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Topless but Far From Helpless: Charlotte Moorman’s Avant-Garde Life

So-called revisionist art history has made room for numerous, formerly overlooked or ignored artists in Western Civ’s recognized canon, but what is that establishment narrative to make of a big-boned Southern gal who played avant-garde cello in the nude while submerged in a Plexiglas tank filled with river water?

Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’ “Ice Music for Sydney,” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 1976 (courtesy of Kaldor Public Art Projects)

So-called revisionist art history has made room for numerous, formerly overlooked or ignored artists in Western Civ’s recognized canon, but what is that establishment narrative to make of a big-boned Southern gal who played avant-garde cello in the nude while submerged in a Plexiglas tank filled with river water? Or suspended from helium balloons in the air near the Sydney Opera House? Or when that “cello” was actually a big block of melting ice?

That adventurous performer and impresario was the late Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991), whose multifaceted career often has been obscured by the better-known achievements of some of the artists and music-makers in her wide circle of friends and associates. Now, a new biography of Moorman, written by Joan Rothfuss, a former curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, offers a revealing portrait of this pioneering performance artist and ardent member of the late 20th century’s artistic avant-garde.

BOOKCOVERToplessCellistRothfuss’s book, Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman (M.I.T. Press), is the first to examine in detail the life and accomplishments of an artist who was portrayed in the media as a purveyor of provocative stunts but who was, in fact, sincere and purposeful in her dedication to and promotion of a radically new aesthetic outlook.

Moorman was born and brought up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where her father was a salesman, and her mother an accountant. As a child, she developed a close relationship with her maternal grandmother, who had deep Southern roots and looked after Charlotte even more attentively than her own parents were able to do. Charlotte began learning to play the cello at the age of ten; because playing the big instrument required sitting with one’s legs spread in front of an audience, as Rothfuss points out, some of Moorman’s “more ladylike friends began to think of her as bold.”

In 1952, Moorman won a scholarship to a small college in Louisiana with a strong music program. That same year, she was also crowned Miss City Beautiful in a Little Rock beauty pageant; a photo of Moorman perched on the hood of a car, in an elegant white coat, wearing her winner’s crown, shows a born performer who knew how to play to the camera. After earning her undergraduate degree, she moved to Austin to continue her studies under the tutelage of the Belgian cellist Horace Britt. Her college boyfriend, a double bass player who would become her first husband, followed her to Austin and was with her when, in 1957, Moorman heard the cellist Leonard Rose play Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor, Opus 104. For Moorman, it was a milestone event. Later, she auditioned for Rose, studied privately with him and managed to land a slot as one of his students at the Julliard School in New York, where she arrived in the fall of 1957.

Rothfuss points out that, well into her adulthood, Moorman paid attention to what the local press back in Little Rock had to say about her unfolding career, and that much about her Southern childhood had indelibly formed her. “Classical music concerts, tea parties and beauty pageants are all, fundamentally, performances,” Rothfuss writes in her book. She adds, “Each involves costumes and codified rituals of behavior, and each is enacted before a critical audience. The power of Moorman’s work lies in her fusion of these three old-fashioned modes of performance … When she later married these with the novelty of experimental art, she invented something new.”

By the early 1960s, Moorman had faced numerous challenges and hardships — her father had died, her alcoholic mother had been committed to a psychiatric hospital, and her marriage was on the rocks. Financially, she was scraping by, but she had begun producing fellow musicians’ recitals. Asked to help organize one for Kenji Kobayashi, a Julliard violinist, Moorman approached the experienced concert promoter Norman Seaman, who agreed to help her if she could raise the money needed to cover its costs.

(Another contact advised her to ask Isamu Noguchi, the well-known modern artist, for a contribution, but she did not know him or even what he looked like, so, as she later told an interviewer, “I sat all day in the lobby of his hotel.” Moorman had left Noguchi notes and recalled, “This gentleman came up to me and said, ‘Are you waiting to see me?’,” to which she responded, “If you’re Noguchi, I am.”)

Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’ “Sky Kiss” near the Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, 1976 (courtesy of Kaldor Public Art Projects)

Kobayashi’s program included pieces by the experimental composers John Cage and Toshi Ichiyanagi (the violinist’s piano accompanist), and it was through him that Moorman was introduced to the phenomenon that had been dubbed “New Music.” Through these contacts, she met the composer Yoko Ono, who was then Inchiyanagi’s wife, the pianist David Tudor, the composer LaMonte Young and other key avant-garde music figures. Moorman became friendly with Ono and worked with Seaman to produce the Japanese-born artist’s first major solo concert, which took place at Carnegie Recital Hall in November 1961. Rothfuss writes, “Each of the three works [Ono] presented was an expressive collage of sound, language and movement….” They featured, among other participants, Young, the poet Jackson Mac Low, the artist George Brecht (who was associated with Fluxus), the filmmaker Jonas Mekas, the dancer-choreographer Yvonne Rainer and Moorman herself.

Moorman fell in love with the mixture of strange sounds and unpredictable antics that had come together as “New Music.” She prepared for her own solo debut in this field, which took place at a Lower East Side loft in 1963. Her program included atonal pieces for cello and piano by Anton Webern, from 1914, and such contemporary works as Cage’s 26’1.1499” for a String Player, which, in part, required its player to create sounds using a variety of objects or gestures of her own choosing.

Moorman diligently rehearsed Cage’s composition and reached out to its composer for guidance. To Tudor, she wrote, “After living with the Cage [composition] intensely for the past two weeks, I’m convinced that Cage is a genius. […] If I can just transmit my enthusiasm, awe and love for this piece to the audience.” Over the years, that Cage work would become one of Moorman’s signature offerings, but not always to the composer’s liking, for the avant-garde cellist would broadly interpret the sound-making it called for, enough to accommodate an inflatable plastic clown and an old, metal bomb casing as “instruments.”

As Moorman drifted away from her classical-music base, and as her new colleagues became aware of her organizational skills, she soon found herself producing events at Judson Memorial Church’s Judson Hall and other downtown-Manhattan venues. Although she struggled financially — sometimes she worked for a telephone-answering service — she felt buoyed by her new artistic pursuits. Rothfuss observes that, in Moorman’s notes for a 1963 radio program, she wrote, “I find in this music a sensuous, emotional, aesthetic, and almost mystical power which can be overwhelming.”

In 1964, through the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, she met the Korean-born, experimental composer-performer Nam June Paik, who invited her to become his collaborator. Paik was interested in sexualizing the sound and presentation of concert music, which he regarded as uptight and tradition-bound, and he saw Moorman, free-spirited and voluptuous, as a likely partner in provocation. (Rothfuss quotes an artist who knew Moorman and recalled that she was “a tiny bit zaftig” and “always look[ed] as though she need[ed] to have her lipstick put on straight and her clothes adjusted.”)

Charlotte Moorman performing Nam June Paik’s “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 5th Kaidor Public Art Project, Sydney, Australia, 1976 (photo by Kerry Dundas © Art Gallery of New South Wales)

So began a years-long collaboration, one in which the music-and-action scores Paik created for Moorman led to unusual performance art pieces in which the cellist’s body, instrument and gestures were fully integrated with the music she made and the object-props her partner devised for her, such as “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” (1969), consisting of two little television monitors covering her breasts. In Paik’s “TV Bed” (1972), Moorman lay on a bed of large TV monitors, bowing her cello. In “Guadalcanal Requiem” (1977), a video work, which Paik and Moorman traveled to the Solomon Islands to shoot, the musician plays her instrument among the ruins of World War II battle sites and hauls it on her back as she crawls through a beach’s shallow surf.

Although Moorman took her work seriously, her television appearances, in which she played abbreviated versions of her favorite Cage piece, and news coverage of other events in which she took part, made her a poster girl for what the mainstream media viewed as far-out artists’ goofy stunts. The event for which she became forever notorious was her flesh-revealing performance of Paik’s “Opera Sextronique” at a small theater near Times Square in February 1967, during which, at one point, she wore an “electric bikini” outfitted with tiny, twinkling lights. She also appeared topless. Despite the fact that the concert was free and by invitation only, policemen swooped down and arrested Moorman. She was convicted of appearing partially nude in public, but her sentence was later suspended. Inevitably, she became infamously known as the “topless cellist.”

In 1975, Rothfuss notes, Moorman told an interviewer, “Sometimes I feel Paik doesn’t really think of me as Charlotte Moorman. He looks on me as a work of his.” Paik did acknowledge his partner as the co-creator of “Guadalcanal Requiem,” though, and by 1980, Moorman could confidently state, “All these pieces are half-mine. […] In performance these are not Nam June Paik pieces, but Nam June Paik/Charlotte Moorman pieces.”

Charlotte Moorman performing Nam June Paik’s “Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saëns” at 24 Hours, Wuppertal, West Germany, 1965 (courtesy Charlotte Moorman Archive, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library)

One of the most significant parts of Moorman’s legacy was her impact on the international avant-garde community through her extraordinary and generous role as a networker and impresario, who invited both up-and-coming and established talents to take part in her Annual New York Avant Garde Festivals. (Her performance in the water tank was part of the ninth such festival, in 1972.) These events grew out of a series of concerts she had organized in 1963 and were produced yearly, with some exceptions, through 1980. Over time they spread out from auditoriums to such venues as Central Park, the Staten Island Ferry and Grand Central Terminal. Even after she was diagnosed with cancer in 1979, Moorman continued working on her festival.

In a letter to a New York Times critic written immediately after Moorman died in November 1991, Paik noted that she had been one of “only a handful of women artists” who had helped “shape the sensibility” of the period from the 1960s to the time of her death, and recalled how his friend and her devoted second husband, Frank Pileggi, had struggled financially. “Still she put up a gorgeous smile for the press,” he wrote, “and performed all over the world.”

Rothfuss became familiar with Moorman’s career when she did research for a 1993 Fluxus exhibition she co-curated at the Walker Art Center. She began working on her biography in 2001. In a recent interview she told me that, still at that time, “no one had looked into Moorman’s life in any depth.” Fortunately for Rothfuss, Moorman was a pack rat, and her personal archive, which is now owned by Northwestern University’s library in Evanston, Illinois, is filled with notes by the artist, letters, posters from concerts and art events, and press clippings. Rothfuss did not gain access to this material until 2006, after it had been catalogued. From such holdings, along with filmed and audio interviews with Moorman and her friends and collaborators, as well as in-person interviews the author conducted herself — her first was with Paik, a few years before he died in 2006 — Rothfuss gathered enough illuminating material to craft a vivid portrait of her subject, despite never having met her herself.

Curator and art historian Joan Rothfuss, author of the biography of Charlotte Moorman (photo by Paul Shambroom)

Although Rothfuss’s book is not a critical biography per se, she weaves into its narrative of Moorman’s unfolding career enough subtle critical assessment to allow readers to appreciate the artist’s accomplishments. Rothfuss noted that Moorman “wasn’t inclined to develop a conceptual or theoretical framework for what she was doing” and that Carolee Schneemann, a well-known performance and multi-media artist of Moorman’s generation, “has thought a lot about why Charlotte has been ignored and thinks it’s because she did her work ‘like a crazy girl.’”

Rothfuss added that Moorman might have been more overlooked than other artists of her time because, until recently, her information-rich archive simply was not accessible. An exhibition examining Moorman’s career, which will open at Northwestern’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art a year from now and come to New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in the fall of 2016, should also help raise this avant-gardist’s art-historical profile. (Rothfuss is serving as a consulting curator of this exhibition.)

Topless Cellist suggests that one of the main aspects of Moorman’s artistic life, which spilled over into her daily life, was her instinctive sense of showmanship, even toward the end, when, to the irritation of some her friends, she sometimes appeared to regard her own debilitating illness as a performance. Rothfuss passes no judgment. Instead, she presents the details of a life lived with gusto until its end.

“I was less interested in figuring out why she did what she did than in bringing her work and methods to light, and letting them speak for themselves,” Rothfuss told me. In her book, she quotes the composer and music critic Carman Moore, who, admiring Moorman’s dogged search for sponsors, permits, venues and participants for the 9th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival in 1972, wrote, “Nothing stops her — not the police, not ill health, not the regular avant-garde’s aversion to festivals and straight-world publicity. […] [H]er hustling of the straight world for some concessions to the arts may amount to the freshest (and most hopeful, perhaps) aspect of the avant-garde idea.”

Maybe that unsinkable gumption, wrapped in a Southern belle’s charm, is the most valuable key to understanding Moorman’s ability — or willingness — to champion the new and perplexing, and to weather the critical storms her activities stirred up. As Frank Pileggi admitted in a radio interview a few years before Moorman died, his wife was “terrified of everything in life, but if you tell her it’s a performance, she’ll do anything.”

Joan Rothfuss’sTopless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman (2014) is published by M.I.T. Press.

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