted as feminism itself developed, notably with works such as Up to and Including Her Limits (1973-76), in which she was suspended, naked, in a tree surgeon's harness, the movement of her body allowing her outstretched hand to mark lines on a canvas structure. In 1975, Interior Scroll saw the artist respond to criticisms of her work by reading from a long scroll which she pulled out of her vagina.

“In the beginning,” Schneemann said in a recent interview, “I had no precedent for being valued. Everything that came from women's experience was considered trivial. I wasn't sure if my work would shift that paradigm or not, but I had to try.”

For Schneemann, the artistic body was just that, her use of her own form singular and revolutionary in an art scene which had not seen anything like her work before. She incarnated, in many ways, life as art, using every aspect of her existence to articulate her ideas, although she stopped performing with her own body in 1975, saying it had become “entrapping”. Since the 1990s, her work has been recognised for its pioneering avant garde nature, and included in group shows dedicated to the Fluxus movement, and solo retrospectives at major art institutions in Europe and America.

If her performative work with sexuality and the female experience defined her in the public eye, she also worked extensively with the fallout of war, from her visceral early work Viet Flakes (1965) which showed images of the dead and dying in Vietnam, to Terminal Velocity (2011), a work produced and shown a month after 9/11. Shocking and direct, the work enlarged newspaper images of nine people who had jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers, articulating, Schneemann felt, the raw grief at the loss of life.

She is survived by a brother and sister.

SARAH UNWIN JONES