On a visit I made years ago to Northwestern University’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections its curator at the time, Russell Maylone, showed me a room piled with ramshackle cartons that had recently arrived. He pointed to them with pride and said they were Charlotte Moorman’s archival materials, a lifetime’s worth of hoarding. It was going to take a ton of work to organize and inventory them for future use, but that did not diminish the thrill he felt.
Scott Krafft, who has since succeeded Maylone as curator, remembers being stunned by the delivery. “I was taken aback when the big cargo truck reared up to the dock,” he writes. And he recalls the truck driver telling him, “Take good care of all of that: you have an entire life.” The cartons included everything and anything: Moorman’s annotated music scores, her Rolodex, recorded phone messages on her answering machine, her doll collection, intimate notes to her husband. Krafft explains:
In her many years of event diaries she would record prosaic facts that most people would not bother to mention: that she washed her hair, that she ate fish sticks for dinner, that she watched TV from eleven to four o’clock, giving these trifles the same graphic weight as the fact that she was photographed by Andy Warhol for an Esquire magazine article. … She doesn’t seem to elevate or diminish the importance of what her life contained and encountered. High and low and life and art are as if they are all the same air she breathed.
Moorman had been dubbed “the topless cellist” by the press when she was arrested in 1967 and charged with indecent exposure for her semi-nude performance of Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique. But she was in fact no mere Juilliard-trained cellist — topless or otherwise. Moorman was a major radical artist, an uncompromising avant-gardist, who believed so fervently in the idea of life itself as a performance that the evidence of her belief contained in those boxes now provides the framework of a groundbreaking exhibition exploring her legacy in all-embracing detail.
The exhibition, A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s, opens on Saturday at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art along with a companion exhibit, Don’t Throw Anything Out! Both exhibitions remain there until mid-July. Feast of Astonishments then travels solo to New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in the fall of 2016 and to the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Austria, in the spring of 2017.
This double whammy of a show — with its assortment of artworks, film clips, music scores, audio recordings, documentary photographs, snapshots, performance props and costumes, ephemera, and correspondence (the vast majority of which have never been exhibited before) — seems guaranteed to provide a striking new view of Moorman’s unlikely and undervalued career.“I have asked myself why Charlotte Moorman is largely missing from the narratives of 20th-century art,” Lisa Corrin, the Block Museum’s director and curator of modern and contemporary art, writes in the exhibition catalogue. “She is mainly remembered as a muse to Nam June Paik, but she was much more. In light of her influence on contemporary performance and her role as an unequaled popularizer of the avant-garde it is long overdue for her to be appreciated as a seminal figure in her own right.” The answer to the question is complex, but it certainly involves the notoriety Moorman was saddled with, and which — in her eagerness to defy convention — she was more than willing to exploit. Laura Wertheim Joseph, Consulting Curatorial Associate to the exhibition, notes in the catalogue that at Moorman’s trial the judge concluded that her work was “born not of a desire to express art, but to get the vernacular ‘sucker’ to come and be aroused.” Testimony by one of the New York City plainclothes cops who arrested her suggested that her cello was placed between her legs in such a way that her vagina “was winking, wantonly, at members of the audience,” Joseph writes. The testimony was wildly wrong, and so was the judge, who found Moorman guilty as charged. (Her sentence was later suspended.) But even radical feminists of the era were scandalized by Moorman’s insouciant defiance.
Moorman, who died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 58, had another nickname besides “topless cellist.” The composer Edgard Varèse called her “the Jeanne d’Arc of New Music.” It reflected her devotion to exploring the limits of performance. She had deep connections to John Cage and David Tudor; Joseph Beuys and Wolf Vostell; Yoko Ono (who with John Lennon helped support her financially) and Carolee Schneeman; Otto Piene and Jim McWilliams, and to a host of Fluxus artists and others who had as much influence on late 20th-century performance art as the Dadaists had on their era: Christo, Emmett Williams, Ay-O, Meredith Monk, La Monte Young, Allan Kaprow, Philip Corner, Geoffrey Hendricks, Alison Knowles, and Dick Higgins.
Moorman’s relationship with Nam June Paik was as mentioned the closest connection of all, and her best-known performances tended to be works he wrote for her or were collaborations with him, among them: Sonata No.1 for Adults Only; TV Bra for Living Sculpture; and Concerto for TV Cello and Videotapes wearing TV Glasses. She also performed Cage’s 26’1.1499″ for a String Player with Paik — a seminal work in her repertoire — although she never managed to keep within the strictly defined time limit stipulated by Cage. Jason Rosenholtz-Witt writes in the exhibition catalogue that “especially in collaboration with Paik, Moorman increasingly exceeded the confines of the notation and shifted her focus to the section of the score calling for ‘sounds other than those produced on the strings.'”
Yet another of her most frequently performed works was Ono’s Cut Piece. Moorman did it wherever she went. “I performed that piece for 25 years,” she said. “Far more than Yoko ever performed it.” And very differently as well, choosing to wear an expensive gown each time instead of a casual black dress. Moorman apparently enjoyed the lavishness of having something formal cut to pieces snip by snip.
“Charlotte was funny as hell. She had a very sharp wit and beautiful humor. And at the same time she was dead serious.” — Otto Piene, co-founder Group ZERO.
Look and listen: