December 13, 2016
The Grey Art Gallery’s A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s, presents a fascinating collection of artwork documenting the life and performances of a critical artist of the avant-garde who deserves more recognition for her contribution to the trajectory of experimental, multimedia, and feminist art. The exhibition, organized by the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in partnership with Northwestern University Libraries, encompasses the artist’s revolutionary production of fifteen avant-garde festivals held mostly in New York City between 1963 and 1980, as well as documenting her individual identity as an artist and performer. A Feast of Astonishments is a comprehensive exhibition that spans Moorman’s early career, her performances of various influential composers’ work, as well as her organization of avant-garde festivals and her sculptural cello pieces. Overall, two crucial themes stand out as strikingly controversial and pertinent to contemporary art today. First and most apparent is the issue of Moorman’s identity and self-expression as an artist and woman performing and reinterpreting predominantly male composers’ work during the emergence of second-wave feminism in the U.S. Also substantial and worthy of exploration is the artist’s role in the emergence of a freer, expanded definition of what it means to be a performer, expressed via a subversion of the traditional hierarchy between the composer and musician.
Although Moorman’s work has helped shape how we experience art today, it hasn’t received serious critical attention or analysis until recently. In fact, her name is usually missing from surveys of twentieth century art. At most she has been acknowledged among the loose network of Fluxus artists or considered muse or performance partner of Nam June Paik, whose position as “father of video art” has long been established. Works such as Opera Sextronique (1967) and TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) were crucial within both Moorman and Paik’s career. Both received a lot of criticism for Moorman’s partial nudity as a vessel for Nam Jun Paik’s masculine vision. Although this was a first impression for many critics at the time, including Martha Rosler and other second-wave feminists, the collaboration was much more elaborate than a simple, male dominant composer/performer hierarchy. Paradoxically enough, it empowered Moorman in emphasizing of her own agency over her body and her subversion of object vs. subject relationship with her instrument, which would continue on as a dominant theme in her work.
Opera Sextronique, in particular, brought Moorman both fame and notoriety as the “Topless Cellist” after her arrest during the 1967 performance. As controversial as it was, the subsequent trial brought awareness and change in terms of the presence of a living, female nude in art. Art critics were called to the stand to discuss whether the effect of Moorman playing in the nude was meant to be sexually stimulating or not. Because Moorman’s nudity was not objectified by a male artist in a painting but instead part of a real-life performance realized through her own agency, it blurred the lines between subjectivity and objectivity, which led to her being charged with indecent exposure.
The resulting spectacle, which became a byproduct of Moorman’s work that she actively promoted through occasional contradictory statements, serves as a unifying theme within her revolutionary performances and artistic vision. In this respect, her conviction for having active agency in her own nudity, as opposed to the conventional passivity of the female nude, became a paradoxical signifier of the social need for Moorman’s work at the time. Therefore, although the controversy of Moorman’s arrest and consequent nickname as the “Topless Cellist” hurt her credibility as a serious artist in certain circles, the resulting publicity invariably aided Moorman’s artistic mission. TV Bra For Living Sculpture (1969), which was created by Paik after the controversy and Moorman’s arrest, exemplifies Moorman’s persistence and dedication to revolutionary ideals of performance that initially led to her arrest. Consisting of two miniature television sets functioning as the cups of a woman’s bra, the TV Bra was designed to be worn by Moorman as she performed on the cello. This performance was revolutionary in the sense that it further subverted classical notions of a female cellist and helped establish Moorman’s career as a dedicated avant-garde performer.
In fact, the captivating reversal of the object/subject relationship in the artist’s work has its beginning in her earlier performances, such as the Bomb Cello of 1965, in which her audience was confronted with the prominence of the bomb as an object and its relation to Moorman’s body, which was purposefully objectified in direct relation to the bomb, in order to overturn the traditional relation of musician and instrument. Carolee Schneemann’s Noise Bodies performance, presented in the 3rd Annual Avant-Garde Festival Moorman organized, signals a similar reversal in the artist/instrument dynamic in which a conducting rod allows two performers to “play each other.” Overall, both Moorman and Schneemann’s perfomances subvert traditional art dynamics while also establishing the independent presence of female artists in conjunction with the rising tide of sexual liberation in the 1960s.
Moorman’s later works, for example her repeated performances of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1968-1989) and her 1976 performance of Jim McWilliams’ “Ice Music for Sydney,” in which she performed in the nude with an ice cello, further reveal the revolutionary aspects of her work. In fact, Moorman pursues innovative expressions as a performer to a startling degree, as evident in her cello sculptures completed as late as 1989. Moorman identified the cello as an extension of her own body, making these reinterpretations of the cello especially potent. Her subversion of the composer/performer and object/subject relationships reaches its peak in these later works, in which cellos stand alone as individual works. Testifying to her personal conviction to reinvent the dynamics of performance and her individual identity as an artist, Moorman’s collective repertoire is inevitably reminiscent of Edgard Varèse’s renowned description of her as the “Jeanne d’Arc of New Music.” Far exceeding misconceptions classifying her as just a performer or a muse, Moorman perpetually reinvents and expresses in unprecedented ways the revolution in artistic practices during the 1960s–1980s and beyond. The Grey Art Gallery’s A Feast of Astonishments reveals, above all, Charlotte Moorman’s significance as an artist in her own right, chronicling her single minded pursuit of artistic vision in a diverse and multifaceted body of work.