Sunday, January 2, 2011

Correspondence Course

“…these exchanges…serve as reminders of the messiness of autobiographical art making. For instance, a film about Schneemann’s lover is screened well after the marriage has ended…”

Three notes about myself: (1) I am of the age that I barely remember carbon paper (from having not-for-profit art jobs at offices equipped with outdated credit card machines, and before that, from my father’s high school biology exams recycled for scrap paper. “What should you do if someone has a heart attack?” one asked. A precocious child, I scribbled, “Call the hospital.”) (2) I consider myself lucky to be part of the final generation to know the joys of giving and receiving hand-written letters, a practice I upheld well into the email era (with no one more than my librarian friend, Laura Wray). (3) I am at an early enough point in my art career that I can forgive myself for not retaining all of my related correspondence, though I vowed redemption after reading of Marina Abramovic’s thorough archive in When Marina Abramovic Dies (James Wescott, MIT Press, 2010).

In spite of my relatively unblackened fingers, my support of the postal system, and my librarian-archivist values, I am—how shall I say—bewildered? awed? inspired? by the simple strategy employed by artist Carolee Schneemann. She has preserved each and every outgoing letter in carbon copy as well as the letters she has received, providing a stunning overview of her career as it moved beyond painting to encompass feminist film and performance incorporating her body*. A goldmine for researchers not only for its source material but also for its footnotes, Correspondence Course (Duke University Press, 2010) is a selection of these letters from 1956 to 1999 excerpted by art historian Kristine Stiles. As a recreational reader, I wondered how much I would gain from reading the letters since the introduction does such a good job of distilling the next 490 pages.

If you fancy yourself to be a grammarian, prepare yourself for Schneemann’s unconventional approach to writing. In fact, consider pouring yourself a glass of wine. Initially, I was perplexed by Schneemann’s liberties with language, such as nouns shoved together and not in a legit, noun cluster kind of way. Once I gave in to the impulse to skim, however, I quite enjoyed creative liberties like “$till between jobs” (p. 373). You get a strong sense of Schneemann’s artistry permeating her language, especially in correspondence with former students with whom you might expect greater convention. Her effusive writing is, in a word (ahem), refreshing in the academic context. The letters to and from her peers range from mutual encouragement to necessary clarifications. (Admittedly, it’s great to see a woman standing up for herself in an articulate, if occasionally abrasive, manner). They demonstrate the importance of what may seem to be clich├ęd advice given to aspiring artists, that it is prudent to ‘get out there’ and establish a network. Her frankness about difficult issues like finances may also serve emerging artists well, so they understand the choices involved in an art career. Unsolicited mail from artists inspired by Schneemann is also noteworthy, as a testament to her legacy that is less political than awards bestowed from the top-down. Admissions of inspiration for and from Schneemann’s successors as well as her contemporaries refute the mythology of a linear art history (so-in-so begat so-in-so, who begat so-in-so, and so on).

The poetic element of her language is especially engaging in Schneemann’s letters to lovers. There are passages I read and reread to make sense of them—to determine, for example, if she was referring to the recipient or a new lover. I was strangely satisfied with the inconclusive nature of it all. It reminded me of the whispered ending of the movie, Lost in Translation, when Bob (Bill Murray) bids farewell to a tearful Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson): we aren’t privy to the details of what is said, and what can be imagined is more powerful. In the same way that an effective work of art does not provide all of the answers, Schneemann’s writing is open to interpretation, and sometimes entertainingly blatant in its double entendres. Also striking about these exchanges is that they serve as reminders of the messiness of autobiographical art making. For instance, a film about Schneemann’s lover is screened well after the marriage has ended, which some would find intolerable but she seems to accept it graciously. With the passage of time, these letters also emphasize the ability of romantic love to survive in a new form (Schneemann’s letters to her first ex-husband are particularly touching in this regard). Her descriptions of her beloved cats also underscore the myriad kinds of love that exist.

That Schneemann kept copies of the letters she sent begs the question of whether she may have had one eye on the future the entire time. That is to say, on a subconscious level, did she construct herself differently knowing that someone other than the primary reader might someday judge her? Who is to say? What I do believe is that there is a synergism to the collection, especially when the parties comment on the impact of receiving the previous letter or the joy it brings them to write the next installment. The whole of Stiles' Correspondence Course is more than the sum of its parts.

*Note: I am reticent to summarize her career in a single sentence, so please, read the book.