By Mariah Quintanilla
July 20, 2016
You might expect that someone who played the cello while suspended from giant helium balloons over the Sydney Opera House in Australia, organized major avant-garde festivals in New York City, and spent time with Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol, would not be forgotten.
Charlotte Moorman did all these things and more, but has been overlooked by art historians, possibly because of her status as a woman and the chaotic nature of her artistic enterprises. Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art is breathing new life into her work with their art exhibition, “A Feast of Astonishments-Charlotte Moorman and the Avant Garde, 1960s-1980s.”
Moorman, a classically trained cellist, was an influential participant in New York City’s 1960s avant-garde art scene, organizing 15 years of outrageous avant-garde art festivals. Yet, her influence did not outlast her death in 1991. Art curators at Northwestern, including Corinne Granof and Lisa Corrin, have restored the lost cultural icon’s rightful place among avant-garde artists of the 1960s-80s. The exhibit ricochets with the light and sounds of her work as an art curator and performance artist.
Immediately upon entering the main gallery, lights, voices and strange noises bombard the senses. To the left, Yoko Ono’s short video of a fly crawling on a naked woman’s body is projected on the wall, while the buzzing of a fly morphs into strange human shrieks from speakers from above.
Moorman and her partner Nam June Paik, a Korean-American avant-garde artist credited with being the father of video art, provided social commentary on war and technology through the lens of music, performance and sculpture. “A Feast of Astonishments” is now headed to New York, hopefully to serve as a welcome reminder of her significant contribution to the art world in the very city that inspired her creativity.
Below, Corrine Granof, curator of academic programs at the Block Museum, discusses Moorman’s life as it related to her art.
Q: Who was Charlotte Moorman? How did she become enveloped in this world of avant-garde art?
A: She was born in 1933, grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and started playing cello really early. At 13, she was in the Arkansas State Symphony. She went to the University of Texas and got a masters. Then from Texas, she was going to go to New York for Julliard, which she did, and that’s kind of where it all happened.
She gets exposed to people like Yoko Ono, and another one was Kenji Kobayashi. She’s kind of playing in [classical] ensembles to make some money, but then she just gives it up entirely, much to the dismay of her family.
She was playing this Leopold Stokowski piece in the symphony at one point and got so bored, she would just think about “Did I turn off the gas at home?”
(Kenji Kobayashi was a Japanese violinist who introduced Moorman to ‘New Music,’ incorporating electronic sounds in classical music, performed in traditional music halls during the 1960s. Like Moorman, he studied at Julliard, and also faced scrutiny because of his Japanese heritage.)
Q: What can people expect from “A Feast of Astonishments?”
A: The exhibition is divided into two main themes. One is Moorman’s repertoire, which are her performance works that were usually scores by other artists or musicians. And then the second part of the exhibition really focuses on her festivals. These incredible events that she organized in New York between 1963 and 1980.
So that’s why, when you walk in the space, you hear a lot of sound—you have this sense of action and people. That’s meant to kind of enliven these relics. What I really love about the exhibition are those short films. Those kind of things where you can see what it looked like and what it felt like in the midst of an audience or public.
Q: Moorman seemed to be huge in her time, so why is she so relatively unknown today?
A: Her work was not taken as seriously as other male artists that she was working with, or curators. Her work is so hard to categorize too, because she started out as a classical musician. It was hard to really categorize what she was doing, and I think that challenge kind of made art historians turn away or not want to deal with her.
She’s kind of a curator and an organizer, so it just made everything so messy and complicated, and I think that’s part of why she’d been ignored for so long.
People thought she was kind of Paik’s partner or muse. They saw it as his work, and she was someone who just performed with him. She became known as the topless cellist, so that sort of overshadowed her other work
(Paik made many of the works, such as the TV Bra, that Moorman wore in her performance art.)
Q: Avant-garde is so hard to access for some people. How might people today relate to her art?
A: A lot of people have said, ‘Why is it art?’ What is says about the times is so incredible. This exhibition is successful in communicating who she was and what she did, but also how she was reflective of the spirit of the 60s or of the late 50s.
This post-war period, where there was this huge questioning of ‘What is art?’ ‘What is music?’ ‘Why does it have to sound like this?’ and kind of reinventing the forms. This challenge or provocation of the status quo is really evocative of the 60s. This really reflects this moment of protest in a larger sense.