Charlotte Moorman’s Electrifying Avant Garde Cello


The greatest performers are those with not only the sharpest chops, but also the openness, the generosity, to give themselves over to the vision of another. Far from being a selfless act, however, performance requires an abiding self-possession as that self receives, and imparts, ideas as a spirit medium would: into the mind, and through the body.

The musician Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991) was a performer of this caliber. As a cellist of terrific skill and achievement, she played and interpreted some of the most important compositions of the midcentury American avant-garde. As a woman of strong mettle, she roused those same circles with her particular velocity, not only as a performer but also as a curator of experimental music and art. The life and work of a performer isn’t easy to capture or contain inside a gallery; life force is a slippery thing, after all, unable to be collected, archived, or displayed. But co-curators Lisa Corrin and Corinne Granof of Northwestern’s Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, where the exhibition began, have put together a graceful and electrifying exhibition that vividly captures the whirl of Moorman’s work and legacy, telling her story through instruments and sculptures, performance videos and television appearances and photographs (many of which were taken by the late, great photographer and Fluxus documentarian Peter Moore), as well as posters, scores, costumes, and other ephemera. All of which is to say: At last, Moorman has been given a spotlight she’s deserved for quite some time.

A beauty queen from Little Rock, Arkansas, Moorman moved to New York in the late 1950s to study at Juilliard and was instantly entranced by the city’s roiling avant-garde art and music scenes. For Moorman, the impulse was to be a part of the moment in which she lived — to serve the spirit of the age. “I would give anything to have been the first to perform Brahms’s Double Concerto,” she said in 1969. “Since I couldn’t do that, I am satisfied and thrilled to play the newest and most exciting music of our time. It’s what I live for.”

In 1964, she met artist Nam June Paik, and soon they began collaborating and performing together. Moorman wasn’t simply a muse to Paik; she was an essential instrument for the transmission of his ideas. It was with her, and for her, that he built some of his first video sculptures: TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and TV Cello (1971), both of which were used by the cellist in performance.

Although they were both well-known in their circles, the two suddenly became a national sensation on February 9, 1967, when Moorman was arrested and charged with indecent exposure for performing Paik’s Opera Sextronique bare-breasted. (Paik too was arrested that evening, but all charges against him were dropped after a judge determined that a piece of music could not be deemed pornographic.) Obscenity laws, then as now, hinge on the question of social importance versus prurient interest: Were Moorman and Paik trying to arouse and titillate, or was there cultural value, necessity, in the cellist’s appearing nude? Moorman herself wasn’t out to prove a point, political or otherwise. In fact, she later admitted that if she’d known what she was getting herself into that night, she wouldn’t have done the piece. As it was, her aim was truer, and more straightforward: to present the work as it was conceived and intended by the artist.

For fifteen minutes, Moorman was the avant-garde’s emissary to mainstream culture, appearing on The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show. (She’d hoped public appearances would advance her cause, but she was ultimately found guilty and given a suspended sentence.) If the mainstream tried to make a one-liner out of her — dubbing Moorman the “Topless Cellist” — she, with gentility and good humor, was having none of it. When she appeared alongside Jerry Lewis on The Merv Griffin Show, she roped him into her act by asking him to hold one of her instruments: a cello made of a bomb. “Did anyone tell her I’m a movie star?” Lewis quipped. Then, in her Southern lady–like fashion, Moorman coolly knelt the comedian down in front of her and used him as a human cello, drawing her bow across his back — playing him for the audience in every sense of the word.

Paik, of course, wasn’t Moorman’s only partner in crime, so to speak. Over the years, she worked with the likes of John Cage, Otto Mühl, Joseph Beuys, Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and other luminaries. She performed Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece — in which an audience is invited to take scissors and snip pieces of the performer’s clothing away — more times than Ono herself. For Jim McWilliams’s Sky Kiss, written for Moorman, she was harnessed to sixteen enormous balloons that lifted her into the sky as she played her cello.

One of the most mesmerizing objects in the exhibition is Moorman’s personal copy of John Cage’s score for 26’1.1499 for a String Player, here reproduced digitally so viewers can swipe to turn the pages or tap to enlarge the images. The cellist handwrote performance notes that are as cryptic as Cage’s notations, if far more oddball. Words like HOT DOGS, ROCK & ROLL, GUN, TIN CANS, INCOME TAX, and BUZZER are penciled in various colors, cues for Moorman — though to do what, exactly, isn’t always clear. (Neither is it clear why she taped Spanish-language instructions on how to use Tampax to Cage’s pages, but it certainly reads like a gesture of lighthearted subversion on her part.) What the score makes clear is that Moorman’s performances were won by making a piece, to some degree, her own.

Even after Moorman was diagnosed with cancer in 1979, she continued to perform, to give of herself, though not as frequently. In the 1980s she began to create and design her own cellos, more sculpture, perhaps, than instrument: One is outlined in neon, another hauntingly fabricated from the hypodermic needles used to administer her painkillers. Her body, her instrument, so entwined. Seeing them all installed, sitting silently, unplayed, one certainly feels the absence of the woman who once gave them life — who made them sing — as only she could.

A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s
Grey Art Gallery, New York University
100 Washington Square East
Through December 10