EVANSTON, Ill. — A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s, currently on view at the Northwestern University’s Block Museum, is a masterful (if only slightly overwhelming) orchestration of original artworks and archival materials that examines the legacy of avant-garde performer Charlotte Moorman — perhaps most commonly known as the “topless cellist” — through two exhibitions, a catalogue, and a year of robust programming.
The first exhibition is titled Don’t Throw Anything Out, an endlessly fascinating appetizer to the main show is located in an adjacent room and curated by Scott Krafft from Moorman’s archive, conveniently located at Northwestern. On one wall, a giant printed image of the artist gleefully enshrined by her archive is framed by actual shelving units packed with boxes and artifacts. A pale yellow Yoko Ono Grapefruit shirt casually hangs over a nearby box, as if Moorman herself had just been here, rifling through the files.
The thematically organized vitrines that line the remaining walls survey Moorman’s personal life, including her early years as a classically trained cellist and Southern beauty queen; her relationship with her second husband, Frank Pileggi; and mementos and gifts from illustrious colleagues, among them artists Nam June Paik and Ray Johnson. Krafft reveals Moorman to be an obsessive diarist and archivist whose collection was partially financed by friends Yoko Ono and John Lennon in the form of rent for storage space. Moorman kept detailed planners, notes, photographs, correspondence, and a giant double Rolodex that will make you weep. She recorded and cataloged all of her voicemails.
Above one of the vitrines is a reproduction of a letter sent by Moorman to Howard Klein, then the director of arts and humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation, asking for the support and acquisition of her “Information as Art & Art as Information” archive. The note is dated 1979, the same year Moorman was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a grueling mastectomy (which, of course, she also meticulously chronicled). Included in the final vitrine covering her illness is a small photograph of Moorman looking frankly ahead, her diagonal scar and remaining breast revealed, the rest of her body covered, as it often was, by a pink gown. Forty-nine of her “pain diaries,” scribbled on the backs of envelopes and paper towels, are framed in a neighboring corner.
Don’t Throw Anything Out was, for me, a crucial entry point for the main exhibition, and it’s unfortunate that it will not be traveling with A Feast of Astonishments to New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in the fall or the Museum der Moderne Salzburg in spring 2017. Like Warhol’s Time Capsules, the archive not only offers a glimpse of Moorman’s personal life, it also demonstrates her clear links to other luminaries of the time and her tireless efforts to promote avant-garde work in New York City and beyond. This naturally leads to a question — the question — around which the main exhibition is organized: Why are Charlotte Moorman’s contributions to the postwar art and performance avant-garde so underappreciated and relatively unknown today?
Instead of straightforwardly answering the question (because she was a woman, because she was married, because she was naked, because she was a performing artist with a “repertoire” rather than a “practice”), the formidable 11-person curatorial team at the Block has used the opportunity to refurbish Moorman’s unfortunately limited reputation as Nam June Paik’s topless prop. The exhibition is arranged around two major themes: Moorman’s repertoire as a performing artist and her work as the founder and organizer of the New York Avant Garde Festival. These two areas of Moorman’s life are bridged by a short section on her performances in Europe.
Rather than open with her collaborations with Paik, the exhibition begins by positing Moorman’s version of John Cage’s 26’1.1499″ for a string player as the centerpiece of her experimental performances. The open-ended piece was scored by Cage through chance operations like the I Ching and indicates each string and bow position separately, an unusual method for musical notation. Cage also included extra space at the bottom for “sounds other than those produced on the strings,” providing Moorman the agency to add what would become her signature performative gestures. Her elaborately annotated copy of the score is displayed under glass, with a scanned touch-screen version alongside it. Explained in handwritten notes, her additions include playing a giant bomb outfitted with strings, smashing lightbulbs with hammers, kicking cowbells, and frying an egg. These actions, combined with the already rigorous timing, ultimately made the piece impossible to complete in the prescribed 26 minutes. Cage publically dismissed Moorman’s interpretation as “murdering” his score, but she performed it on the Merv Griffith and Mike Douglas shows anyway.
Short clips from each televised appearance play on a screen near an alcove containing a photo of Moorman’s eccentric rig for 26’1.1499″ and her “Bomb Cello” sculptures. Though it appears that the invitations came in the interest of making jokes at her expense, it’s clear from the video that Moorman is earnest in her chaotic performances of 26’1.1499″. Her enchanting Southern drawl and sweet disposition in the interviews also attest to her genuine enthusiasm for promoting avant-garde work to a wide audience. When asked by Douglas if she is “serious” about music, Moorman responds, “Oh very definitely, but it’s not music. It’s a mixture: theater, environment, cooking, lighting, everything is important. The cello sounds are only one thing.” This “mixture” was why Moorman preferred to identify her work as “mixed media” rather than visual or performance art.
The most poignant area of the show is dedicated to Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” the only part of Moorman’s repertoire that’s presented in its own room. As far as I could tell, “Cut Piece” is the only work by another woman that Moorman performed. It’s also the least musical. The work involves audience members cutting off the performer’s dress one snip at a time. Moorman claimed to have performed it hundreds of times over 25 years, more than Ono herself. Installed among Moorman’s cut dresses (which are splayed out on canvases) and archival photos, a solemn projection shows Moorman performing “Cut Piece” at her loft in 1982, just as she realized that the cancer had returned. Outfitted with a bench for viewing, the space feels like a miniature chapel.
The rest of this section walks the viewer through about a half dozen other repertory performances, recreated through a combination of photographic documentation and physical leftovers, with giant vinyl pull quotes from Moorman and others peppered throughout the space. One entire vitrine features gingerly arranged, shattered violin pieces from Moorman’s performance of Paik’s “One for Violin Solo,” wherein the instrument is raised slowly over the course of five minutes and then abruptly smashed.
The exhibition’s discussion of these and other performances in Moorman’s “mixed media” repertoire attributes her relative obscurity to her practice of performing work that was originally created by other artists. But more importantly, the show also presents evidence of Moorman’s input, which restores authorship to her experimental practice. Moorman herself touched on this question in a 1982 interview at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art: “Paik does give me instructions, and then half of the piece is his, and the other half is mine. And what I do with it is up to me.” The small but significant shift to include Moorman as partial author of the pieces she performed is paramount to moving the conversation about her work forward.
The following section covers Moorman’s European tours, with hand-drawn posters from the 1960s announcing Moorman and Paik’s concerts abroad with the likes of Joseph Beuys; these have not only survived but appear as crisp in person as they do in the background of a Peter Moore photo of Moorman in her apartment. Her reception and reflections on traveling in Europe are interesting, but more important here is the focus on her incredible ability to network and meet artists whom she would eventually enlist for her Avant Garde Festivals.
The 15 iterations of the festival are covered in the final section of the exhibition, which details its metamorphosis from a strictly sonic affair to a free-for-all of performance, sculpture, and public art making. Original posters by Moorman and artist Jim McWilliams chronicle the event’s progression from a small indoor concert at Judson Hall to a giant festival staged all over New York, including in Central Park, Shea Stadium, the World Trade Center, and on the Staten Island Ferry (and once in Cambridge, MA). The arts organizer inside of me shuddered at the thought of obtaining proper licenses for all those venues, a feat that would almost certainly be impossible for the resourceful yet relatively impoverished Moorman and her band of dedicated artists and volunteers today.
The legacy of the sprawling and chaotic festival is recounted through various props, performance relics, and proposals that speak to its collaborative and “intermedia” nature. Lineups included video work like Ono’s “Fly Piece,” scored by John Lennon, as well as seminal Fluxus works such as “Ring Piece” (whose artifacts are displayed here), a performance by Geoffrey Hendricks wherein he meditated on a mound of dirt for 12 hours, apparently contemplating his recent “Flux Divorce” and coming out. Moorman also kept performance proposals from the likes of Bill Viola, Sandra Binion, and Ay-O. In one corner, two large vitrines appear to encase rusty, vintage trash mounds — these are actually the costumes and kinetic props for Carolee Schneemann’s “Noise Bodies,” a performance in which she and then-husband James Tenny created an improvised play with the clanging, wearable sculptures. There’s so much, it’s hard to imagine the amount of material the exhibition’s curators originally had to sort through.
And even when the show ends, it’s not entirely over. The catalogue for A Feast of Astonishments is a spectacular companion to Joan Rothfuss’s 2014 book Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman. The essays, which cover topics as eclectic as Moorman was herself, delve deep into various threads of the exhibition and reinforce its interdisciplinary nature. But the final, perhaps most fitting component of the show is the extensive and compelling schedule of performances, lectures, and more. Like Moorman’s original festivals, the program is inclusive, placing Moorman’s contemporaries (such as Schneemann and Simone Forti) alongside younger practitioners and students at Northwestern.
One of the highlights thus far was a recent improvised performance by cellist Tomeka Reid in collaboration with percussionist Adam Vida and visual artist Selina Trepp. Trepp’s warped and wonderful visuals perfectly complemented Reid’s exploratory playing style. Their performance thoughtfully reanimated Moorman’s collaborations with Paik — but this time with the cellist as the center of attention.
A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s and Don’t Throw Anything Out: Charlotte Moorman’s Archive continue at the Block Museum (Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, Illinois) through July 17.