Good Charlotte

Colby Chamberlain on Charlotte Moorman

Charlotte Moorman, Neon Cello, c. 1989, Plexiglas, neon tubing, and electrical parts, 48 1/2 x 16".

ONE TELEVISION MONITOR in “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s,” screened clips of Charlotte Moorman’s TV appearances. On the Merv Griffin Show in June 1967, Moorman performed John Cage’s 26’1.1499” for a String Player with the help of comedian Jerry Lewis. Holding a military-grade practice bomb that Moorman had converted into a cello, he asked the audiences, “Does she know I’m famous?” Gingerly, he kneeled down before her, his head bent toward her bare shoulders while she pulled a cello string taut up along his back, playing it with her bow. It’s a beguiling, confounding scene: Charlotte Moorman on Merv Griffin, interpreting a score by John Cage, treating Jerry Lewis as a human instrument—a role that, in previous renditions of 26’1.1499”, was filled by Nam June Paik, whose composition Opera Sextronique had landed Moorman in jail for indecent exposure the February prior, earning her the “topless cellist” notoriety that likely precipitated her booking on Merv Griffin in the first place.

This brief clip, funny and fraught, captures the complexities of “Charlotte’s Web.” Few figures are so exemplary of the neo-avant-garde’s sustained assault against modernist principles of medium specificity and artistic autonomy. A Juilliard-trained cellist, Moorman fused experimental composition with audio-visual theater; performed a repertoire of scores written by others; organized annual New York Avant Garde Festivals that assembled artists, musicians, and dancers from around the world in settings as varied as the Staten Island Ferry or Shea Stadium; and demonstrated a taste and talent for mobilizing technology toward spectacle and engaging audiences through mass media. From the start, she cultivated a sweetly demure and frankly sexual “Southern belle” persona, presenting herself in formal clothing or no clothing at all, which led to the catch-22 allegation that either she was a passive object deferring to the desires of her (mostly male) collaborators, or a narcissistic subject hiding behind shared authorship as an alibi for exhibitionism. (Should anyone believe we’ve moved past the era of judging women musicians for their sartorial choices, I recommend looking up Janet Malcolm’s recent New Yorker profile of virtuoso pianist Yuja Wang.) To untangle an incident like Moorman’s Merv Griffin spot, it’s helpful to look toward her personal copy of Cage’s 26’1.1499” score. In the exhibition’s catalogue, musicologist Jason Rosenholtz-Witt details how Moorman listed multiple solutions for each of the composition’s many technical challenges. This palimpsest of possibilities helped Moorman tailor her renditions to specific contexts, whether Carnegie Hall or Johnny Carson. However seemingly chaotic, her manhandling of Jerry Lewis on Merv Griffin followed fixed notations.

Nam June Paik, TV Bed, 1972–91. Performance view, Bochum Art Week, Bochum, West Germany, 1973. Charlotte Moorman. Photo: Hartmut Beifuss.

Rosenholtz-Witt’s discussion of 26’1.1499” is just one of several nuanced, informative analyses in the “Feast of Astonishments” catalogue. Musicologist Ryan Dohoney, for instance, decodes Moorman’s annotations to scores by Morton Feldman. On another register, art historian Hannah Higgins shows how Moorman planned the first Avant Garde Festival—its participants, publicity, personnel, and paraphernalia—on a single scribbled-over paper scrap. I point to these excellent contributions to raise a question: How can the sophistication of current scholarly approaches to the neo-avant-garde be better reflected in curatorial practice? That is, how does Dohoney’s expert reading of graphic scores, or Higgins’s attentiveness to hybrid forms of authorship, extend into an exhibition’s arrangement of objects in space? Organized by a team of curators at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art, “Feast of Astonishments” falls into many familiar traps: an overreliance on placards to provide narration; low-hanging vitrines dense with documents and inimical to close study; displays that, without further contextualization, come off as relics, memorabilia, or props.

“Feast of Astonishments” is hardly the first exhibition to confront the difficulty of curating music. (Recall—as if you could forget—the Museum of Modern Art, New York’s deeply disheartening Björk retrospective.) An alternative approach might have showcased a fuller selection of her annotated scores, or more methodically parsed her individual collaborations, such as her technological experiments with Paik, her arrangements for photo-documentation with Peter Moore, her dialogue with Carolee Schneemann, or even her competition with that other indefatigable organizer, George Maciunas. It’s only through a canny focus on Moorman the interpreter, or Moorman the impresario, that an exhibition will offer much insight into Moorman the artist.

“A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s” ran September 8 through December 10 at the Grey Art Gallery in New York.