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Avant-gardist Charlotte Moorman finally gets the recognition she's due

The performance artist, festival curator, and "topless cellist" is the subject of a new Block Museum retrospective.


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Multidisciplinary artist Charlotte Moorman's experimental cello performances and avant-garde festival curation shaped New York City's cultural underground in the latter half of the 20th century. Moorman died of cancer in 1991, and for the last 25 years her legacy has been felt largely as a footnote to the histories of her better-known collaborators: John Cage, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono. But now the Block Museum of Art has opened a retrospective exhibition this month on Moorman's legacy of performance and provocation. "A Feast of Astonishments" presents artifacts from her work and ephemera from her life for the first time, honoring a figure whose fearless and playful gestures refused to fit neatly into the canons of any discipline.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1933, Moorman trained as a classical cellist, first in her hometown and later at the Juilliard School in New York. After years of working as a freelance musician, she abandoned the trajectory she seemed poised to follow, leaving behind a husband who expected a traditional domestic life of her and moving to Manhattan to pursue music and performance on the fringes. There she would cultivate a community of similarly adventurous artists, several of whom appeared onstage at Northwestern's Block Auditorium last Saturday to discuss their memories of Moorman's friendship and the legacy she left behind.

The New York Fluxus artist Alison Knowles remembered Moorman as "someone who brought women into the idea of performance art." Carolee Schneemann, a multidisciplinary artist best known for the 1964 short film Meat Joy, described Moorman's endeavors as "proto-feminist." Though Moorman didn't align herself with an explicit politics, her commentary on her work—printed on walls throughout the museum—casts the question of agency in performance in a new and still radical light.

In 1967 Moorman was arrested for public indecency during a half-naked cello performance of Paik's Opera Sextronique, earning her the nickname "the topless cellist." (Paik, whose score called for the nudity, wasn't charged.) Moorman would subsequently do battle with a reputation that cast her within an objectifying gaze: as a provocateur using nudity as a gimmick instead of as an artist reclaiming sexuality within the typically neutered arena of music performance.

Moorman never saw herself as a muse, though many would apply the word to her role in Paik's performance scores. She insisted on her agency, no matter her collaborators; once Paik wrote a script, she was free to actualize it however she wished—the art lived through her. She would often perform in the nude—cellos made of ice she would play down to water, cellos made of Plexiglas and televisions she would play by waving magnets near the screens. Moorman bowed her (wooden) instrument in Paik's iconic TV Bra for Living Sculpture, a pair of miniature televisions affixed to a clear plastic harness. Paik described the work as a "living sculpture," but Moorman would subdivide it into three equally living components: the bra, herself, and her cello.

Artists' retrospectives often tend to reinforce the mythology of isolated genius. "A Feast of Astonishments," by contrast, is a portrait not just of Moorman but of the community she enlivened and the inner life that was her longest-running performance. Alongside photos of performances like Sky Kiss, where she played cello suspended in the air from a dozen massive helium balloons, the exhibition presents detritus from her less glamorous endeavors, including her decade-plus battle with cancer that spread from her breast to her bones. A concurrent exhibit in the Block's Katz Gallery is named for the artist's last words: "Don't Throw Anything Out." Receipts, shopping lists, photos, and love notes to her second husband (and frequent collaborator), Frank Pileggi, are scattered under glass, labeled and contextualized. Moorman held these private fragments as sacred as her public triumphs; they're displayed here not as an invasion of her privacy but as the amplification of the private moments she'd been documenting throughout her life.

A Polaroid shows Moorman shortly before her death: emaciated, hooked up to an oxygen tank, and smiling broadly. Her smile threads together the many chapters of her history represented in this exhibition. She wears it as a teenage beauty queen in Little Rock, then years later while dangling from balloons or watching her friends perform at one of the 15 avant-garde festivals she put on across New York City. Her transparent joy ignites all the works she participated in, from Ono's intimate Cut Piece to Cage's playful 26′1.1499′′ for a String Player, both of which Moorman kept in her solo repertoire. She wasn't an isolated source of genius but an animating, generative force for it, enabling a community of friends and peers to make art fearlessly for the sake of wonder.

That wonder rings even now through "Feast." In the center of the Block's main gallery, there's a series of cubicles dedicated to Moorman's avant-garde festivals. In one, the floor has been scattered with dozens of can lids that a sign invites visitors to step on—a re-creation of a festival performance staged by experimental musician Max Neuhaus. During my visit, some museumgoers tiptoed cautiously across the aluminum; others stomped through the work. Every few minutes, the sound of a stomper would crash through the air—the pulse of Moorman's abandon, alive and well. v


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