Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle

By Battista, Kathy | Art Monthly, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle


Battista, Kathy, Art Monthly


Correspondence Course is many things: it is a book that encompasses an impressive amount of historical data that is of immense use to any researcher of late 20th-century art. It is also an archive of an extraordinary life during a time of tremendous changes in society and technology. Finally, it is a gripping story, at times difficult to put down--not your typical art historical book--and a tremendous achievement on the part of the editor, the artist and the publisher.

Kristine Stiles, who also wrote a preface and introduction, edited the book. In the preface she explains her methodology, including the rationale for the chronological span of the letters (1956-99); the format that she used to create a consistency despite free-flowing prose with eccentric punctuation in many of the letters; and how she respected the boundaries of privacy. Her task was mammoth considering the amount of correspondence exchanged. The selection process must have been gruelling--Schneemann saved carbon copies of letters sent as well as all letters received. Stiles's careful editing of these texts provides a fractured yet crystalline account of Schneemann's life and career.

This publication excels in that it encompasses so many personalities of this era: filmmakers, poets, artists, curators and writers are included, from Stan Brakhage and his wife Jane Collum, Joseph Cornell and Kate Millett to Amelia Jones, Shirin Neshat, younger students and the editor. The introduction to the tome (which weighs in at over 500 pages) is a noteworthy essay on Schneemann and her contemporaries. Stiles writes beautifully and lucidly, and although clearly empathetic with her subject, keeps a detached and at times critical view of the material. She aligns Schneemann's letters with her practice; their unconventional syntax and punctuation are a testament to this. Stiles says

Schneemann's writing 'represents an existential rebellion against conformity or complicity with convention'. Indeed, as one might imagine from the artist's performance and installation work, the letters are similarly raw, powerful, intelligent and unapologetic. Despite the emotional nature of many of the texts, the editor took pains to contextualise the themes and players within an art historical dialogue as well as the history of epistemology.

The core of the book consists of four chronological sections of letters, which roughly correspond to decades and are divided by major events in the artist's life. It is here, in the words of the practitioners, that the book astonishes. The reader understands Schneemann's nexus in an art world where established categories and movements were breaking down--'intermedia' as Dick Higgins terms it. The letters often recount the creative processes of the correspondents and the dialogue on such issues between the practitioners.

The reader also learns of Schneemann's most personal tragedies and triumphs. In the earliest section (1956-68), her relationship with the composer James Tenney is documented throughout various stages: from initial passion, to the eventual breakdown of their marriage and subsequent affairs. …

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