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Carolee Schneemann’s Kinetic Theater at Judson Memorial Church

The 1892 McKim, Mead & White Italianate Eclectic style Baptist church on Washington Square set the scene for some of feminist artist Carolee Schneemann’s most notorious works of kinetic theater – including 1964’s groundbreaking “Meat Joy.

A photograph by Tony Ray-Jones of Carolee Schneemann (seated, center) taken at ‘Meat Joy’, a performance art piece or ‘happening’ by Carolee Schneeman, performed in Judson Memorial Church in New York in November 1964. Courtesy Carolee Schneemann/Artists Rights Society (ARS) and P.P.O.W, and Galerie Lelong, New York

Under the tutelage of Reverend Howard Moody in the 1950s, the Judson Memorial Church at 55 Washington Square South began a radical arts ministry that made space available for artists in all media for exhibitions, rehearsals, and performances. The church encouraged artists to experiment freely in their space without the fear of censorship. The Judson Gallery soon began to show the work of unknown avant-garde artists who would later become touchstones in the history of American art, such as Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, and Yoko Ono, among others. Judson Dance Theater began in 1962 and became a pioneering force in postmodern dance. Artist Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019) was a founding member of Judson Dance Theater, and through her explorations with the collective created a signature form of artistic expression – kinetic theater. 

Reverend Howard Moody in front of Judson Memorial Church. Courtesy of Judson Memorial Church/Fales Library/NYU.

“When I started to work with Judson, I never wanted to perform or participate. I’m a painter. I wanted my solitude and my quiet and my sense of being able to really see what’s happening,” Schneemann told Judith Olch Richards for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in 2009. “But I had to start to physically do what my drawings showed me. I had to physically translate that for the participants.” 

Carolee Schneemann’s first artistic exploration into the relationship between mark-making and the physical form came while she was a student at Bard College in the 1950s, from which she was expelled for painting herself with her legs open, even though it was common for male students to paint nude female students. This early work embodies one of the central questions of Schneemann’s artistic practice throughout her career – can the female body serve as both image and image-maker?

Al Giese’s photograph of Ruth Emerson in Carolee Schneemann’s Newspaper Event. Performed at Concert of Dance #3, Judson Memorial Church, January 29, 1963. © Estate of Al Giese/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of Carolee Schneemann, Galerie Lelong & Co., and P.P.O.W, New York

Carolee Schneemann began working with Judson Dance Theatre as her paintings and drawings were beginning to incorporate movement. As she said: 

“[At this time] I’ve begun motorizing my works. I’m working with small display motors so that there’s an actual active momentum within the painting constructions. And as I’m doing that kind of drawing of the little motors in motion and how that can be integrated with the larger forms, I’m drawing images of bodies in motion and fulfilling certain image configurations, almost sculptural shapes, and sizes. So, when I hear about this group – that has no name – I’m thrilled to choreograph, to begin doing pieces with them.”

One of Carolee Schneemann’s first works presented with Judson Dance Theater was Newspaper Event (1963). This work made current events a medium of art creation as seven dancers created sculptural forms out of piles of newspapers. Schneemann continued to stage some of her most important early performances at Judson Memorial Church, including Lateral Splay (1963), Chromelodeon (1963) and performed as Manet’s Olympia in Robert Morris’s Site (1964). But by far her most important work at Judson Memorial Church, and one of the most important works of her career, was Meat Joy (1964). 

 Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy (1964), Documentation of the performance at the Judson Dance Theater, Judson Memorial Church, New York, US, November 16-18, 1964 Image: Courtesy Carolee Schneemann/Artists Rights Society (ARS) and P.P.O.W, and Galerie Lelong, New York. Photo by Al Giese.

Meat Joy came to Schneemann in a series of dreams that evolved into a series of drawings which eventually morphed into the kinetic theater performance of the work at Judson Memorial Chuch. Schneemann conceived of the work as a kind of “erotic rite,” that was excessive, indulgent, and a celebration of flesh as material. Schneemann’s dancers were an evolution of the motorized elements of her paintings. The dancers were ecstatically creating patterns with their movement and creating a circular motion of the performance

Meat Joy was such a powerful piece that it came to be synonymous with Carolee Schneemann. New York’s Museum of Modern Art describes Meat Joy as the embodiment of “Schneemann’s concept of ‘kinetic theater,’ in which performers engage in scored and improvised movements with a range of disparate materials. Eight performers— including Schneemann—covered in paint, paper, and paintbrushes crawled and writhed together, playing with raw fish, meat, and poultry. According to the artist, by using the naked body as a material for art she “exposed and confronted a social range of current cultural taboos and repressive conventions.’”

The performance space at Judson Memorial Church also played an important role in Meat Joy. Lighting and blackouts in the space are timed to shatter certain energy clusters. Performers take up the entirety of the performance space and remain close to the floor at all times, accentuating the soaring height of the church. Judson Memorial Church and its commitment to the arts helped foster innovation in art free from the threat of censorship, resulting in some of the most influential artworks of the 20th century.

Click here to watch Village Preservation’s program with Judson Memorial Church, “Embodying Sanctuary: Faith, Activism, and Creativity at Judson Memorial Church.”

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