The Vietnam War ends, Nixon steps down as president, Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ releases – the 60s end, the 70s begin. What, a goalless war stretched to two decades, a scam led political resignation and a film on the American-Italian mafia have in common is their male-centrism and pan-capitalist notion which are seldom found individual of each other.

The civil rights movement leads way and women being themselves subaltern, began trying to infringe and take space ‘inside’ patriarchy which had till then excluded them. Angry and possibly even bored of the minimalist geometry and smooth industrial forms of the Modernists (which when they made was never good enough) women artists felt the need to come up with an art that would at once be a backlash at the modernists and was also personal and situated out of their actual, everyday lives.

Interior scroll- Carolee Schneeman, 1975, East hampton, Long Island
Interior scroll- Carolee Schneeman, 1975, East hampton, Long Island

Since women are inevitably perceived first and foremost through their body and this body quintessentially is invested with sexual overtones, it already flouts the first rule of Kantian aesthetic (out of which Modernism rises) where the artist and critic must remain disembodied from the art produced.
This automatic disqualification led to the very same problem factor being made into the medium and protest mechanism. The artist’s body becomes personal material, the subject and also the object in art. The birth of performance art is undeniably connected to women and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

. In 1975 Carolee Schneeman performed Interior Scroll at the exhibition ‘Women Here and Now’ her audience composed mostly of other women artists. The exhibition took place in an old town meeting house in Hampton. A long table placed below two spotlights winded up being Schneeman’s stage. Approaching the table with two bed sheets she undressed, wrapped herself in one sheet, spread the other over the table, and told the audience she would read from ‘Cezanne she was a great painter’ a feminist text written by her.

“I dropped the covering sheet and, standing there, painted two large strokes defining the contours of my body and face. The reading was done on top of the table, taking a series of life model ‘action poses’, the book balanced in one hand. At the conclusion I dropped the book and stood upright on the table. The scroll was slowly extracted as I read from it, inch by inch.”

Grainy black and white photographs of the performance give us a crouched Schneeman with thighs apart, back hunched over, pulling and reading the scroll out of her vagina.
This author located the text on the scroll online which happens to be a satire filled exchange between a structuralist filmmaker and Schneeman, originally written and intended for a super 8 film called Kitch’s last meal.

-Kitch’s Last Meal

Early in the 60’s, Schneeman was already being referred to as the ‘body beautiful’ as she mostly appeared nude in her performances. Lucy Lippard ascertains the fact that she was looked upon more favourably as a dancer than as an artist. It remains unclear who or which faction felt this way. Couldn’t possibly be other women? In 1988 Schneeman revealed that the text on the scroll was aimed at art critic Annette Michelson, who she claimed couldn’t look at her films.

Influenced by a friend’s art history assignment on Prehistoric symbols in which serpent forms were explained to have been goddess attributes, she observes “I saw the vagina as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model…” when talking of the germ idea for Interior Scroll.

Untitled-Robert Morris, 1974, Offset Lithograph [34-24 in]
Untitled-Robert Morris, 1974, Offset Lithograph [34-24 in]

Linda Nochlin would have considered this sort of a reverence and affectation to the past as somewhat aimless but on the other hand the performance itself questions gender’s role in gaining social validity, significance and the portrayal of women for centuries by the hands of men.

Lynda Benglis posing with a dildo is an unforgettable art work of the 20th century. Nude, wearing tinted cat-eye sun glasses, eyebrows shaven, her cropped hair combed stiff, holding a cast latex double-headed dildo between thighs, nose dilated, jaw tightened, arms and shoulder contracted, torso puffed out, she sports an instantly palpable masculine attitude.

It began in 1974 with a series of self portrait photographs she took as advertisement for an exhibition in the Paula Cooper gallery. In May the smoke begins with a photograph in the Art Forum Magazine of her nude, jeans slid down to the ankles, back turned to the viewer, looking out like a pin up poster model.

Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss

The magazine refused to accept the dildo image as an advertisement but offered to place it along with an article on her, about to publish in the same issue. Benglis insisted it be shown as an ad and paid for it personally, in the name of her gallery. When circulated, the photograph resulted in the resignation of two of its associate editors, well known art critics, Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson (Remember? She couldn’t stand to look at Schneeman’s performances), while several subscriptions were cancelled all over the country. It was one of the biggest controversies in art. Was it really art? Was it pornography or just an Ad?

A month before, in April an advertisement by Robert Morris in Art Forum was assumed by critics of the time to have been the ‘catalyst’ to Benglis making her own. In this photograph Morris appears nude till the waist wearing a ‘German Army helmet (Nazi vintage), mirrored aviator sunglasses, steel manacles and a spiked collar’; the cuffs and collar linked by chains that he holds in his hands. He appears a cross between a masochist and a homosexual.

Rosalind Krauss, who had been ‘dating’ Morris and liked his work, accepted this image to be published in the magazine. The question arises, what was it in the Benglis image that so infuriated Krauss and Michelson. Was it the nudity? Was it the suggestion of a private sexual act? Was it the play acting? Aren’t all these to be found in the Morris image too? What makes the Morris image acceptable and Benglis’ unacceptable?

Annette Michelson
Annette Michelson

The joke is Benglis’ actual output for the exhibition was colourful poly-urethane sculptures which are far removed from the overt yet indefinable sexuality of the advertised image.
Her sculptures were not considered modernist as they were an inverse of the “male dominated minimalism, with its multiple technological and mathematical references” comments Brandon Taylor. The Benglis image is not only a parody of machismo but also a strike at modernism’s self constructed image of the male artist as hero and genius. “Benglis later explained that her intention was to mock the idea of having to take sexual sides – of being either a male or a female one – and also the hype created by the media.”

This author chose Schneeman’s Interior Scroll as it is seminal in the study of performance and Benglis’ Untitled photo as it the most shocking and hilarious to give a brief picture of performance and its scope.
Hardly made a year apart from the other, Interior Scroll though sardonic, with its long drawn bodily process and reference to textual sources, we tend to take somewhat more seriously than we do Benglis’ play acting. In fact the Benglis image is much wider in scope, as I think it does what Nochlin thinks art by women should do. It is devoid of any celebratory references to women or women’s body, nor is it a lamentation of not having great women artists. Benglis took the pains to get it printed as an Ad and this takes her performance out of its grid and stretches it into a…for want of a better word, a crusaders work. While Schneeman’s was watched by a majority of other women artists, Benglis forced school girls to look at it in their libraries as part of their art education. It remains a larger question if this was an apt image for them to be subjected to, but it shows the extant to which the image proliferated.

-R. Dhanya

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