In 1975, Carolee Schneemann climbed on a table in an art gallery. Wearing an apron and assuming the standard poses of models in life-drawing classes, she read from her book Cezanne, She Was a Great Painter. Then she took off the apron. She was naked. She reached inside her vagina and slowly pulled out a long scroll, which she began to read from. The typed words were a fictional conversation with a male filmmaker who refused to watch her films. "We cannot look at the personal clutter, the persistence of feelings, the hand-touch sensibility, the diaristic indulgence, the painterly mess, the dense gestalt, the primitive techniques." "I don't take the advice," Schneemann retorted, "of men who only talk to themselves."

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"Oh, fuck 'em," the now-seventysomething Schneemann told me at the opening of her exhibition Within and Beyond the Premises at the Henry Art Gallery. I'd asked her whether she felt vulnerable showing personal artifacts that betrayed not only her life but her eccentricities—practices like exhibiting a nightgown stained by the blood of her late cat, and showing videos and photographs of her cats dying or her cats performing their ritual of kissing her each morning.

Yeah, fuck 'em. Here's a woman who harnessed up her naked body to make a drawing by stretching and reaching and pulling herself all over a surface—decades before Matthew Barney did the same thing in his Drawing Restraint series. Barney's work is burned casserole; Schneemann's is a bright, raw diet.

But holding the status of a living legend for performances like Interior Scroll has never brought Schneemann into focus (or endowed her with wealth, either—unlike someone such as Barney). Unless you were one of the lucky few to see her retrospective (smaller, I'm told) at the New Museum in New York in 1997, then Within and Beyond the Premises is your only chance to examine the scope and arc of her career, which began in the 1950s in the shadow of action painting by expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky. (Within and Beyond was organized by the museum at SUNY New Paltz, near where Schneemann has lived almost continuously since 1965.)

She considers herself a painter above all, and she's a painter the way Rauschenberg was: Her medium is mess. When she organized eight men and women in Judson Church in New York City in 1964 to roll around in their underwear, embracing each other and sliding around in a sea of shredded paper and raw meat and fish (it was called Meat Joy), she was exhibiting an exuberance, morbidity, and humor that contrasts with darker, lonelier gestures by Pollock and Yves Klein. Her work has always been big: joyful and deathly at once.

On display at the Henry are early formal paintings, sketches, drawings, collages, and collage-sculptures. Not every object is a self-contained whole the way Interior Scroll was, and in fact, few intend to be. But the spirit and force that course through them all is palpable: "PUT OUT YOUR TONGUE + EXPLORE," red watercolor calls out from one painting.

Liz Brown, the departing chief curator at the Henry, added the film Fuses (1964–66) to this leg of the tour. Sex! It's maybe the first film to try to capture sex between a man and a woman from a subjective (totally nonobjectifying) point of view, with a woman behind the camera. At first, you'll find yourself looking for what you're not seeing—porn shots. You'll be squinting past the physical marks Schneemann made on the film itself by burning and scratching it and painting on it, as if you were squinting through the scrambled lines of the Playboy channel. But soon those physical marks will start to insert themselves between you and the action, adding a thick, tactile, hot layer to the experience.

You'll laugh at the gray cat that sits and watches the lovers, or maybe you'll be freaked out. (Both seem like normal reactions.) The cat's sovereign presence throughout Schneemann's work feels like a nod to another world, another subjectivity beyond our understanding. Same with, maybe, the dancing bird and bear footage in Schneemann's new video installation Precarious (which also includes footage of the artist dancing while blindfolded and Filipino prisoners in orange jumpsuits doing the music-video dances imposed as their exercise regimens).

Although Schneemann is haunted by politics, her topical works hit me less directly than the blend of humor, rage, and zero-­tolerance-for-fools that runs, hot, beneath her other surfaces. An index card in one collage is typed with the remorseless words "She began to feel better & didn't regret having had to resort to witchcraft." recommended