“The Cat Is My Medium”: Notes on the Writing and Art of Carolee Schneemann

August 9, 1984, Thursday. My relationship with my cat has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance.
—William Burroughs

For several years, Carolee Schneemann has presented an ever-evolving performative lecture about her work, starting with drawings she made at the ages of four and seven. I first saw it in 2009 at St. Mark’s Church. She danced to the podium to the rhythm of the pop song “Crazy,” holding a long notched stick used for gesturing linearity and a rope indicating circularity, lassoing her body.1 In March of 2015, in connection with her show as the featured artist of Hunter College’s Artist Institute, she, or really it, entered through a door behind the audience, situated in a wheelchair as a large bumpy package wrapped in white paper with a red bow. Her assistant rolled this object up the aisle to the podium. After he took his seat, Schneemann’s hands punched through the paper, tearing off the bow. There she sat beaming at the audience. With effort she pushed herself out of the wheelchair (“applause please,” she prompted the audience) and moved gracefully, walking stick in hand, to the podium. Articulate and engaged with her audience as ever, Schneemann performs this body, here in 2015, that same iconic body of female desire and expressive sexuality seen in her work of the 1960s and 1970s.

 Carolee Schneemann and Anthony McCall, Christmas card, 1971 (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist). Schneemann and McCall are shown with their cats Kitch and Bathsheeba in London, 1971.
Carolee Schneemann and Anthony McCall, Christmas card, 1971 (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist). Schneemann and McCall are shown with their cats Kitch and Bathsheeba in London, 1971.

She introduced her talk with what she calls “iconographic retrospective images” that are “predictive of the future.” Among them is “this narrative of the cat,” two drawings she made as a young child, one of which Schneemann calls The Exuberant Cat, a pencil sketch of a cat popping out of a box that “seems to be greeting people.” The lines are all motion—multiple paws, legs, and tail extended, reaching to the sky with “his paws up in the air with these lines of energy coming out of it.” In her uncompromising, career-long engagement with a female-centric epistemology and sexuality, in which “vulva” is the originating signifier of language and culture, rather than the heteronormative phallus, Schneemann is known to have worked primarily in performance art and experimental films.2 But as demonstrated in the following portfolio of writings on Kitch, her cat from 1956 to 1976, she has excelled in two more mediums. While both are evident to anyone who has followed Schneemann’s career, neither has yet to be explored in any depth or seriousness—her skills as a poetic writer and the cat as a medium.3

Art in the Age of the Cat Video

The cat as subject matter, not to mention as a medium, is obviously a loaded topic, never more so than today, when the viral cat video and unbearably affecting cat celebrities such as Lil Bub or Grumpy Cat rule the Internet, fill up Facebook, and, most relevant for this essay, pitter-pat their way into the contemporary art world.4 When the Walker Art Museum presented the first Internet Cat Video Festival in 2012, it was trying to enlarge its audience and to introduce the cat video as a genre of contemporary art. The curators’ description situates the festival and the cat video comfortably within relational aesthetics or social practice: “The Internet Cat Video Festival emerged in 2012 from the Community Programs and Education Department [ECP] and Open Field, a platform of crowdsourced content in the spirit of collaboration and building community.”5

The following year, Rhonda Lieberman’s overstuffed Cat Show took place at White Columns in New York City. The venue’s website introduced the project with a quote from New York Magazine as “Highbrow Brilliant.” It also quoted the critic Jerry Saltz: “Ladies and Gentleman, cats and kitties, I give you a show that deserves to travel to every small museum and university gallery in the country. . . . Go. See. Purr. Pine.”6 The show represented work by nearly one hundred artists yet included none of Schneemann’s many projects. Also in 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited the exhibition Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations, and in summer 2014, for Manifestation 10, held in St. Petersburg, the artist Erik Van Lieshout spent two months with his team renovating the dingy basement of the glorious Hermitage, home to some seventy cats (first installed there by the mid-eighteenth century Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great, to stem the overflow of mice and rats).

But as far as meta-explorations of cats and art are concerned, the bar was set in 1994 with the publication of Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics, marketed as “a comedy book” written by the New Zealand author Burton Silver and illustrated by Heather Busch. The same duo also produced Why Paint Cats: The Ethics of Feline Aesthetics (2002) and Dancing with Cats (2004), and have branched out into non-Western aesthetic and erotic traditions in Kokigami: Performance Enhancing Adornments for the Adventurous Man (2000)—an instruction manual, templates included, for constructing preposterously inventive origami cock pieces. Much more than merely the funny novelty items that most people consider them, Why Cats Paint and Silver’s less-well-known MONPA (Museum of Non Primate Art) are in truth robust and screamingly intelligent contributions to conceptual art, completely in line with Duchamp’s In Advance of a Broken Arm or L’Air de Paris.7 On the MONPA website one finds examples of just how much Silver is cognizant, if not actively engaged in, a critique of the discourses of the art-industrial complex:

The following research grants are currently available. Applicants should prepare detailed supporting material for consideration by the MONPA research grants committee in order to demonstrate an ability to: Undertake a study of the dermatology of the feline paw as it relates to the over-use of scented acrylics and resulting post-painting morbidity of the cuticle with a view to developing a paw protection device.
. . .
Endowed Scholarships:
Jack Jensen Scholarship Fund. Established in 1994 for veterinary students who have demonstrated an interest in and commitment to feline dance injuries.
. . .
The Susan Haynes Scholarship fund. Established in 1986 to provide assistance to a deserving chemistry student who shows an interest in the formulation of non-toxic paints for cats.8

If Silver and Busch had presented themselves as contemporary artists and waited just a few more years into the twenty-first century, who’s to say they wouldn’t be mounting an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, or publishing Why Cats Paint in the University of Minnesota Press’s prestigious Posthumanties series edited by Cary Wolfe, or included as a chapter in Steve Baker’s 2013 Artist/Animal (also published in the Posthumanities series), or his earlier Postmodern Animal?

Carolee Schneemann, The Exuberant Cat, made at age four, 1943, pencil on paper, 7 x 5 in. (17.8 x 12.7 cm) (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)
Carolee Schneemann, The Exuberant Cat, made at age four, 1943, pencil on paper, 7 x 5 in. (17.8 x 12.7 cm) (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)

The Exuberant Cat

Midway through her talk at Hunter, the image of The Exuberant Cat appears again behind Schneemann, and she asks the audience, “Why do I go back to The Exuberant Cat just now?” Another photo appears, of a building, evidently in mid-construction, with strokes of narrow metal jutting out from the top, which looks remarkably similar to her cat in the box with the exuberant paws. “What the hell is that?” she asks. “I’m standing on a street corner in Liverpool, England where I am installing Precarious at Tate Liverpool, about to be run over, saying, ‘This reminds me of something.’”9 The two images are presented side by side. “And there it is, a visual association stretching forty years.” She adds, “The cat with upraised arms looks very much like one of my gestures when I’m naked and in the tree in Up to and Including Her Limits.” In one photo of Up to and Including Her Limits, taken by Allen Tannenbaum in 1976 at a live performance at The Kitchen, the dead body of Kitch lies nearby on a small plinth draped with a cloth. I asked about this photograph, and Schneemann told me Kitch had died ten days before the performance:

I wanted Kitch in the Kitchen performance. She was very lightly taxidermied so that I could keep her with me for the preparation and duration of the presentation. While alive, she had travelled with me and appeared in various incarnations of Up To and Including Her Limits. She enjoyed being with me, being part of some aesthetic event.10

In other words, the Kitchen performance was also an act of ritual mourning for Kitch. She was present throughout the creation of Up to and Including Her Limits, so her death was honored, as in Schneemann’s film Kitch’s Last Meal, as spirit guide and participant in the “aesthetic event.”

For Schneemann, the import of the presence of Kitch in her work was clarified in 1974 at a retrospective of her films at the Pacific Film Archive/Berkeley University Art Museum, when she asked audience members

what they thought the constant presence of Kitch was? (that it was simply 18 years together.) There was a tiny flurry in a high back row; a young woman clasping her hands, man at her side giving her the elbow which means “go ahead, go on” and she said “the cat is your medium.”
THE CAT IS MY MEDIUM. Absolutely true in so far as her awareness of space and time influenced the development of my Kinetic Theater . . . constantly, precisely. But further than that and the obvious spirit link she represents (or releases) is the fact that I consider myself a painter still and forever (no matter what “medium”)—SO THE CAT IS TURPENTINE!11

It is hard not to associate the word “turpentine” with the infamous accusation of “moral turpitude” for which Schneemann was dismissed from Bard College in her junior year.12 As with her uncompromising devotion to the sensuous and the sexual as a form of intelligence and pedagogy, “the spirit” of turpentine/turpitude is at once medicinal and a solvent.

Carolee Schneemann, Up to and Including Her Limits, 1973–76, performance, live video relay, crayon on paper, rope, harness suspended from ceiling, dead Kitch on a plinth. The Kitchen, New York, 1976 (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph by Allen Tannenbaum, provided by the artist)
Carolee Schneemann, Up to and Including Her Limits, 1973–76, performance, live video relay, crayon on paper, rope, harness suspended from ceiling, dead Kitch on a plinth. The Kitchen, New York, 1976 (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph by Allen Tannenbaum, provided by the artist)

Furthermore, the cat is not only a medium, but a being from which she has learned many lessons.

I’m blessed with muse-cats who have inspired and guided my work. The lessons include: improvisation in space with found materials; risk and self-confidence linked in physical action; unrestrained tenderness and demonstrative love and affection; they have instructed as to the transitions between visible and invisible; they have clarified the motion between domestic worlds and a scale of landscape inaccessible to humans; they have heightened my concentration, patience; taught me the ability to sit in total stillness and react instantaneously; they have enlarged and shifted my scale of perceptions, combined charming wit with psychological welfare and absorb anxiety and turn it into purring contentment; they have clarified the presence and power of the para-normal and have expressed inspired joyful devotion.13

She even acknowledges Kitch’s own talent in an entry on a timeline that commemorates an event almost four decades before Why Cats Paint was published: “1957 Kitch makes a painting with shoe polish and a small polish brush.”14

Kitch

When she was a child in rural Pennsylvania, every cat was a Tommy. Later someone would say, “I thought you had twelve cats all named Kitch.”15

You know Kitch, I know Kitch, the history of avant-garde film knows Kitch. Schneemann began to film Kitch’s Last Meal when Kitch was seventeen, having no idea the cat would live for another three years. Kitch’s Last Meal is the distillation of the years when Schneemann lived with Anthony McCall in her seventeenth-century home in New Paltz, New York, where she lives to this day. It was originally shot on 8mm film and edited into two separate reels projected vertically, one above the other, and lasted five hours.16

Carolee Schneemann, Kitch’s Last Meal, 1973–76, Super 8mm film, double projection, vertical, sound on cassette, ca. 5 hrs., two installation views (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photographs provided by the artist)
Carolee Schneemann, Kitch’s Last Meal, 1973–76, Super 8mm film, double projection, vertical, sound on cassette, ca. 5 hrs., two installation views (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photographs provided by the artist)
Carolee Schneemann, Kitch’s Last Meal, 1973–76, Super 8mm film, double projection, vertical, sound on cassette, ca. 5 hrs., two installation views (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photographs provided by the artist)
Carolee Schneemann, Kitch’s Last Meal, 1973–76, Super 8mm film, double projection, vertical, sound on cassette, ca. 5 hrs., two installation views (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photographs provided by the artist)

It is difficult to describe the intricacy of the artistry of this film. The film grounds and soars, hurts and warms, as the everyday matter of domestic intimacy is presented in rhythms synchronized and pulled apart between the dual projections. Kitch’s Last Meal is a stellar example of the era of celluloid experimental cinema, but it does something unique: it “fuses” the diaristic mode of Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage with the materialist cinema of Peter Kubelka, Paul Sharits, and even Michael Snow. It is an outlier in the traditional histories of that great moment of avant-garde film. As Brett Kashmere puts it in a recent issue of Millennium Film Journal focusing on Schneemann’s films,

Kitch’s Last Meal is ultimately a paradox that eludes interpretation and classification: a groundbreaking work of expanded cinema, which typically privileges form over content and emotion, it is also a fragile, heartfelt tribute to a beloved companion; it combines the raw intimacy of a private diary with the universal themes of an arch narrative.17

But Kitch’s Last Meal is not the only the work of Schneemann’s that is formally inspired by and includes “the narrative of the cat.” There are, of course, Fuses (1967) and Infinity Kisses (1981–88), but also Cat Scan (1988), More Wrong Things (2001), Mysteries of the Pussies (1998/2010), and Precarious (2009).

Carolee Schneemann, Kitch’s Last Meal, 1973–76, installation plan (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)
Carolee Schneemann, Kitch’s Last Meal, 1973–76, installation plan (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)

First Memory/Art Istory

First memory. It was not an object so much as a bundle of sensations. She is a baby. A crawling balance of limbs and flesh where the world is all sensation and touch generated by movement and breath. Language has yet to frame and determine the affect of her every feeling and experience. She is a cloud of living presence. Suddenly a being, all warmth and soft liveliness, whiskers and fur, pierces that cloud of Only-I-Am-the-World of the baby’s existential experience, and for the first time, she experiences a world outside herself. The encounter activates that crucial moment when a child realizes there is a something that is not-me, an external world, beyond her own body, and the concept of the “I” is formed.18

before I could walk, crawling along a floor, I came upon an amazing presence also walking on the floor. It had huge eyes, whiskers, upstanding ears and luscious soft fur and I believe I shrieked with delight.19

In 1963, some thirty years later, Brakhage—the high school best friend of Schneemann’s lover, the composer and pianist James Tenney—writes one of the most important texts of American avant-garde cinema. In hindsight, it is remarkable how close Schneemann’s account of her first memory is to Brakhage’s famous opening paragraph of “Metaphors on Vision.”

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green”? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and unimaginable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the “beginning was the word.”20

Think of the “untutored eye” that draws a cat on a leash at age seven, “an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must
know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.” Or as Schneemann puts it in 2015, “Note the vertical connection of the leash of the cat to an invisible person. We don’t know where that leash goes. Where are the feet? And here we have the personification of the cat as the main figuration that faces me.”21

Carolee Schneemann, Cat on Leash, made at age seven, ca. 1946, pen on notepaper, 9 x 4 in. (22.9 x 10.2 cm) (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)
Carolee Schneemann, Cat on Leash, made at age seven, ca. 1946, pen on notepaper, 9 x 4 in. (22.9 x 10.2 cm) (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)

The storied history of association and conflict that constitutes the relationship of Brakhage and Schneemann—as friends, fellow artists, and, now, members of the canon of experimental film history—is dense and in need of serious attention by scholars. For instance, characterizations of Brakhage’s status as a singular cine-genius elide his friendship with Tenney and Schneemann and the impact that Schneemann, in particular, had on the development of Brakhage as an artist. The sticky back-and-forth gossamer of influence and affinity between Brakhage and Schneemann is undoubtedly more visible now, but when I studied New American Cinema with Annette Michelson at New York University in the early 1980s, I learned all about Brakhage, Snow, Hollis Frampton, Bruce Conner, and Maya Deren, but nothing about Schneemann.

Interior Scroll

Scroll 2
(from Kitch’s Last Meal, Super-8mm film, 1975)

I met a happy man
a structuralist filmmaker
—but don’t call me that
it’s something I do—
he said we are fond of you
you are charming
but don’t ask us
to look at your films
we cannot
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 dance gestalt
the primitive techniques22

Although people often think the “happy structuralist filmmaker” is Anthony McCall, these phrases, which include “the painterly mess” and “the hand-touch sensibility,” are actually those of Annette Michelson. The “diaristic indulgence” undoubtedly refers to Fuses (1967), well-known for the formal choice of shooting the film “through the eyes of her cat,” a decision of cinematic editing that is quite different than Brakhage’s use of Kitch (and Schneemann) in Cat’s Cradle (1957), a film he described as “sexual witchcraft involving two couples and a ‘medium,’ cat.”23

Close comparison of Cat’s Cradle and Fuses reveals what Schneemann herself has called “the distancing effect” of Brakhage’s images, in other words, the convention of the male gaze in which the camera, as apparatus of male fantasy, creates a distance between subject and object.24 For instance, on a prosaic level, the camera’s objectification of the two woman in Cat’s Cradle is filmed and edited in a manner that makes it difficult to distinguish the filmmaker’s wife from the female friend. Not to mention Schneemann’s well-known discomfort with Brakhage’s insistence she wear an apron while cutting vegetables in the kitchen (especially vexing because the apron was a gift from Tenney’s mother).

Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, still, 1965, 16mm film, silent, 18 min. (photograph © Carolee Schneemann, provided by the artist)
Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, still, 1965, 16mm film, silent, 18 min. (photograph © Carolee Schneemann, provided by the artist)

Relying on witchy metaphors in his description of the film, metaphorizing the cat as familiar—a stand-in for the aura of bewitching sexuality of not just Jane Brakhage and Schneemann but Tenney as Schneemann’s lover—places the film securely within the history of the cat as a signifier of female sexuality, diabolically collapsed into the cat as “familiar” of the old crone or hysteric, or the bewitching subversive beauty witch.25 In The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, Robert Darnton writes, “Although the practice varied from place to place, the ingredients were everywhere the same: a feu de joie(bonfire), cats, and an aura of hilarious witch-hunting.”26 There was also the hideous practice of stuffing cats into women’s vaginas. Such acts of torture are now seen as aberrations, but the association lives on. Schneemann was herself informed she was not rehired at Rutgers because, as a colleague told her, “We thought you were a witch.”27 And then we only have to go online and look for a description of the film written in 2003 by Richard Oswald.

The fast pace of the cuts also mimic how a cat might see the world in front of its eyes. The film definitely feels sexual in nature; you grow attracted to it and almost can’t take your eyes away. The cat watches the people when they are by themselves and also when they are having sex. This makes the viewer feel as if they are participating in voyeurism along with the cat. But what’s very intriguing is how the cat seems like it has some power over the four, having them engage in sexual activity. Black cats can sometimes be associated with witchcraft, being that in the middle ages Black cats were thought to be reincarnated witches or possessed by them. So with this in mind it can very well be that the cat is casting some kind of spell on the two couples.28

Needless to say, the cat Oswald fantasizes as the bewitching black cat is Kitch, even though by 2003 she was pretty well known to be a gray Maltese.29

In Fuses, Kitch functioned as the figure of “shameless attention” (Schneemann) or, as B. Ruby Rich put it in a review written in 1979, “the impassive observer whose view of human sexuality is free of voyeurism and ignorant of morality.”29 In the 1960s, choosing to frame Kitch as the authorial eye of the film was not a mere gimmick, but a remarkably sophisticated and cutting intervention into issues that would be taken up by feminist film theory of the 1970s and 1980s: the male gaze and the female masquerade, not to mention the history of misogynistic associations of women and cats noted above. Nonetheless, at the time, and even today, giving Kitch the subject position of authorial control, when combined with the formal decisions Schneemann made in editing the film, came off more as an eccentricity of Schneemann’s, a metaphor rather than an ontological statement.30 We all knew Kitch wasn’t holding the camera.

But today, post-Haraway, post-Derrida, post–Temple Grandin, and in the era of animal studies, we give credence to Kitch as a figure involved in the subjectivity of the film, or at least in the sensuous experience of the film, in a way that was previously unthinkable. Not Kitch as cat, or Kitch as human, but formal decisions which give the effect of Kitch as authorial presence or subject position (camera swinging, camera taken into the bed, shot from windowsill), signifying a coproduction of a coshaped species that is neither just Schneemann’s (who is of course holding the Bolex) or Kitch’s, but a metaphorical eye-body of human animal fused with companion animal.

In the 1980s Schneemann’s inclusion of Kitch in Fuses was described as a ritual of “physical beings, members of a species, different in obvious ways from the animals and plants which live in proximity with” us.31 Contrast this with Carla Benzan’s statement from “The Lives and Deaths of Carolee’s Cats: Intimate Encounters, Gentle Transgressions and Incalcuable Ethics,” published in 2010:

The imbrication of animals and humans in both life and in death is not only represented for the viewer: it is lived by the artist and her companions. Kiss­i­ng them and mourning them throughout her life, and in her art, Schneemann engages the viewer actively through an embodied aesthetics of performance and visual abstraction, juxtaposition, superimposition and fragmentation. It is in this way that her works speak, so to speak, of an animal ethics.32

• • •

In the late 1950s, Stan and Jane Brakhage visited Schneemann and Tenney. It was during this visit that Schneemann painted the portrait of Jane Brakhage which Stan Brakhage “resented.”33 Schneemann’s account of those early years, recorded in 2013, is too rich to paraphrase. In it we learn not only of Stan Brakhage’s and Schneemann’s quite different relationships with the older Maya Deren in 1959, but the dramatic arch of anxieties of influence between Brakhage and Schneemann.

She [Deren] brings him [Brakhage] home and supports him. We find that somewhat disgraceful, but at the same time Brakhage requires being taken care of, so she cooks for us and then we need cigarettes and whiskey. She’s broke, but we’re kind of impoverished and she is a great artist and a mother figure. But for me it is a profound lesson. I’m never going to let this happen to me. I’m never going to be the artist who has to perform as a mother.
But all of this will change when Brakhage comes to stay with us. That’s later, and it produces great hideous headaches for Brakhage, who feels I bring with me malign spirits, which probably has to do with the the fact that I’m working at a factory pottery store, Bennington Potters, engraving symbols in the bottom of pots with a pin all day long. And then I don’t get it together to get enough food or have enough cigarettes in the house because after Brakhage stays with us for a week, there is nothing left in the cupboard at all. That was his pattern. It’s an old masculinist pattern that he grew up with. And that’s why in Cat’s Cradle he insists and insists that I wear an apron while he films me, while I’m making this majestic painting of Jane, the naked Jane, which he’s going to despise. He feels so impinged upon by the degree and the velocity of my art. And many many years later he’s going to tell an audience at MOMA, when he doesn’t know I’m in that audience, that “the paintings of my friend Carolee Schneemann really inspired me to look at nature and to use paint in my films,” and I thought I was going to melt in my chair—I’d waited forty years for this.34

Intimacy as Landscape

Before she made films, as a young painter, Schneemann experimented with a vibrant, visually fierce figurative abstraction. Like many a male painter before her, her early paintings were of her muse, in her case, the naked body of Tenney.

One might be inclined to interpret a work such as Personae: JT and the 3 Kitchs in relationship to the psychological expressionism of late Abstract Expressionism; in other words, here we have a young woman painter painting a traditional-figurative-abstract-still-life of her everyday life with her lover and cat. But there is more going on here. The painting, too, is part of the predictive iconography of Schneemann’s early work. After all the trouble she has had achieving recognition for her paintings, here we have a foundational work within her oeuvre, a painting that is not only predictive thematically—in other words, the abstracted yet visible presence of Tenney’s penis and testicles—but formally in terms of the presence of three Kitches. Personae is an instance of what Schneemann describes as the “terrible challenge of everything changing and shifting” when one paints a landscape:

So I really began as a landscape painter. I wanted to concentrate on the dynamic of simultaneous form and the terrible challenge of everything changing and shifting. No matter my attention, the wind comes and blows the configuration, my paints don’t dry out, I have to pee, landscape is constantly overwhelming.35

One can find connections in this quotation with her later affective and durational experimental cinema.

Carolee Schneemann, Personae: JT and the 3 Kitchs, 1957, oil on canvas, 32 x 50 in. (81.3 x 127 cm) (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)
Carolee Schneemann, Personae: JT and the 3 Kitchs, 1957, oil on canvas, 32 x 50 in. (81.3 x 127 cm) (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)

It is sometimes misunderstood that Schneemann’s interest in painting was psychological, when it was about observation, specifically, “carefully observing forms.”36 Kristine Stiles writes that Schneemann’s interest in Cézanne lay in “how Cézanne’s compositional techniques drew the eye into the picture and simultaneously, extended it back into the viewer’s own space.”37 But the space in Personae is not static. In other words, this is not just a portrait of the nude lover, but an account of time gently passing, signified by the three Kitches held in one frame, the qualities of dimensionality and form changing as Kitch moves about the sleeping Tenney. The expressive use of color signifies not only shadow and the three-dimensionality of form, but time, the changing wavelengths of light, the human body asleep as the peripatetic cat moves from its own moment of rest on the floor to perch on the bed. In Schneemann’s vocabulary, Personae is an instance of “My work is where I live”—the active durée of her everyday life; her relationships with lovers and cats and the moving landscape that is called life.38 The painting is a kind of condensed, painterly storyboard of her film work, not in the traditional presentation of sequential frames but according to her interest in “the dynamic of simultaneous form.”

In his introduction to the issue of Millennium Film Journal he guest-edited, with a focus on her film work, Kenneth White connects the manner in which Schneemann uses the material of the hand, the physical world of collaged layers of the film strip of Fuses, as a physicalization and concentration of time. After describing how Schneemann’s work print “was so thick with collaged materials that it could not pass through a printer unless it was advanced manually, one frame at a time,” White says, “Time is experienced in the extraordinary volume of the film strip time perceived in depth and weight, as matter.”39 Or we might want to say, time as mass, as body, as sleeping man on couch with the cat signifying temporality itself.

Mortal Coils

My work moves consistently from the ecstatic to the violent and the terrifying. It’s a balance that I continuously regard, depicting the great contradiction of violence and domesticity.40

Cats really are Schneemann’s “mortal coils”—the phrase she used as the title of a multimedia installation made in 1994–95 in response to the loss of several friends over a two-year period.41 The association with life and death is especially true of More Wrong Things (2001), produced after the death of Schneemann’s “magical cat” Treasure. The invitation to the exhibition is a photograph of Treasure that Schneemann discovered unexpectedly in her camera, weeks after Treasure had been hit by a car. “It was Treasure saying, here I am here.”42

Carolee Schneemann, announcement for the exhibition More Wrong Things, 2001, postcard with image of Treasure, 3 x 5 in. (7.6 x 12.7 cm) (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)
Carolee Schneemann, announcement for the exhibition More Wrong Things, 2001, postcard with image of Treasure, 3 x 5 in. (7.6 x 12.7 cm) (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)

At her public lecture in March 2015, a photograph of Treasure after the accident appeared as she spoke. Emotions of horror and discomfort filled the room, emitted as sighs, groans, and the sound of bodies shifting in seats. Schneemann paused, looked at the audience, and said, “That’s part of my need to look at things that we don’t want to see. You can all close your eyes, but I don’t.”

Photograph of Treasure after death, 2001 (photograph © Carolee Schneemann, provided by the artist)
Photograph of Treasure after death, 2001 (photograph © Carolee Schneemann, provided by the artist)

The detailed attention to the mortal coils of life and death is expressed with a similar candor in her writing on cats. Advising on care for a sick cat, she writes:

Listen to your cat; after many years together you’ve been
passing messages constantly; now it’s time to realize that how
much of the concentration and absorption of daily
procures has been considered and responded to by your cat;
our pets make great and generous adjustments to their impulses
wild aspects of their nature. Often what seems best for them
is actually what is necessary for us.

So listen carefully watch closefully; it doesn’t matter how
you receive the information on what your cat needs;
you may feel the cat tells you, an intuition, and idea, you don’t know
why but let the ideas move freely to you; Never stop speaking
to your companion; just because she is ill does not mean her
capacity to care, to respond, keep in lose contact is diminished;
the more you can express to the animal the more she will rally;
the companionship and love is as precious to the pet as it has been
to you; we continue our dance together.43

But the candor and close attention are also expressed in how the words spill out, not unlike the imagery of her films, all affect, fragmentation, and intimate perception.

And when your death interrupts our life together, it is not
only the constant terrible spacelessness, loss of my own past
as we carry it between us, but my present which shatters constantly
into glittering splinters covering, cutting this moment
into those past.
Yesterday you laid limp, crippled in the flower bed; my helplessness
was attacked on every side by simultaneous images unreeling of
these late summer days in Vermont, Illinois, New York, France,
London—each space we traveled together. Places linked by beams
of sunlight shining around you; the slant of shadow into which
you leapt sideways—mock aggression, fierce eyed; stretched out
along the hot sundrenched wall of alone in the castle of Menherbes, where
I sat mending, the vast valley falling below; or flew like grey
lightning through the high Illinois grasses to the porch where
I stood shaking a rug . . .44

listen carefully watch closefully It is not surprising poets were among the first and most lasting supporters of Schneemann’s work. Robert Kelley published “Hormone’s Circling” in Matter in 1963. In the mid-1950s, just barely out of her teenage years, Schneemann and her new lover Tenney took a trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to meet Charles Olson. One hears and sees this relationship to poetry and the poetic everywhere in Schneemann’s writing, as early as 1956 in a letter to Jack Ludwig.

Somebody gave us a kittenish face with a teeny weeny grey body; Kitch-frights example of Kitchhood; fearsome warrior. Sphinx of the bent knee and curly lap, conquers of hairy summits, nails peaks and pit-fall valleys. Guardian of the sleepers, gong and scratch of the morning. Moth snatcher, egg lapper, cat napped, wood tapper, eyed latched, neat crapper. Fluff ball. Dun and Gammon. furr purr fuss buzz. 1956 45

This young woman who opened so many mediums of visual art—painting, performance, film—with her body and sensuous intelligence would have done fine had she simply decided to be a writer. As with Yvonne Rainer, some of the best writings on the work of Schneemann are Schneemann’s own. But she always seems surprised, a bit disbelieving, when I mention that she is a gifted writer. When in early 2015 an interviewer, Wendy Vogel, observed that “You write in addition to making visual work,” Schneemann’s response had not a whiff of presumption to claim writing as a medium except as it is connected to her visual work: “The text is writing that comes out of research connected to the imagery. It’s not disruptive; it’s part of a coherent thought strain.”46 As with everything Schneemann makes with and from, all is connected.

Carolee Schneemann, Infinity Kisses, storyboard, 1981–88, sketch for wall installation of 140 photographs (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)
Carolee Schneemann, Infinity Kisses, storyboard, 1981–88, sketch for wall installation of 140 photographs (artwork © Carolee Schneemann; photograph provided by the artist)

In closing, it is evident that Schneemann is a total working artist, a living, breathing Gesamtkunstwerk. With the publication of this project in Art Journal, the world discovers not only another layer to Schneemann’s body of work, but a collection of rich material for cat enthusiasts as well as animal-studies scholars, influenced by the work of, among others, Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Francis de Waal, Cary Wolfe, and, most relevant for Schneemann’s work, Haraway. In fact, Haraway’s description of the co-constitution of a being, in the following quotation from When Species Meet, echoes beautifully with the kissing couple of Schneemann and her cat Vesper in Infinity Kisses.

We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story on story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love.47

As an account of this “nasty developmental infection” called love, Schneemann’s lifetime of art and writing on cats, argued in this essay as relevant to genres as varied as art history, feminist theory, animal studies, cat care manuals, cat humor, and poetry, only tells us once again how much Carolee Schneemann “belongs to multiple histories, yet slips between them all.”48


The epigraph is from William Burroughs, The Cat Inside (New York: Penguin, 1992), 46.


This essay was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Art Journal.


Thyrza Nichols Goodeve is a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in the MFA in Art Practice, Fine Arts, and Computer Arts programs. She has published widely on art and culture for Artforum, Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, and numerous artists’ catalogues. She is also the author of How Like a Leaf, an interview-portrait of Donna J. Haraway.

  1. In 2015 Schneemann said of the notched stick, “This image is important for me because it is all based on the stick. I carried this stick around for five years, I don’t know why. Which I think is a good habit for visual artists. You see, I couldn’t solve the right-hand verticality of this painting-collage until I put the stick there that I have carried all these years. And it is so perfect.” Carolee Schneemann, artist’s talk at Hunter College Artist Institute, New York, March 2015.
  2. See her series of laser prints and the artist’s book Vulva’s Morphia, in which Vulva remarks, “Vulva recognizes the symbols and names on graffiti under the railroad: slit, snatch, enchilada, beaver, muff, coozie, fish and finger pie. . . . Vulva deciphers Lacan and Baudrillard and discovers she is only a sign, a signification of the void, of absence, of what is not male . . . (she is given a pen for taking notes).” Carolee Schneemann, Vulva’s Morphia (New York: Granary Books, 1997).
  3. For an excellent analysis of Schneemann’s work in relation to animal studies, see Carla Benzan, “The Lives and Deaths of Carolee’s Cats: Intimate Encounters, Gentle Transgressions, and Incalculable Ethics,” C Magazine: International Contemporary Art 107 (Autumn 2010). See also Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, “How a Body Shaped by a Cat and a Cat Shaped by a Human Pioneered a New Species of Cinema,” in Carolee Schneemann, exh. cat., ed. Heide Hatry (Boston: Pierre Menard Gallery, 2007), also at www.academia.edu/3129427/How_a_Body_Shaped_by_a_Cat_and_a_Cat_Shaped_by_a_Human_Pioneered_a_New_Species_of_Cinema_2006_Carolee_Schneemann_Pierre_Menil_Gallery, 2006, as of April 12, 2015.
  4. Note that celebrity Internet cats tend to be deformed.
  5. “Internet Cat Video Festival: About,” at www.walkerart.org/internet-cat-video-festival, as of April 15, 2015.
  6. The Cat Show, at www.whitecolumns.org/sections/exhibition.php?id=1282, of as April 12, 2015.
  7. See “About MONPA,” at http://popist.com/s/3888f8c/, as of April 10, 2015.
  8. Ibid., “Scholarships and Research.”
  9. Schneemann presented Precarious, a multiscreen video installation, as part of the Abandon Normal Devices Festival at Tate Liverpool, September 23–27, 2009. She presented her lecture “Mysteries of the Iconographies” at the gallery on September 24, 2009.
  10. Schneemann, e-mail correspondence with the author, April 7, 2015.
  11. Carolee Schneemann, letter to Margaret Fisher, July 17, 1974, pub. in Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle, ed. Kristine Stiles (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 218.
  12. Yet, due to stipulations of her full scholarship to Bard, the college was required to pay for her to continue to study painting at Columbia University. It was at this time that Schneemann and James Tenney met.
  13. Carolee Schneemann, unpublished manuscript, May 1981.
  14. The unpublished timeline, “The Lives and Deaths of Carolee Schneemann’s Cats,” was compiled by Carla Benzan and Carolee Schneemann in 2006.
  15. Ibid.
  16. In 2008, with a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Schneemann reedited into a fifty-four-minute composite; it is available for rental and free single viewings via ElectronicArts Intermix; see www.eai.org/title.htm?id=13366., as of April 15, 2015.
  17. Brett Kashmere, “Seen Missing: The Case of Kitch’s Last Meal,” in “Focus on Carolee Schneemann,” ed. Kenneth White, special issue, Millennium Film Journal 54 (Fall 2001): 71.
  18. In other words, if one subscribes to Jacques Lacan’s influential argument in his 1949 essay “The Mirror Stage,” Schneemann’s “mirror” is a cat. Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formation of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” (1949), in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977). This line of thought is not a joke but is completely in line with the cospecies intra-ontologies Donna Haraway has been exploring since 1985, as discussed later in the present essay.
  19. Benzan and Schneemann, timeline, 2006.
  20. Stan Brakhage, “Metaphors on Vision” 1960, pub. Film Culture 30 (1963); rep. in The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1978), 120–28.
  21. Schneemann, artist’s talk, Hunter College, 2015.
  22. Carolee Schneemann, “Interior Scroll,” rep. in Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 159.
  23. For perceptions of Fuses, see Scott McDonald, “Carolee Schneemann’s Autobiographical Trilogy,” Film Quarterly 34, no. 1 (Fall 1980): 27. The Brakhage quotes are from the program notes to the Criterion Collection’s two-DVD set By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One (1954–2001), Criterion Collection #184; the notes are also at http://remsostav.ru/video/genre/art_house/Crit184.html, as of April 11, 2015. Rather amusingly, Criterion’s Cat’s Cradle note in its entirety reads, “One of the least interesting pieces in the collection, Brakhage describes the short as ‘Sexual witchcraft involving two couples and a “medium” cat,’ which oversells this sexless and impenetrable montage.”
  24. Brakhage’s adoption of the name of the children’s game as the title of his film merely recycles associations of cats and female sexuality. Donna Haraway, by contrast, has created an entirely alternative epistemological theory of interconnected, ever-evolving patterns of association and contingencies of gender, race, sexualities, and co-specieism, using the cat’s cradle: “Relying on relays from many hands and fingers, I try to make suggestive figures with the varying threads of science studies, anti-racist feminist theory, and cultural studies. . . . As soon as possession enters the game, the string figures freeze into a lying pattern. Cat’s cradle is about patterns and knots; the game takes great skill and can result in serious surprises. One person can build up a large repertoire of string figures on a single pair of hands, but the cat’s cradle figures can be passed back and forth on the hands of several players, who add new moves in the building of complex patterns. Cat’s cradle invites a sense of collective work, of one person not being able to make all the patterns alone. One does not win at cat’s cradle; the goal is more interesting and open-ended than that.” Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan®_Meets_OncoMouse™ (New York: Routledge, 1997), 268. One also thinks of Maya Deren’s film Ritual in Tranfigured Time (1946), which featured women of various ethnicities, among them Deren and Anais Nin, playing cat’s cradle in slow motion; or Deren’s earlier film Witch’s Cradle (1943), in which an animated rope (string) teases, prods, and engages Marcel Duchamp in a game of cat’s cradle. The rope Schneemann coiled around her body and used as a lasso in the 2009 lecture at St. Mark’s Church suddenly takes on a whole other istory of patterns, associations, and knots.
  25. “For some reason Kitch always went into heat when Brakhage entered a room.” Carolee Schneemann, telephone conversation with the author, April 13, 2015.
  26. Robert Darnton, “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin,” in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 85.
  27. Carolee Schneemann, telephone conversation with the author, April 13, 2015.
  28. Richard Oswald, “Cat’s Cradle,” 2003, at http://people.wcsu.edu/mccarneyh/fva/b/catscradle.html, as of April 10, 2015.
  29. Schneemann used the phrase “shameless attention” in a telephone conversation with the author, April 13, 2015. B. Ruby Rich, “Sex and Cinema,” New Art Examiner, 1979, rep. in Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).
  30. Scott MacDonald writes, “Fuses was the result of several years’ labor: it was begun in 1964 and not completed until 1967. . . . The density of the imagery demonstrates why the film took so long to finish. Many kinds of sexual activity between Schneemann and James Tenney and numerous aspects of the lovers’ environment are recorded in slow, fast, and regular motion; using a wide variety of camera positions and maneuvers (the camera was hand-held, positioned in a stable base, hung from the ceiling, taken to bed . . .) and in a wide range of exposure levels determined by changing times of day, the cycle of the seasons, and by Schneemann’s exploration of the 16mm camera. The recorded footage itself was manipulated in a number of ways so that within Fuses we may see multiple print-generations of the same image (printed right side up, upside down, sideways . . .), multiple superimpositions of photographed imagery and rhythms, as well as dozens of levels and forms of imagery created by drawing, painting, and animating directly on the developed film and a series of more bizarre procedures: baking imagery onto the film and hanging footage outdoors to interact with the elements.” MacDonald, 27.
  31. McDonald, 28.
  32. Benzan, “The Lives and Deaths of Carolee’s Cats.”
  33. Carolee Schneemann, telephone conversation with the author, April 13, 2015.
  34. Carolee Schneemann in conversation with the author, unpublished manuscript, 2013.
  35. Carolee Schneemann, telephone conversation with the author, April 13, 2015.
  36. Carolee Schneemann, artist’s talk, Hunter College, 2015.
  37. Kristine Stiles, introduction to Correspondence Course, 4.
  38. The quotation from Schneemann is the epigraph to Kashmere.
  39. Kenneth White, introduction to “Focus on Carolee Schneemann,” ed. White, special issue, Millennium Film Journal 54 (Fall 2001): 25–26.
  40. Schneemann in “Let’s Not Beat around the Bush: Q&A with Carolee Schneemann,” interview with Wendy Vogel, Modern Painters, February 14, 2015, at www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1103165/lets-not-beat-around-the-bush-a-qa-with-carolee-schneemann, as of April 3, 2015.
  41. Among them were John Cage, Derek Jarman, Joe Jones, Marjorie Keller, Peter Moore, Charlotte Moorman, Frank Pileggi, David Rattray, Paul Sharits, and Hannah Wilke. The exhibition consisted of four slide projectors with motorized mirror systems, seventeen motorized Manila ropes, suspended and revolving from the ceiling, coiling slowly in sand, images of faces, bodies, and public death notices.
  42. Carolee Schneemann, telephone conversation with the author, April 13, 2015.
  43. Schneemann, excerpt from untitled, unpublished text dated December 24, 1975.
  44. Schneemann, excerpt from untitled, unpublished text dated September 1976.
  45. Schneemann, letter to Jack Ludwig, July 1956, pub. in Correspondence Course, 7.
  46. Schneemann, in “Let’s Not Beat around the Bush.”
  47. Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet, Posthumanities Series vol. 3 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 16.
  48. Kashmere, 71.