Chance and Agency: Carolee Schneemann’s Use of Fire

Olivia Gauthier for BOMB Magazine

For BOMB Magazine, Olivia Gauthier considers the role of fire in American artist Carolee Schneemann’s works.


Schneemann’s studio burned in 1960 while she was a graduate student in Illinois. There is no readily available documentation of this fire, what it damaged, or what her studio looked like after the flames were extinguished. Two years later Schneemann would create several assemblages in small boxes, filling them with materials, fixing them with resin and paint, then drenching them in turpentine. At this point Schneemann would light a match and quickly close the lid, relinquishing control over the resulting state of the materials. Upon extinguishing the blaze, she was left with chaotic compositions, testaments to her collaboration with the flames. Schneemann furthered her exploration with fire as gesture in her iconic work in 16mm film, Fuses (1964–67). After filming, Schneemann manipulated the celluloid by cutting, painting the surface, dipping it in acid, and setting it ablaze. The presence of fire in the making of Fuses more directly connects the works subject with connotations of fire as a symbol of passion and creation.

In her 1991 performance Ask the Goddess, an audience member asked Schneemann: “What is the meaning of art?” to which Schneemann replied, “The meaning of art is destruction.” In the postwar period painting became an arena for action, as Harold Rosenberg explicated in his essay, “The American Action Painters,” published in ARTnews in December of 1952. Schneemann’s penchant for destruction was not simply in dialogue with other artists around her, the majority of whom were men, but rather came from a desire to dismantle control in an effort to attain liberation. Using fire was one way actively to remove or distort the artist’s hand in her own work, the very part of a painter’s body that is so coveted and admired. In this gesture Schneemann refuses the notion of individual authorship years before Roland Barthes would address similar concerns in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author.”

In the spirit of experimental practices, especially the introduction of low materials into high art, Schneemann turned to an unlikely material, however rich in symbolism. Fire has a duality of associations, both positive and negative. It can be a source of warmth and light, but it can also destroy and bring pain. Ecologically, fire is a source of rebirth: when the earth is scorched, room is made for new growth; this fire often symbolizes purification, resurrection, and productive inspiration. Although we may not know what Schneemann felt upon seeing her singed studio, with the Controlled Burning series she found creative potential in fire’s ability to act as both destroyer and producer. This duality is not dissimilar from Schneemann’s use of her body to challenge fixed notions of the female nude, representing herself as both image and image-maker. 


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