As a collaborator, an impresario and a media personality, Charlotte Moorman has evaded conventional categories of art history. But a recent biography and a traveling exhibition give her legacy the attention it is due.
Merce Cunningham once sniffed in a letter that he never remembered any of the music that Charlotte Moorman played because he was so distracted by “the sight of her.”1 This faint-praise-as-bitchy-put-down belies a grudging acknowledgment of a charismatic gift, identifying a key paradox of Moorman’s career as performer, organizer and icon at the crossroads of sound and vision. If Moorman’s refusal to disappear into the music she played challenged the authority of the composer over the performer, it also flagged precisely why she made such a capable instigator of Happenings and actions: you couldn’t look away from her. Caught between the rival frames of modernist music’s anti-subjective, abstract formalism and the spectacular immanence of performance art, Moorman always stood out. Whether she played her cello while wrapped in gauze (a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale in 1964), dunked in a tub of water (Nam June Paik’s Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saens in 1966), sealed in a cloth bag (Takehisa Kosugi’s Instrumental Music in 1966), armored by a television prosthesis (Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture in 1969), covered in chocolate and shredded coconut (Jim McWilliams’s Candy in 1973), caressing a block of ice (McWilliams’s Ice Music for Sydney in 1976) or floating from balloons (McWilliams’s Sky Kiss in 1976), her face, her body and her forceful presence commanded an attention that outstripped the sonic.
For women, such visibility often comes at a cost: the risk that the body will upstage its inhabitant and get conscripted into a performance structured in advance by patriarchal imperatives. Schooled in the ritual pleasantries of cultured Southern whiteness but also eager to rebel against those restrictions, Moorman (1933-1991) from an early age absorbed and played with the very codes that defined and demeaned her. In a photograph taken at the age of 19, she sits serenely enthroned on the back of a car bearing a sign that announces her beauty queen status but mangles her name: “1952 Miss City Beautiful / Miss Charlott Mooman.”2 Years later, after this promising Juilliard-bound student from Little Rock, Ark., had moved north, been married and divorced, dropped symphony gigs for the avant-garde, entered tabloid infamy as the “Topless Cellist” and catapulted beyond that into international recognition as a tireless performer and promoter of experimental music, her name would continue to be botched. Paging through the index to Catherine Elwes’s monograph Video Art, A Guided Tour (2005) one finds an entry for “Morman, Charlotte”; turning to the page indicated, one finds, alas, “Charlotte Mormon.”3
Niceties of spelling aside, the greater and more pervasive error is that Moorman has been rendered ancillary to the stories of the famous men she inspired, collaborated with and promoted, her image hijacked to represent their intentions and achievements rather than her own. A case in point occurs when Martha Rosler, in the midst of a critique of Nam June Paik in her important essay “Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment,” decries Paik’s “fetishization of a female body as an instrument that plays itself,” without bothering to even name the bearer of the body in question.4 If Rosler’s claim is valid, her occlusion of Moorman’s identity remains, for all that, symptomatic of an art world that finds this formerly captivating figure hard to accommodate.
All of which makes the recent arrival of a scholarly biography of Moorman as well as a current traveling exhibition, particularly satisfying. Joan Rothfuss’s vibrant, meticulous biography Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman (MIT Press, 2014) tracks its subject’s trajectory from Arkansas to the New York underground and on to global renown.
A notorious pack rat and self-promoter, Moorman died leaving a mountain of documents and raw materials (including every scrap of fabric from her countless re-performances of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece). The archive that supplied material for Rothfuss has also provided some of the artifacts exhibited for the first time in “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s-1980s” and “Don’t Throw Anything Out: Charlotte Moorman’s Archive,” a pair of exhibitions on Moorman currently at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Evanston, Ill. Numerous cross-disciplinary essays in the exhibition catalogue for “Feast,” coedited by curators Lisa Graziose Corrin and Corinne Granof, place Moorman’s work in dialogue with that of her contemporaries in new music, performance art and visual culture.
The reconsideration of Moorman also raises pointed questions about the history of the avant-garde. How ought we credit, evaluate and exhibit collaborative work when its roles are divided along such overfamiliar gender lines? What do Moorman’s high-wire acts of erotic humor, technological gadgetry and buoyant subversion have to say to a neoliberal present awash in the corporate celebration of “disruption”? More simply, how do you bring such a mercurial performer into the confines of a museum? The last question has become particularly sharp in the wake of the reaction to Bjork’s 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Though critics were unanimous in their appreciation of Björk’s gifts as a composer and her status as a worthy subject for such a show, they were nearly equally unanimous in their hostility toward Klaus Biesenbach’s curatorial direction, which herded visitors through a de-historicized obstacle course of album-environments that cramped and diminished this expansive artist, trading on her celebrity rather than her artistic substance.5
Turning Moorman’s life and work into something that can be experienced without Moorman herself poses similar challenges at present. With an answering machine clogged with sassy potshots from John Cage and sleepy hellos from John Lennon, Moorman connects the dots between Merv Griffin and Joseph Beuys. She offers an entry point to a vanished cultural era when celebrities mingled with the avant-garde. Her Rolodex is on display in “Don’t Throw Anything Out” for a reason. But Moorman’s own achievements go beyond the distinction of having had famous friends.
For an experimental artist, the kind of mainstream media attention that Moorman secured can be a Pyrrhic victory; if it ensures a large-yet-fleeting audience of Time magazine readers and “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” viewers for a moment, it also earns the competitive contempt of fellow artists and the skepticism of institutional gatekeepers likely to resent such runarounds. Reductive accounts of Moorman as mannequin, muse or huckster have obscured her gifts, oversimplifying a turbulent figure who catalyzed the public dissemination of radical art-making. New attention to Moorman is well timed given the recent rise of public and curatorial interest in sound art, feminist art and performance, and occasions a rethinking not just of Moorman’s particular legacy but of how, if at all, performers enter history.
Though clearly skilled at her instrument, Moorman was probably not quite up to the rarefied athleticism of classical cello soloists (few are), as we learn from Rothfuss’s accounts of her struggles at Juilliard; a telling story describes Leonard Rose, her teacher and an imposing figure in the cello world, physically holding her feet to the floor in hopes of correcting her habit of arching them as she played.6
Picking up gigs in the American Symphony Orchestra and working as an assistant to the tireless Manhattan event producer Norman Seaman, Moorman gradually stepped forward both as a solo performer of avant-garde compositions—premiering pieces by Joseph Byrd, Philip Corner, Ornette Coleman and La Monte Young—and as a promoter of experimental music events. The scope of her ambition became apparent when Moorman, with Seaman’s contacts and muscle, organized (and performed in) her first multi-day festival at Judson Hall, 6 Concerts ’63. With favorable, if befuddled, reviews in the press and even a Movietone newsreel shot on-site and rebroadcast on television to the amazement of Moorman’s relatives back home, 6 Concerts ’63 birthed an ongoing, intensely ambitious series of large-scale public events that became known simply as the New York Avant Garde Festival. While Moorman had misgivings about the name (“The works I perform are of this time. They’re performed in the present tense. How can they be ahead of their time?”7 ), she never doubted the potential of the events themselves, and thanks to her relentless charm assault on city bureaucracy, the assistance of countless artists, composers and friends, and the financial support of some well-connected patrons, the festival grew to be an increasingly ambitious extravaganza, sprawling across Central Park and taking over the Staten Island Ferry, Grand Central Terminal and even Shea Stadium.
While Moorman took substantial financial risks to rent performance spaces, her events thrived thanks to the volunteer labor of a growing army of contacts. And yet, despite its collective nature, the Avant Garde Festival remained a deeply personal endeavor and perhaps Moorman’s most enduring legacy. As Yoko Ono puts it in a posthumous documentary on Moorman by Paik and Howard Weinberg, “To me, the Avant Garde Festival is her work.”8 That work is defined by Moorman’s evangelical will to drag experimental composition and performance from their word-of-mouth, loft-scene margins to the cultural center. The process transformed her from a gifted cellist to something more: an impresario, or, as Earle Brown termed her, “Cecil B. De Moorman.”9
Moorman’s knack for persuasion, persistent drive and willingness to go 52 hours without sleep in order to write mountains of thank-you notes were in the service of something at once personal and collective. The Avant Garde Festival brought Moorman, and the burgeoning experimental community around her, to increasingly mainstream attention, allowing her to make contacts with an international network of composers, while also putting herself on the line before journalists, photographers and audiences eager to experience the emergent wave of multimedia Happenings.
For her second festival, in 1964, Moorman sought permission from Karlheinz Stockhausen to stage his theater piece Originale (1961). Although Stockhausen’s theatrical set piece for a coterie of European performers was given a luminous New York cast—with Allen Ginsberg as “The Poet,” Max Neuhaus on percussion and Allan Kaprow as “The Director”—the proposal hit a snag when Stockhausen insisted that Moorman’s new realization had to feature an unfamiliar name: Nam June Paik. In a now legendary moment of suspiciously well-timed serendipity, no sooner had this mandate been issued than Moorman returned to her hotel room to a phone call from the man himself, who announced: “Paik here.”10
It was the beginning of a collaborative bond that lasted the rest of her life. Emboldened by Moorman’s willingness to play the cello in Originale in a highly revealing gauze ensemble while suspended above the audience, Paik and Moorman would go on to develop a suite of works that combined pastiches of the classical repertoire with overt eroticism.11 The results showcased Moorman’s conservatory training, her command of extended cello techniques and her agility as an interpreter of open-ended scores (a capacity she had honed before meeting Paik in her adventurous, liberal reworkings of John Cage’s 26´1.1499˝ for a String Player).12 The pair’s success turned upon a fundamentally spectacular device: the exhibition of Moorman’s body. Pop Sonata (1965) called for Moorman to start playing a work by Bach fully clothed, then stop and gradually remove articles of clothing as she progressed through its movements. A variant called Sonata for Adults Only (1965) softened and extended the provocation. Moorman played behind a gauze screen, nude but visible only in silhouette.13
Despite the strategically high-minded theoretical justifications for such works as emancipations of music from “PRE-FREUDIAN HYPOCRISY” and gestures “Towards an Ontology of New Music,” which Paik put on concert posters and essay titles,14 the pieces also manifest an anarchic humor, an épater le bourgeois urge to provoke with clear antecedents in Dada. Having already scandalized Darmstadt, where he made his mark as a violent, forceful performer against the backdrop of Europe’s post-serialist new music scene, Paik spent years in New York testing the limits of a new country, with Moorman as catalyst. Rothfuss aptly characterizes their symbiotic bond: “Moorman’s onstage audacity fueled Paik’s imagination, and his ideas pushed her to take greater and greater risks.”15
Risk-taking has consequences, as Paik and Moorman learned in 1967, when police raided an invitation-only performance of Paik’s composition Opera Sextronique at the Wurlitzer Building near Times Square.16 Rothfuss reports a rumor that Moorman herself tipped them off in an overreaching bid for publicity that backfired. Officers infiltrated the crowd of cognoscenti. After Moorman played Massenet’s Elegy in an “electric bikini,” they watched as Paik taped to Moorman’s nipples battery-powered toy propellers that excited the strings of her cello. Once she completed a version of Brahm’s “Lullaby,” the officers stormed the stage and arrested Moorman, charging her with indecent exposure.
Moorman’s arrest led to a night in jail and a widely publicized bench trial that tested the very line between art and pornography that Paik had deliberately sought to blur. During cross-examination, Moorman’s entirely understandable but strategically unwise tone of wounded hauteur found its match in the smug philistinism of the judge, who was unmoved by the character witnesses and Newsweek art critics who struggled to explain why Opera Sextronique was modern art rather than a prurient striptease. Unlike the obscenity trials for “Howl” and Ulysses, Moorman’s case ended not with a triumphant victory for freedom of expression but with the demoralizing humiliation of a guilty verdict, suspended sentence and the tabloid headline “New York’s Topless Cellist (She’s From Little Rock) Arrested Before Big Finale.”17
As Rothfuss notes, the judge’s decision, however risible, was not entirely wrong in its insistence that there was a level at which Moorman’s actions were sexually provocative. Though his intent was never simply to arouse, Paik’s aesthetic project was to upend the tacitly sacred space of new music by bringing explicit sexual content onto the stage. High-minded justifications of the work as (harmless) culture rather than as prurience were thus hampered by Paik’s own stated motives.
This was mostly a matter of bad timing, as cabaret licensing laws were soon to make toplessness banal; full nudity would soon be a marketing gimmick that added hip countercultural cachet to off-Broadway productions. Presented in their moment as an “only in New York” story, Moorman and Paik’s actions may have lost their edge now, when an endless torrent of nude images is only a click away. The performances have more in common with the pansexual and often comedic provocations currently on offer at the fringes of New York’s queer club scene (Opera Sextronique would work perfectly at Bushwig, the Brooklyn drag festival) than with the furrowed-brow high modernism of uptown culture bunkers.
If the court case challenged Moorman’s resolve to expand what could be performed in public and for whom, she rebounded that year with a triumphant marathon of a festival on the Staten Island Ferry. Crowds exceeding 30,000 people took in work by over 150 artists, from jazz performances by Sun Ra and His Astro Infinity Arkestra to the debut presentation of Takehisa Kosugi’s composition Catch Wave and Michael Snow’s Wavelength, a foundational work of structural filmmaking.18 In a gesture whose symbolic weight could hardly be lost on bystanders, Moorman persuaded Herbert Halberg, commissioner for New York City’s Marine and Aviation Department and a linchpin in the securing of festival permits, to be a participant in an intimate Robert Filliou piece that called for this civic bureaucrat to lie at Moorman’s feet as she measured his body with a matchstick.
Rothfuss’s biography lays bare not only Moorman’s punishing schedule but also the network of friends who stepped in to support her. Barely recovered from surgery for uterine tumors in 1970, she headed off to Cologne for the Happening & Fluxus festival, followed by a European concert tour, when an incision opened and she was taken to the emergency room by a concerned Carolee Schneemann. In 1971, Yoko Ono intervened and generously covered her expenses when Moorman was faced with a crippling mountain of Festival-related debts. These gestures of care and gratitude attest to the depth of Moorman’s impact upon the community that radiated around her. Throughout much of her later career, she was supported by her husband and business manager, the stalwart Frank Pileggi, who stood by her during the trying final decade of her life, when a cancer diagnosis and mastectomy transformed and challenged the body that had been the basis of her performances for so long. Facing down history, she thought of her archive on her deathbed. Her last words to her husband were: “Don’t throw anything out.”19 The exhibition that now takes those words as its title is a testament to Frank’s fidelity.
What is left when a festival ends? What remains when a performer dies? In a moving personal letter, Schneemann registers affection for her friend, but also a certain prophetic fear that Moorman’s contributions might be obscured by ambient male bias, art historical conservatism and the transience of performances and festivals as such. Schneemann writes:
There are currently so many distortions of our recent history being declared publicly; it seems to have to do with old notions of power—individualistic, masculine-heroic traditions by which power accrues to those with power. This I always felt was one of your particular gifts—and one which has never been sufficiently appreciated: to establish a community, to have given us all a focused communality, an equity in which we shared, participated, developed a body of mutual concerns, aesthetically, personally.20
Has Moorman been forgotten? Today, the festival culture that Moorman inherited and innovated upon survives across multiple continents, media platforms and economic scales of operation, though it has been largely corporatized into the for-profit presentation of spectacles for consumers rather than preserved as a gift to the public at large. From Ars Electronica in Austria to the Media Arts Festival in Japan to the Sonar Festival in Spain to Unsound in Poland and beyond, the eclectic programming mix of performance, installation, video and sound art, and the model of emergent work being shown to the widest possible public audience, defines a cultural form that we now glibly take for granted. Moorman’s fearlessly democratic openness is in shorter supply.
Today, new generations of artists are working with and through some of the same questions that haunted Moorman: In the tangled mesh of collaboration, who gives or demands consent? Can machines and bodies interface in a manner that does not simply reinforce an obvious contrast? What are the sexual politics of “serious music”? What are the ethical and somatic boundaries of performance? The precedents set by Moorman radiate in more directions than can be counted off neatly. From different angles, one can see lines of influence connecting Moorman’s chocolate-covered body to Ann Liv Young’s stagings of feminine icons and Janine Antoni’s charged, traumatic sculptures, just as one can detect a resonance between Moorman’s TV Cello performances and Laetitia Sonami’s compositions for body/machine interfaces and Holly Herndon’s sound designs. One could go on.
But we shouldn’t discount the impact of the very thing that disturbed and enthralled Merce Cunningham all those years ago, and that still, today, justifies and troubles the spectacle of Moorman’s return: “the sight of her.” Harpist and composer Zeena Parkins, describing the impact of early performance photographs of Moorman on her as a conservatory student, evokes an experience that was equal parts provocation and mystery:
That image first burned into my retina sometime towards the end of college. What a powerful image it was . . . voluptuous naked Charlotte playing cello with her TV Bra. I had a million questions: What the hell was that thing she was wearing? Who thought of it? Did she make it? Who was she and how did she get to do this? What exactly was she doing? It left me mystified and wanting more. These were my last days as a classical pianist and I was transfixed.21
Years ago, Schneemann worried that Moorman’s personal and communal achievements would go underappreciated, leaving questions such as those posed by a young Zeena Parkins unanswered, preserving only an image in place of an archive. Thanks to the redemptive labor of Rothfuss’s Topless Cellist and the team of curators and writers behind “A Feast of Astonishments,” we have new opportunities to reflect upon Charlotte Moorman’s legacy, to argue about her impact, to listen to the sounds she made and to look again, with gratitude, at the sight of her.
“A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s-1980s” and “Don’t Throw Anything Out: Charlotte Moorman’s Archive,” at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Evanston, Ill., through July 17. “Feast” will travel to the Grey Art Gallery, New York, Sept. 8-Dec. 10, and the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, Mar. 4-June 18, 2017.