A cello-shaped valentine, cut from boldly colored floral wrapping paper, a gift of love from Charlotte Moorman to her many friends and admirers. Saved, so many decades later, in a yellowed envelope with a name and address neatly written in block letters. Holiday cards mailed to Jonas Mekas, who recalled that Charlotte was a beautiful person and that they used to go up to Harlem to dance, and mailed also to hundreds of other avant-garde performers and volunteers—famous, infamous, and unknown—who were drawn into her powerful web. Innovators who collaborated with Moorman in the fifteen Avant Garde Festivals she held in New York City from 1963 to 1980, annual eye-openers that evolved from musical concerts to mixed media to what The Nation critic Faubion Bowers labeled “A Feast of Astonishments.” Charlotte Moorman, who was described by her very, very good friend Yoko Ono as a “woman who just wanted to be herself.”
Overlooked by historians of contemporary art but preserved by her own pack-rat tendencies, Moorman was her own historian, holding on to every scrap of paper, every remnant and memento of her life. Phone messages, diaries, calendars, correspondences, tickets, programs, invoices, even audio tapes from her answering machine: nothing was too small nor too unimportant to keep for posterity.
When she died at the age of fifty-eight, in 1991, after a painful struggle with bone cancer that included a mastectomy and shots of morphine to reduce the severe pain, her loft at 62 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan was jam-packed. No wonder that when her archive was finally gifted to Northwestern University in 2001, more than 178 boxes arrived on the truck.
Over the next decade, Scott Krafft, curator of Northwestern’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, sifted through the mountains of materials, conventional and unconventtional—bells and whistles, balloons, musical scores, scraps of fabric, and thousands of documents—in an effort to organize and make sense of the archive. When Lisa G. Corrin arrived in 2012 as the new director of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern, she identified the Charlotte Moorman Archive as one of the jewels of the collection: “Given the layout of the campus, with the library near the theater and the school of music, our thought was to bring these disciplines together through her collection, since Charlotte did not pay attention to rules about what art should be.”
So was born A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s, a mixed-media exhibit focusing on Moorman’s work. Organized by curators Lisa G. Corrin, Corinne Granof, Scott Krafft, Michelle Puetz, Joan Rothfuss, and Laura Wertheim Joseph, the exhibit originated at the Block Museum and just opened at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. A companion exhibit, Don’t Throw Anything Out: Charlotte Moorman’s Archive, is on view at NYU’s Fales Library, just across Washington Square Park.
Both exhibits lean heavily on Joan Rothfuss’s fine biography, Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman, which traces Moorman’s life from her beginnings in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she started playing the cello at age ten, to New York City, where she became known not only as an artist but as the impresario of the avant-garde.
Unlike the Block exhibit, which was more linear and narrative and maintained a clear division between Moorman’s repertoire and the Avant Garde festivals, the Grey show, according to gallery director Lynn Gumpert, “intermingles things more.” “We do not have one contiguous space, so we placed the early festivals upstairs and the rest below,” Gumpert said. The design is very successful in recreating the cacophony of the times.
In one gallery, artifacts from the Fourth Annual New York Avant Garde Festival (1966), including Geoffrey Hendricks’s Sky Laundry (blue-sky colored clothing with clouds, hanging on a clothesline) and Max Neuhaus’s American Can (can lids lying on the floor to be walked on), are installed alongside art from the twelfth festival (1975), a T-shirt signed by John Lennon and a T-shirt with the words “Bean Garden” (a piece by Alison Knowles that features dried beans in a garden bed with a mic to pick up the sound of people walking on them). These face vitrines containing body armor designed and worn by Carolee Schneemann and James Tenney in her piece Noise Bodies (third festival, 1965). As we walk past the vitrines, we hear a recording from above of the actual noises from the piece, as Schneemann and Tenney playfully touched each other with carburetor wands, building up to a frenzy.
At the entrance to the show, a film documenting the Avant Garde Festival of 1964, which was held in Judson Hall on Fifty-Seventh Street, runs on a monitor. Like several of the early festivals, this was more of a musical event, with Moorman drawing upon her classical training as a cellist (she studied at Juilliard in the 1950s) and the audience purchasing tickets. Later festivals were free. This was the moment, according to legend, that Moorman, famous for her storytelling, met Nam June Paik. When Karlheinz Stockhausen visited the United States, Moorman tried to persuade him to include a production of his Originale (Originals) in her second festival. He was leery but agreed, with one caveat: that Nam June Paik be in the piece. According to Charlotte, mysteriously and miraculously, Paik appeared at her hotel the next day.
Whatever the truth of this tale, Moorman swiftly became Paik’s muse. He composed pieces for her and used her body in the interests of his art. Peter Moore’s striking photo from October 4, 1965, shows Moorman and Paik performing John Cage’s 26’1. 1499” for a String Player (Human Cello Section) at the Café au Go Go in New York City. He leans into her chest as she plays his bare back. A Moore photograph from 1971 shows them performing the same piece again at the Channel Thirteen TV studio. This time, Moorman plays Paik’s suit jacket.
Another collaboration landed Paik and Moorman in jail. In February 1967 Moorman was to perform a new version of Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique, topless, bottomless, and then completely nude in the Film-Makers’ Cooperative on West Forty-First Street, a theater founded by avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas for the showing of experimental films. Mekas, who was a good friend of both Moorman and Paik, did not charge them rent.
As Moorman moved through the arias of the opera, first clad in her electric bikini, then topless, in a floor-length black skirt, the police moved in, stopping the show before she was to appear bottomless. Both Moorman and Paik were arrested and spent the night in jail at The Tombs, on Centre Street. From that moment on, Moorman earned the moniker “The Topless Cellist.”
Always, Moorman added playful and provocative performative elements to the avant-garde works. To John Cage’s eighty-page score for 26”1. 1499” for a String Player, Charlotte popped balloons and “tended eggs” (her notation for frying eggs in a pan with a mic nearby to pick up the sound). No wonder Charlotte’s performance took forty-one minutes instead of its usual twenty-six. At first Cage supported her efforts, but ultimately he found her performance too theatrical. While he called the piece “the one that Charlotte murdered,” he still continued to perform in her festivals. Cage and Fluxus founder George Maciunas (who blamed Charlotte for stealing his Fluxus artists for her festivals) both objected to her style. “They were much more minimalist,” said Lucy Oakley, Head of Education and Programs at Grey. “Charlotte was baroque!” And, although Oakley did not say it, Moorman was also always broke. She managed with help from friends, including Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
Thinking of Charlotte Moorman as baroque makes some sense when you scrutinize the body of her work. There are so many parts and so many details in each piece, coming at one another from different directions, clashing and smashing. This is art intended for everyone, not just for the elite, although most lay people did not get it.
The Avant Garde Festivals provided audiences and critics with unending surprises. In the second festival, poet Allen Ginsberg recited his verse as another performer took a bath dressed in a suit. High on a scaffold, Charlotte Moorman dangled while playing Bach. By 1965, the festival had expanded to a series of thirteen concerts during August and September with eighty artists participating. When Carolee Schneemann asked the audience to go outside Judson Hall on Fifty-Seventh Street and return with “soft materials,” mayhem broke out, with people pulling hubcaps off cars and other destructive acts. Glass mirrors in the hall were smashed, and the concert was closed down. Able to use her Southern charm on the authorities, Moorman promised that it would not happen again, and the program was allowed to continue.
Through videos and films, black and white photography, scores, costumes, objects, and music, the exhibit conveys the sprawling scope of Moorman’s work and the Avant Garde Festivals. There’s Charlotte performing Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (one that she says she performed over seven hundred times, although there is no proof of this). “Charlotte loved performing the piece, and she did it all over the world,” said Ono. “When she came home, she would give me a bag with the cut pieces.” To the curators, who also had bags and boxes, the pieces were a challenge. At first they thought that they would lay the dress on the ground, because Charlotte was kneeling when she performed the work. But there was no way to protect the piece. Then someone suggested using manikins, but that was swiftly rejected. Finally, the curators at Block worked with a fabric conservator who sewed the three gowns gently to a backing and hung them on the wall, making sure that the fabric was not too flat by incorporating folds. The adjacent video (from 1981) shows Charlotte in the purple gown. It was a trying moment for Moorman, who was to go in for a biopsy the next morning (only to learn that the cancer had spread). Throughout the piece, her friends cut pieces off Charlotte’s gown and leaned forward and kissed her.
Conservationists also worked on Charlotte’s electric bikini from her performance in Opera Sextronique. The bikini was controlled by doorbell switches that Nam June Paik purchased on Canal Street. When the suit was found in the archive, it looked like nothing, but restorers were able to “clean it up and tease it out,” Lisa Corrin said.
Charlotte Moorman performed Sky Kiss in Sydney in 1976, playing bits of “Up, Up, and Away” on her cello as she floated in the air, guided by lines held by assistants. She performed the piece eight times between 1968, when Jim McWilliams wrote it, and 1986, first doing it in the Sixth Annual New York Avant Garde Festival in a parade down Central Park West. Several early performances were less than successful, and according to Joan Rothfuss, it was only in 1981, after she teamed up with Otto Piene, who was known for artworks involving air and sky, that Charlotte rose to “an altitude of ten feet over an MIT athletic field.” A wonderful drawing of the setup of McWilliams’s Sky Kiss by Charlotte’s husband Frank Pileggi hangs in the exhibit.
Throughout the exhibit, we see the remarkable black-and-white photography of Peter Moore, who photographed every single one of the avant-garde festivals. Much of what we know about the festivals comes through him. “The exhibit is really a mini-retrospective of Peter Moore,” said Corinne Granof. Moore (1932–1993) was the foremost photographer of experimental events, capturing with his extraordinary insight the internal and external drama of the avant-garde: Paik performing Robot Opera outside Judson Hall, Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s The Ultimate Easter Bunny (Candy) in 1973. Without his devotion to the avant-garde and without his vision, much of the history would have been lost.
In the final gallery upstairs, Grey Art Gallery director Lynn Gumpert has installed several of Charlotte’s cellos: her Neon Cello, made from Plexiglas, neon tubing, and electrical parts; her Syringe Cello, made from morphine syringes; and a felt-covered cello designed by Joseph Beuys for Moorman to use in his Infiltration Homogen for Cello. While some critics refer to these cellos as examples of Moorman’s art and not her music, Jon Hendricks, Fluxus artist and curator of Yoko Ono Exhibitions, disagrees. “I have a very embracing view of art,” he said. “Art is not just confined to institutions. Charlotte made that very clear in her life and in her art. Art is not confined to a little box. Art is much broader, more complicated, and messy. Art is maybe taking your clothes off, especially when the city says no.”
Ono agrees with Hendricks. “Charlotte was an artist,” she said. “That’s all I can say. Like me, she was interested in different artistic forms. Most musicians would say, ‘I’m a pianist, I’m a guitarist.’ Not Charlotte!” Moorman’s presence, Ono said, was powerful. Even before Moorman came into a room, “we knew she was there by her footsteps.”
Asked to reflect on their memories of Moorman, friends and fellow artists frequently speak of her energy and her quick-witted resourcefulness. When Geoff Hendricks performed Dumping in the Fourth Annual Avant Garde Festival in Central Park (1966), he found himself facing police after he dumped his bucket of real and artificial flowers in the middle of the pond. “Before the police could do anything,” he said, “Charlotte got on the loudspeaker and called, ‘Geoff, you must come over to our loading dock immediately,’” saving him.
Don’t Throw Anything Out, the companion exhibit at Fales curated by Scott Krafft, is best seen after viewing the A Feast of Astonishments exhibit at Grey. Why? Because it is too easy to focus on the dramatic events of Moorman’s life—her southern belle childhood, her father’s death, her mother’s alcoholism and emotional volatility, her numerous illnesses, and her many eccentricities—dismissing her as the artist she truly was. The vitrines here are full of annotated grocery-store receipts, snapshots of volunteers, engagement diaries, and, after she was sick, pain diaries, pictures of Charlotte’s extensive doll collection, a photo for a passport issued in 1975, and a stark, unsmiling image of bare-chested Charlotte after her mastectomy. She stares into the camera as we stare at the long scar from her missing left breast. “Charlotte conquered her fears by performing them,” Lisa Corrin said.
There’s her Rolodex, turned to an entry for John Lennon, his 1 West Seventy-Second Street address written over a crossed-out 105 Bank Street. Above, in red block letters, Moorman had written: “MURDERED DEC. 8, 1980.” On an audio tape from Moorman’s answering machine from 1971, we hear a message from Lennon, telling Charlotte to check out his and Yoko’s ad in the Village Voice and Fred McDarrah’s review of the Eighth Avant Garde Festival, which, he noted, did not include mention of Yoko’s Amaze, a labyrinth made of Plexiglas with a toilet in a center cubicle.
By far, the most poignant piece in the Fales exhibit is a long, handwritten letter from Vivian Moorman, Charlotte’s mother, dated October 1968. She writes, “When you were a small little girl, Ethel (a friend of mine) made you a pair of rompers, and you were so modest you wouldn’t take your clothes off to try them on for her. Wish you still had part of that rearing,”
Ironically, displayed in the very same vitrine, is a clipping from a local newspaper with the headline: “Woodruff Girl Saves Canceled Stamps.” There’s a photo of a smiling Charlotte in a charming hat above a story that commends her for “saving from five to ten pounds of canceled stamps for the dye, which will be extracted and sold to aid the Queen’s Children’s Hospital in London.” Even in the third grade, Charlotte Moorman was already a champion at saving stuff.
Grey Art Gallery, New York University
Sept. 8–Dec. 10, 2016
The Fales Library, Tracey/Barry Gallery, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University
Sept. 8–Dec. 9, 2016
Joan Rothfuss, Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman,
The MIT Press, 2014