Avant-Garde Cellist Charlotte Moorman Revisited In Two Exhibits

Avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman is the subject of a pair of exhibits that chronicle her life and examine the extent of her influence on the modern electronic festival movement.

In life, Moorman was a polarizing figure. As a young woman, she left her native Arkansas and a past that included beauty pageants, marriage, and serious doubts about gender roles and mores for a chance to study music at Juilliard School. Historians have often found defining Moorman’s role the New York art scene problematic. Male contributors to collaborative works are often seen as equals while their female counterparts are cast as helpmeets, ingenues, and muses.

It is no accident that Moorman’s Rolodex is curated as part of the display in “Don’t Throw Anything Out: Charlotte Moorman’s Archive,” one of two exhibits devoted to Moorman’s life and work at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. Moorman was not only a fixture in the world of avant-garde art, she was its emissary to mainstream media and pop culture. She took an active role in commanding the nature of her work, pushing herself and her colleagues to raise their visibility from New York’s loft art culture to venues that guaranteed wider audiences and relatively greater commercial success. This made her a figure or admiration and derision born of equal parts snobbery and jealousy.

A contemporary and compatriot of figures as diverse as John Lennon and Allen Ginsberg, Charlotte Moorman shared their propensity for cultural and legal challenges. Unlike her comrades in arms for free speech, she lost one of her biggest legal battles when she and her collaborator, Nam June Paik, would face charges of indecent exposure for her performance of his avant-garde composition “Opera Sextronique,” which included a striptease as part of the work. The ideas behind works such as Ginsberg’s “Howl” were put on trial while Moorman would find the physical form, more specifically her physical form, was the linchpin of the state’s legal case against them.

New York in the 1960s was already changing into a place where the legal landscape was beginning to get more hospitable to adult entertainment and nudity in modern art was finding more acceptance. According to a recent look at Moorman’s career in the April issue of Art in America, there were three factors working against Moorman when she had her day in court. She was dismissive of the venue, implying that her art was beyond the comprehension of the bench. Paik had already made public statements alluding to the deliberate eroticism and sexually transgressive nature of the work. There were also rumors that Moorman called the police herself, a publicity stunt that went horribly wrong.

The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art examines the life of this troubling and triumphant artist with two exhibits. “Don’t Throw Anything Out: Charlotte Moorman’s Archive” contains the artifacts of a life lived for work. Moorman was an obsessive collector and diarist who documented her life by keeping every piece of paper, every image, and every artifact of the events that meant something to her. Personal papers, letters, the aforementioned Rolodex, recordings of telephone messages, and T-shirts populate this smaller introductory exhibit. The larger, main exhibit, titled “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde 1960s – 1980s,” focuses more on Moorman’s performances, films of her work as an avant-garde cellist, archival recordings, pictures, props, and costumes. Both exhibits will be available until July 17, 2016. Then “A Feast of Astonishments” will travel to the Grey Art Gallery in New York, where it will be open to the public from September 8 to December 10, 2016. From there, it will travel to Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, opening on March 4 and running through June 18, 2017.

Charlotte Moorman died in 1991, just missing the start of the internet age. Who knows how she would have used the internet as a performance component as a citizen of the worldwide community of the web? The resurrection of her profile should show she was more than a historic figure locked into a specific zeitgeist, that woman cellist who wore little and made avant-garde music, make clearer how much of a role she played in that nexus point between music, performance, and art.

[Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images]