Up to and Including The New Museum's Limits

by Dominique Nahas



Up To And Including Her Limits is the first retrospective of the significant artist, sculptor, theoretician, video/performance artist and filmmaker Carolee Schneemann in the United States. This fact alone is good news. The well intentioned, but cursory, way this exhibition is organized is the bad news. It begins with a small early seminal landscape from 1959, and closes with Mortal Coils, a re-installation (and not a very good one, for reasons I'll go into later) of a work done at the Penine Hart Gallery in 1994. This exhibition also marks the beginning of Senior Curator Dan Cameron's tenure at the Museum. This exhibition has long been awaited by art historians interested in seeing the course of American feminism since the sixties charted with some accuracy and definitiveness. The New Museum had formerly done admirable cultural work in this domain in scheduling, for example, On Representation and Sexuality in 1984, Mary Kelly's Interim in 1990, the American retrospective Nancy Spero: Works Since 1950 which I had originally organized and curated for the Everson Museum in 1987, and which arrived at The New Museum in 1988. The Spero show at that time was accorded the entire space at the Museum, as befitted an artist of Spero's stature and historical importance. Girls Night Out (1988) and Bad Girls (1994) were also landmark exhibitions charting the course and questioning the value system of so-called "feminine" sensibilities in art.

Currently at The New Museum you will we see a condensed retrospective exhibition of a major artist that is shoe-horned into place in order to make room for three near-mediocre installations by younger artists who don't deserve the Museum's time, the space and the attention for different reasons: Teresita Fernandez because her concurrent pool installation at Deitch Projects is largely superior to the New Museum's two way mirror room, Nedko Solakov because his cutesy, untransformed notes and doodles (the press release calls these the artist's "interventions" another example of the lazy application of overextended, and now meaningless, art jargon) on printed flower wall paper. presumes to pass for engaging conceptual art, and Hale Tenger because of the banal obviousness of her visual conceits.

If the cramped installation accorded Schneemann's work, and the small amount of her theoretical writings that have surfaced in conjunction with this show's catalog is any indication of the curatorial state of affairs at the institution in question the thought that the New Museum is planning a retrospective of Hannah Wilke's work next year fills me with a sense of foreboding.

Schneemann is a major American artist who's visual and filmic work and theoretical writings on the importance of sensuality as it informs a body-mind unity makes her a seminal figure in feminist politics and modern performance art. It is deeply regretful, then, to see The New Museum squander this opportunity to offer the public a definitive exhibition as well as a definitive catalog on her. This is doubly ironic because in the catalog each of the writers bemoan how important Schnemann is historically as one of the neglected founders of Body Art, and how awful it is that younger performance artists have appropriated her strategies (Finley, Acker, Beth B, Barney) without Schneemann being given her proper due. However in the end, The New Museum, in the exhibition's abbreviated form, does what it purportedly sets out to correct. It, too, subtly participates in the "past suppression, exclusion and neglect" (to quote from a 1994 roundtable discussion of sixties art by October magazine editors) of Body Art by historians (Schneemann's "istorians") and theorists of visual art by shortchanging the artist, allocating her a token amount of space and a non-definitive retrospective catalog.

In this light, art historian Kristin Stiles's complaint of The New Museum's editing out of crucial segments of her critical catalog text is distressing. This missed opportunity to see a fully developed retrospective of Schneemann's work is doubly damaging because it displays a half-hearted effort on the part of The New Museum and because it also pre-empts any other American institution's initiative from taking on a Schneemann retrospective project (I mean a real one) and doing the job that should have been done to begin with. Sadly, then, it will be up to the European art community to do justice to one of our own living cultural treasures.

In this regard it is also another missed opportunity on the part of the cultural community here for Schneemann not to be one of the finalists for Guggenheim's first Hugo Boss Prize. There has surely never been a more deserving, historically-significant candidate who single-handedly trailblazed the aesthetic conventions of several of this year's younger market-promoted candidates. In the meantime we will have to make do with the small, and sensitively written catalog by Cameron, Stiles, and David Levi Strauss which is hardly sufficient to cover the complexity and daring of Schneemann's phenomenologically based feminism. The historical record, now ably filled by editor Bruce McPherson's More Than Meat Joy, will be joined with Stiles's forthcoming 1997 compendium It Only Happens Once: The Letters and Performances of Carolee Schneemann (Johns Hopkins University Press) next year and with Jay Murphy's Imaging Her Erotics: The Body Politics of Carolee Schneemann (MIT Press), also anticipated for publication next year.

The Schneemann show at The New Museum gives us a few of the " greatest hits" of the artist's career comprised of selections of paintings, collages, constructions and photo grids and drawings as well as video segments from the artist's historic performances. The exhibition's selections include the early Cornell-inspired constructions NATIVE BEAUTIES, 1962/4, and MUSIC BOX MUSIC, 1964, the brilliant mixed media painting LETTER TO LOU ANDREAS SALOME, 1965, the re-created performance piece of the legendary art-in-a- body-harness work Up To and Including Her Limits (the ultimate in action painting/process/conceptual art), EYE BODY photos, 1963, the videotaped performance HOMERUNMUSE, 1977, MEAT JOY, 1964 photos, the justly famous INTERIOR SCROLL, 1975, and the VIDEO ROCKS, 1989, installation. The re-creation of the powerful mourning piece MORTAL COILS, 1994, commemorating the deaths of fifteen of the artists friends who died within a twenty-four month stretch, seems stilted and cold compared to the original set-up at Penine Hart because of the shallow space accorded to the piece.

Among the important works not included in the exhibit are the sculptures WAR MOP, 1983, VENUS VECTORS, 1987 and PLAGUE COLUMN, 1996.

In spite of the exhibition's limitations, the vitality of Schneemann's cultural contribution makes the Up To And Including Her Limits exhibition a must see.

Copyright ©1996 Dominique Nahas & REVIEW All Rights Reserved


Dominique Nahas is former chief curator of contemporary art at Everson Museum and former director of the Neuberger Museum. He is now an independent curator, critic and art historian.