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Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s Sky Kiss, 1968, 6th Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival, Central Park West, New York, September 14, 1968. Photo: Peter Moore. © Barbara Moore/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

“A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s”

Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University

Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s Sky Kiss, 1968, 6th Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival, Central Park West, New York, September 14, 1968. Photo: Peter Moore. © Barbara Moore/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

LONG MARGINALIZED in histories of both postwar art and experimental music, Charlotte Moorman has finally begun to receive the scholarly attention she deserves. In musicologist Benjamin Piekut’s Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits (2011), Moorman figures alongside John Cage, Henry Flynt, and members of the Jazz Composers Guild as a prominent figure in the city’s flourishing mid-1960s music scene. Moorman moved from ensemble player to leading lady in former Walker Art Center curator Joan Rothfuss’s meticulously researched and engagingly narrated 2014 biography Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman, which laid an impressive foundation for future scholarship. And now, with “A Feast of Astonishments,” Moorman is the ostensible subject of a major touring retrospective.

I say ostensible because the crucial conjunction in the show’s subtitle—“Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s”—reflects the fundamental structure of the exhibition itself. Methodologically, “A Feast of Astonishments” lies somewhere between the specificity of Rothfuss’s careful elucidation of Moorman’s personal trajectory through a tumultuous period of artistic invention and Piekut’s interrogation of the multiplicity of positions that constituted New York’s avant-garde culture at the time. Installed roughly chronologically, the retrospective wrestles with the fascinating challenge of mounting an exhibition devoted to an individual whose primary work was as a performer and organizer rather than as an author—who indeed exemplifies a moment of artistic transition that was marked by a proliferation of performative, ephemeral, and collaborative practices. The result is a historical version of what the artist Ei Arakawa recently called one of his own collective exhibitions: a “non-solo show, non-group show.” While Moorman remains a constant presence throughout, she is rarely, if ever, alone.

Born in 1933 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Moorman studied cello at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal arts school, and later in the master’s program at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1957, she moved to New York to continue her studies at Juilliard. While initially focused on the classical canon, she gravitated toward the experimentalism of such New York School composers as Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Edgard Varèse. In 1963, Moorman organized “6 Concerts ’63,” the first of what would become a series of fifteen (more or less) annual festivals, many of them seminal events in the history of intermedia and expanded arts. The 1963 festival marked Moorman’s second public performance of Cage’s 1955 composition 26'1.1499" for a String Player, which would become a central fixture in her repertoire. The structure of Cage’s score grants a great deal of freedom to the individual performer, but he intended for that liberty to apply to those willing to, in his words, “start from zero” and avoid bringing their own subjectivity to bear on the work. In contrast, Moorman truly made the work her own, incorporating such a quantity of additional instructions that they eventually supplanted Cage’s original notations, as evidenced by the heavily annotated personal copy of the score included in the exhibition (along with a digital facsimile that viewers are free to page through on a touchscreen device). This important shift in authorship is equally apparent in the stark contrast between the spare musical setup documented in photographs of Moorman’s 1964 performance of 26' (with Cage himself turning pages and assisting) and the much more elaborate arrays of sound-producing devices pictured in a 1975 diagram by her husband, Frank Pileggi, and visible in video footage of Moorman performing the work on televised variety programs hosted by the likes of Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson.

These appearances in the mainstream media set Moorman apart from many of her avant-garde peers, highlighting a flair for publicity and her embrace of a certain populism; both unquestionably expanded her audience but have also complicated her legacy. On one hand a quintessential Southern belle, on the other an artistic provocateur par excellence, Moorman has long been a controversial figure for feminist artists and historians. Was she merely a willing accomplice to masculine fantasies, deserving of the same caustic critique that Martha Rosler directed at Moorman’s frequent collaborator Nam June Paik when she described the latter as presenting the female body as “an instrument that plays itself”? Or was Moorman an empowered agent, slyly deploying her (often naked or seminude) body in the service of her own artistic goals? While acknowledging the first position, the exhibition’s curators and catalogue essayists mostly come down on the side of the second, arguing that Moorman’s adherence to certain conventions of both classical performance and Southern femininity—her predilection for makeup and full-length evening gowns—served as a counterpoint to the radicalism of the scores she performed, and that her appearances in various states of undress can be interpreted as calculated disruptions, intentionally provocative gestures delivered for maximum effect and maximum publicity.

Few performances achieved these goals more effectively than Moorman’s collaborations with Paik, and their long-standing artistic partnership is a focal point of the exhibition. Alongside Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture, 1969, and TV Cello, 1971, both created specifically for Moorman, the curators installed a trove of archival material related to their most infamous undertaking: Moorman’s 1967 performance of Paik’s Opera Sextronique, 1967, at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque in New York. The NYPD arrived on the scene at the end of the second act, and Moorman was arrested on charges of indecency. The resulting furor left her with the unfortunate nickname “the topless cellist,” perhaps obscuring some of her more formidable accomplishments. But if Paik believed that new music needed to be sexed up a bit in order to remain relevant, he certainly found in Moorman a willing partner in crime.

Collaborations with Paik were not the only works in Moorman’s repertoire involving the removal of clothing. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, 1964, which Moorman claimed to have performed more than seven hundred times, was a mainstay. A photograph by Kenneth Werner of Moorman performing the piece in Aachen, Germany, in 1966 shows the artist staring up into space as two male audience members snip at her dress; a seemingly bemused Paik stands nearby. Keenly attentive to questions of publicity, Moorman recognized early on the importance of documentation. A 1982 video of a New York rooftop performance of Cut Piece is striking in that it captures not only the actions of artist and audience but also the sheer amount of documentation taking place: At various points we see multiple camera operators and even a sound boom weaving around Moorman.

Moorman saved scores of dismembered gowns from performances of Cut Piece, which now reside in her archive at Northwestern University’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections. Alongside photographic and video documentation, “A Feast of Astonishments” presents three of the shredded garments, pinned to large rectangular canvases and stretched like paintings. While the impulse to display such relics is understandable, and this particular tactic is fairly standard museum practice for presenting textiles, in this case it is one of the exhibition’s only missteps. Unlike the six smashed violins from performances of Paik’s One for Violin Solo, 1962, laid out side by side in a long vitrine, the mounted dresses risk appearing less as remnants than as artworks themselves. By contrast, the presentation of Carolee Schneemann’s Noise Bodies, which she premiered with James Tenney at the 1965 festival, is exemplary. High on a wall, a slide show of historical photographs depicts the two artists, clad in “sound making debris,” as they move about a darkened hall, the projector’s beam of light evoking the small flashlights used in the piece. Accompanying the slides, a cacophonous sound track, created using the original costumes, which were recently rediscovered in Schneemann’s attic and are included here, plays over a loudspeaker, while the raw materiality of the costumes themselves—ingenious bits of wearable junk sculpture assembled from foraged urban detritus—grounds the presentation in the DIY ethos of the work’s historical context.

Ephemeral events and performances are, of course, notoriously difficult to exhibit. Luckily for subsequent generations of curators, photographer Peter Moore was a ubiquitous presence at Moorman’s events. He was reportedly the only person other than Moorman to attend all fifteen of her New York Avant-Garde Festivals, and in some places “A Feast of Astonishments” feels almost like a Moore show. Through nearly one hundred of his photographs (as well as those of others such as Ute Klophaus, who documented Moorman’s important early tours of West Germany), the exhibition tracks the evolution of Moorman’s practice alongside the transformation of the European and American avant-garde, and its mediation, itself.

The early festivals were held at Judson Hall on Fifty-Seventh Street (not to be confused with Judson Memorial Church, site of many other important performances in the period). After a relatively “straight” first edition, things quickly gained steam the following year, when the US premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale, 1961, was chosen as the marquee event. Directed by Allan Kaprow, the German composer’s Happening-like theatrical spectacle featured a cast of experimental luminaries—Allen Ginsberg, Dick Higgins, Alvin Lucier, Jackson Mac Low, Max Neuhaus, Paik, James Tenney, and Moorman herself, among others. It was an important moment of both collaboration and conflict within the New York scene: As the performance unfolded to a packed house, a small group, led by artist and musician Henry Flynt and Fluxus impresario George Maciunas, picketed outside on the sidewalk.

In 1965, an unintentionally chaotic presentation of Kaprow’s Push and Pull, 1963, resulted in the NYPD temporarily shutting down the entire festival. (Directed by Schneemann, the mayhem involved audience members tearing down signs and yanking hubcabs off cars on the street outside, then breaking mirrored panels inside the venue.) But this seeming disaster was perhaps a blessing in disguise. Although the show did eventually go on, Moorman would never again stage the event in a traditional theater. From Central Park (1966) to the Staten Island Ferry (1967) to the 69th Regiment Armory (1971) to Grand Central Terminal (1973) to Shea Stadium (1974), Moorman moved from one unconventional venue to another, each somehow more ambitious than the last. As the festivals increased in scale and complexity, the makeshift aesthetics of the early years gave way to more technologically oriented forms of spectacle, with individual works often overshadowed by the scale and prominence of the sites themselves. Echoing watershed projects such as Experiments in Art and Technology’s 1966 “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” Moorman’s peripatetic events contained the DNA for many of the migratory festivals and event-based exhibitions that have become ubiquitous in contemporary artistic culture.

In the run-up to the 1964 festival, Varèse famously described Moorman as “the Joan of Arc of new music,” referring to her ambition to bring new art to the widest possible audience. Moorman enthusiastically embraced Varèse’s appellation, repeating it on many subsequent occasions. With “A Feast of Astonishments,” we are also reminded of a lesser-known nickname coined by composer Earle Brown shortly after the same festival’s completion. “So what else is new,” he wrote from Paris, “now that you’re the Cecil B. de Moorman of the music world?”

“A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s” is on view through July 17; travels to New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, Sept. 8–Dec. 10; Museum der Moderne Salzburg Mönchsberg, Austria, Mar. 4–June 18, 2017.

Jacob Proctor is curator of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, where he is also a lecturer in the division of the humanities.