Charlotte Moorman show in New York: a spirit of unruly innovation

Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s 'Sky Kiss', Sydney Opera House, 1976©Courtesy of Kaldor Public Art Projects

Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s ‘Sky Kiss’, Sydney Opera Residence, 1976

If you have in no way heard of Charlotte Moorman, the cellist who covered her breasts with propellers, television sets, or nothing at all, it might be due to the fact for a time she was also famous for her personal excellent. In the 1960s she earned notoriety and sarcastic snorts, particularly from artists she championed. She played cello although held aloft by a bunch of helium balloons. She wrapped herself in clear plastic sheeting. And by the time she died in 1991, her profession had been written off as an avant-garde sideshow. If Moorman is remembered at all these days, it’s as Nam June Paik’s sidekick, the lady who wore his “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” (1969).

Now that so numerous of her collaborators and detractors have turn out to be historical figures, New York’s Grey Art Gallery is trying to lend her posthumous respectability. She might have been amused by the thoroughness with which the curators have pawed via her archives and come up with masses of video clips, photographs, papers and relics, supplemented by copious wall texts . She emerges from this earnest and effervescent tribute as an intrepid performer/impresario, who worked difficult to launch sophisticated art and music out of its New York bubble and into a wider globe.

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Pose, efficiency and practised femininity had been portion of her act from the beginning. In 1952, the 19-year-old Moorman was crowned Miss City Gorgeous in her house town of Tiny Rock, Arkansas. A photo shows her perched on the bonnet of a car, hair sleek and dark eyes gleaming. She decamped to Manhattan five years later to study cello at Juilliard and rapidly fell in with a coterie of artistic radicals. Japanese violinist Kenji Kobayashi introduced her to Yoko Ono, La Monte Young, Simone Forti and David Tudor, and she dived into a downtown scene exactly where significant musicians had been generating all sorts of wild noises. “I uncover in this music a sensuous, emotional aesthetic and nearly mystical power which can be overwhelming,” she said.

Moorman formed a close bond with Paik, a classical pianist and sometime composer who had moved into multimedia art. He became her partner in crime and, some may well say, her Svengali. He convinced her to take off her clothing in public, an notion she embraced with brio. Collectively, they injected a salacious note into the rituals of classical music performance.

For the 1967 “Opera Sextronique” she performed the first movement in a flashing electric bikini, and the second movement without it. Police stormed the stage and arrested her for indecent exposure. The trial earned her a suspended sentence, fleeting fame as the “Topless Cellist”, and appearances on the Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson shows.

Moorman performing on Nam June Paik’s TV Cello, 1971©Takahiko Iimura

Moorman performing on Nam June Paik’s Television Cello, 1971

She utilized the focus to promote her fellow artists, several of whom reacted with contempt. On television, she performed Cage’s “26’1.1499 for a String Player” prior to a reside studio audience, courting laughs and jeers. She took full advantage of the composer’s penchant for leaving numerous elements of the score up to the performer, and enhanced it with duck calls, a fire engine siren, sleigh bells, hammers and bursting balloons. She also study aloud from a tampon box, fried an egg and played a string stretched along a collaborator’s back. Cage hated it: she “has been murdering [the piece] all along,” he complained. Jasper Johns wrote to him that “C. Moorman need to be kept off the stage.”

Moorman with Nam June Paik performing John Cage’s ‘26’1.1499 for a String Player’, New York, 1965©P. Moore

Moorman with Nam June Paik performing John Cage’s ‘26’1.1499 for a String Player’, New York, 1965

It is hard to comprehend why her flamboyant functionality offended Cage, because he also had appeared on a game show named I’ve Got a Secret back in 1960, performing his piece Waterwalk. He moved about the stage like a deft Andy Warhol, deadpan and lithe, operating a musical apparatus that involved a blender, an iron pipe, a bathtub, a goose-call, five radios and a grand piano. The audience duly giggled.

You may well believe that, if the art world’s boys club scoffed at her self-aggrandising theatricality, at least ladies would cheer her on. Alternatively, they carped at the way she supplied her physique as a vessel for male creativity. Fellow avant-gardist Alison Knowles recognised her contributions, but with out enthusiasm: “She was always this girl from Arkansas, this superb kid in a dress holding flowers — so when an individual tells her to take off her garments, she takes off her clothing and when an individual tells her to go naked into the water, she’ll do it. It was thoughtless.”

The words of hardcore feminists have been even harsher. Andrea Dworkin named Moorman a “harlot” and referred to as her career “a process of extended rape”.

Latter-day pundits have cast Moorman as a sort of proto energy feminist taking manage of her sexuality. Her cheery manner belied the grit of a prizefighter her spectacular performances heralded an age of women’s defiant freedom. Moorman created no such claims for herself. She was far far more interested in exploding artistic conventions than in political struggle. She was an equivocal figure, poised at the precipice of feminism. Although some women have been burning bras, she made one sing.

Moorman’s most impressive achievement is the least remembered. Among 1963 and 1980 she produced the New York Avant Garde festival, an annual occasion that ultimately sprawled to the Staten Island Ferry, Central Park, Grand Central Terminal and even Shea Stadium. Moorman preferred openness and freedom to strict curation, and was prepared to accept just about anything so long as it was new and enjoyable. She invited Stockhausen, John Lennon and individuals who produced issues out of tin can lids. In Jim McWilliams’ “American Picnic” (1966) performers gorged on watermelon and fried chicken till they threw up.

That logistically complicated but anarchic spirit lives on in the citywide summer season solstice festival Make Music New York, in which armies of accordion players gather outdoors and percussionists beat on buildings. Listener/participants by the thousand shuttle amongst hundreds of concurrent events each June 21. Couple of recall that its spirit of unruly innovation flows from the woman who set an whole city humming with crazy music.

‘A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s’, to December ten, greyartgallery.nyu.edu

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Section: Arts