Elevate Difference

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

A giant hot pink book filled with nearly 500 pages of letters, emails, and images, when merely considered as an object, Kristine Stiles’s compilation of of artist Carolee Schneemann’s correspondence is intimidating, impressive, and a little bit sexy. The material is no less overwhelming.

Carolee Schneemann is an artist whose art played with the boundaries of bodies and embodiment, and of taboo and the abject. She produced physical and performance art, and used her own (often nude) body in the production of her art. She has been claimed as a feminist artistic icon (and acknowledges this herself) despite mixed reactions from feminists to her work.

Kristine Stiles offers a wonderfully clear and helpful preface in which she describes the principles she used when editing and annotating Schneemann’s letters so that they could be presented in book form. Although editing would be necessary even if Schneemann had written the most regular and conventional of letters, Stiles explains her commitment to preserving the irregularities within Schneemann’s letters. Such irregularities include those of spelling and misspelling, word and sentence spacing, and the use of columns and marginalia. Stiles makes a great effort to preserve for the reader as much of the aesthetic experience of reading letters and notes written by a prolific artist as can be preserved in book format.

The letters themselves are an education. They are an education in art, in second-wave feminism, in the changes in epistolary conventions. I confess, I haven’t read them all. It seems too cruel to have done so: dipping in and out of them, starting at the beginning, working through in order while also opening up at random and reading anything that catches my eye is so satisfying I can’t make myself speed read to the end. And I don’t want it to end. As long as there are letters to read, then it seems as though she—as the character I am coming to know, and not as the still-alive woman I will never meet—is still vibrant and alive and working and loving and creating. I am inspired to send real paper letters to my friends, hundreds of letters, so that they can experience me (and I them) through the medium of letter writing. Schneemann has a variety of artistic media at her disposal and letter writing is only one of them. This book is no less a work of art than her other artistic endeavors.

A perfect gift for art lovers, feminist artists, and art historians, this book has appeal for for those interested in seeing the way a life unfolds in the compilation of more than forty years of letters.

Written by: kristina grob, March 29th 2011