Breaking the Frame: Carolee Schneemann's Naked Truths

Early in the documentary Breaking the Frame, Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939) displays for the camera a headless chipmunk; we can infer the culprit through an abrupt edit from the bloody carcass to a cat sunning itself on a windowsill. Director Marielle Nitoslawska's faith in the power of imagery over pedantic exposition rewards the audience with a heady catalog of Schneemann's luscious paintings, expressionistic collages, hand-illustrated journals, visceral photographs, and excerpts from her corporeal films. The chipmunk murder occurs in the upstate New York farmhouse where Schneemann has spent much of her adult life; crammed with artworks and mementos, it is almost as much a star of the documentary as the artist herself. (She is too forceful a presence to be a mere subject, and the sometimes-murky shots of dried-up frogs, animal jawbones, feathers and other preserved fauna that share space with her archives can seem like props from a psychological thriller.)

Schneemann tells Nitoslawska's camera how she saved her babysitting money to visit an art school in Philadelphia, at which she “smelled heavenly, intoxicating oil paint,” experiencing a “delirium of something wonderful.” (Nitoslawska achieves her own form of engaging delirium by marrying kaleidoscopically edited archival footage with overlapping conversations and an eclectic musical score by Schneemann's onetime lover, the avant-garde composer James Tenney.)

Schneemann began painting seriously in the late 1950s, and you can see the influence of abstract expressionism and Robert Rauschenberg's formal chaos in her work. Chaffing against a misogynist art world—which, as with much of the rest of midcentury America, saw women as mothers first, homemakers second, and not much beyond—Schneemann was restless to move past the confines of her canvases and “the exclusive male avant garde” to embrace the desires and torments of the human body. In Fuses (1965), she painted and layered collages upon 16mm film of herself and Tenney making love. Briefly excerpted here, Fuses was a big influence on such major contemporaries as Stan Brakhage; Schneemann has said that she wanted her 18-minute tour de force to “put into that materiality of film the energies of the body, so that the film itself dissolves and recombines and is transparent and dense—as one feels during lovemaking.” Sumptuous and carnal, Fuses was borderline illegal; Schneemann tells a laughing audience how one of the “kind of gangsters” who developed the negatives said of the cunnilingus scene, “Boy, if I tried that on my wife, she'd kick me out to hell.”

Schneemann's relationships were volatile. An abortion she had (illegal at the time) is addressed in the documentary through photos of her and Tenney, a beautiful couple immersed in art, as she narrates: “Simple. Horrible. Profound.” In 1975's Interior Scroll, she pulled a ribbon of text from her vagina, including a statement from a male filmmaker: “There are certain films/we cannot look at/the personal clutter/the persistence of feelings/the hand-touch sensibility/the diaristic indulgence/the painterly mess/the dense gestalt/the primitive techniques.” His unwitting paean to Schneemann's gifts could also be describing her serial enlargements of grainy newspaper photos of people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade towers, splayed figures to which she ascribes “our own vertiginous grief, rage and sorrow.”

At one point, Schneemann sums up her various permutations of paint, anger, joy and naked flesh: “It's not a provocation. I have this sort of naive streak where I think I'm going to show them something they need to see.”


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