Charlotte Moorman Is Finally Remembered as More Than “The Topless Cellist”
On a cold New York City night in February 1967, the avant-garde artist and cellist Charlotte Moorman took the stage for the second act of Opera Sextronique. She was wearing a glossy, floor-length black skirt—one fit for a seat under Carnegie Hall’s spotlights—and nothing else. After she launched into an absurd rendition of a classical lullaby (at one point, strumming her cello with mini propellers affixed to her nipples), a band of policemen stormed the private performance, promptly dragging her to the local precinct.
The charge was indecent exposure, and Moorman spent the night in jail, along with Opera Sextronique’s creator, Nam June Paik, a pioneering Fluxus artist and Moorman’s frequent collaborator. While Paik was released the next day, Moorman stood trial, forced to defend herself against a slew of allegations centered on the performance’s lasciviousness. One courtroom exchange went like this—Court: “She played the cello?” Witness: “Yes.” Court: “Where did she put the cello?” Witness: “Between her legs, your Honor.” At one point, the prosecutor even went so far as to suggest that the blinking lights on the electric bikini Moorman wore in the first act were “winking.”
Moorman was later found guilty, a verdict that was a blow not only to freedom of expression, but also to the artist’s work and legacy. Fueled by tabloid headlines across the city, a new nickname, “the Topless Cellist,” was inexorably tattooed to her public image. Until recently, the reductive moniker—along with the erroneous notion that she was merely Nam June Paik’s muse, rather than his collaborator, let alone an artist in her own right—was all that most people knew of Moorman’s influential output.
Now, an exhibition at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, which traveled from Northwestern’s Block Museum, is set to reestablish Moorman’s underrecognized influence in the city where she pulled off some of her most daring feats. “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s,” which opens this Thursday, tracks her many endurance-testing performances, inspired manipulations of avant-garde scores, and raucous, era-defining festivals where she gathered together some of the most adventurous artists of the 1960s and ’70s—all executed with her inexhaustible panache, and sweetened by her signature Southern drawl.
“She’s just someone who’s always been on the periphery of art-historical scholarship on the ’60s,” explains Block Museum curator Corinne Granof. “She appeared in the context of Fluxus and in the context of Nam June Paik, as his partner, collaborator, and muse, but no one had ever written her history, or taken a serious look at her contributions, until her archive came to Northwestern.”
In 2001, 10 years after her premature death following a 12-year battle with cancer, Moorman’s archive was purchased by a foresighted curator at the Block. It was an apt fit for the unorthodox collection, which includes other strong avant-garde and Fluxus material, like the John Cage and Dick Higgins archives. “It came in a big truck packed with over 170 bankers’ boxes, 50 or so rolls of posters, and another 30 huge crates,” explains Granof. “Moorman was somewhat of packrat, it was just a massive amount. The library’s curator, Scott Krafft, who was tasked with organizing it all, had no idea who Moorman was at the time. He’s now one of the world’s foremost Moorman experts,” she continues, laughing. The truck, having made an 800-mile journey from New York City to Evanston, Illinois, contained the many vestiges of Moorman’s chaotic, albeit wildly prolific, life.
“Whenever we heard Charlotte was coming, we’d prepare for incredible delays and chaos and excitement and sexiness and vibrancy—she was sparkling,” says feminist artist Carolee Schneemann, a close friend and collaborator of Moorman’s, on the phone from her home in upstate New York. “There was a density of stuff wherever she was—concert gowns, scores, papers, underwear, a little dog. There was just no way to clear up her accumulations. But it was magical.” Many accounts of Moorman’s life, corralled primarily in a 2014 biography by curator Joan Rothfuss and in the exhibition’s comprehensive catalogue, describe the unbridled energy that attended all of Moorman’s activities, from her early avant-garde performances, just after leaving Juilliard, to the final festival she organized in the Hudson River’s Passenger Ship Terminal, when she was already in the throes of her battle with cancer.
Moorman was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, and moved to New York in 1957 to study classical cello at Juilliard, at the age of 24. But she was quickly drawn to the dynamism of the avant-garde music scene and, for the most part, set her classical scores and practice aside to participate in that world. By the mid-1960s, collaborations with artists mostly associated with the Fluxus movement—Paik, Schneemann, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Takehisa Kosugi, Jim McWilliams—filled her days with spellbinding performances. They saw her submerged into a bucket of water mid-performance (Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saens with Nam June Paik, 1964); playing a cello composed of TVs whose visuals responded to the modulations of the music it produced (Concerto for TV Cello and Videotapes with Nam June Paik, 1971); or suspended in mid-air, with cello in hand, by a bouquet of balloons (Sky Kiss with Jim McWilliams, 1968–1980).
Paik and Moorman’s TV Cello (1971) was perhaps her best-known performance—and her gateway into the few art history books in which she made early appearances. But in them, she’s rarely cited as Paik’s collaborator (an error he would also work to correct). “She was often just seen as someone who performed Paik’s work, and that’s absolutely untrue,” explains Granof. “For TV Cello, the most famous, iconic work that he created for her, she was the one who went to him and said, ‘Can you do this for me?’ They worked together on how it would be configured as a cello. She was very much a collaborator and a participant; not just someone who performed his works.”
At the time, feminism’s second wave was on the rise, fueling a growing consciousness around the prevalent bias against female artists. “I always thought that she was such a vivid extension of any of Paik’s principles, that he was almost like her acolyte,” says Schneemann. “But that was my position as a feminist artist, always seeing that the women were to some extent marginalized or in a reduced position to support the male artist, like a muse. That was the tradition. At the time, it was really all pre-feminist analysis, so Charlotte was anomalous. People didn’t know what to make of her critically, insofar as the the cultural critics were young men.”
But Moorman’s most vocal critics, somewhat paradoxically, were themselves second wave feminists, who read her collaborations with male artists—and the use of her naked body—as degrading or seductive, in opposition to their objectives. Even her friends and collaborators occasionally took issue. “She was always this girl from Arkansas, this wonderful child in a dress, holding flowers—so when someone tells her to take off her clothes, she takes off her clothes, and when someone tells her to go naked into the water, she’ll do it,” explained artist Alison Knowles, a mainstay in Moorman’s festivals, to scholar Gisela Gronemeyer. “And I find that at a certain point for her to redo those pieces of Paik again and again was a bit sad, or maybe she would just do it because that was the work that she was known for.”
But to others, Moorman’s endless experimentation with sound and the body pushed not only avant-garde art, but also feminism, into new, generative places. “I completely identify with her use of the body because it was absolutely playing against the anticipated eroticism of the time,” says Schneemann. “It was too confusing, it was too different, it didn’t conform to a prurient aspect of the female body that would create desire. She was doing something else that bewildered and conflicted with traditional expectations.”
Her festivals followed suit. The carnivalesque, chaotic events united artists from Ono to Allen Ginsberg to John Cage, who often came bearing their most experimental projects. “These were amazing events that she pulled off pretty much on her own,” says Rothfuss. The 15 festivals realized between 1963 and 1980, in Shea Stadium, the Staten Island Ferry, Grand Central Station, and Central Park, at times brought together as many as 80 artists for a single event. To secure Central Park in 1966, she cold-called Mayor Lindsay in the middle of a transit strike. A few hours later, she had scored a permit for her fourth festival.
Significantly, the festivals were always accessible to the public, and often situated in the city’s most trafficked locations. “She was very interested in that intersection between the broad public and the artist who was working at the very front of what was going on,” says Rothfuss. “And she was creating some of the first real partnerships between avant-garde artists and governmental institutions—the city and state agencies that she had to get permits from.”
But the biggest takeaway from Moorman’s festivals was the exchange with other artists, across mediums, that the extravaganzas afforded. “We would not have existed as a community without her,” says Schneemann. “That was all Charlotte’s dynamic and vision—that we could work together and share these unexplored potentialities. The avant-garde festivals made that happen, in all their confusion and chaos. Beautiful, rigorous work happened within it.”
When the exhibition at Grey opens to the public on Wednesday, it will include footage of Moorman surrounded by the creative mayhem of her festivals, perhaps her most important contribution to the artistic canon—a legacy that has only recently being recognized by scholars. “Art-historical scholarship is just coming around to the idea that single authorship is not the only way to make a contribution,” explains Rothfuss. “Being an artist in the studio producing works that are yours has historically been the model for considering whether or not someone has made an important work. She didn’t do that, but her contribution is no less important for having created this community.”
Inspired by Moorman’s passion for experimentation and her unflappable tenacity, composer Edgard Varèse, in the 1960s, gave her a new nickname: The Joan of Arc of New Music. It’s an apt description, but one that, in light of recent and long overdue Moorman scholarship, might be due for an update—to include the word “art.”