If history is written by the victors, every now and then it is amended by the losers: the ones who stick around long enough to have their say, or who die young and enjoy a posthumous vogue when trends shift, or who leave behind an archive so obsessively granular and vast that it functions as expert witness to an entire vanished moment, rewriting a story that few even remember.
The performance artist Charlotte Moorman, who grew up in Little Rock, was a loser of the latter stripe. A dominant presence in New York City’s avant-garde scene in the 1960s and ’70s — as a performer as well as an organizing force for the congenitally disorganized, e.g. artists — she has been treated by posterity mostly as a footnote to Real Artists or worse, a pet, a secretary hired for her looks. She was also a hoarder, which seems to have been exhausting for those who knew her, but which allows two strange and absorbing exhibits at New York University this fall, “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant Garde, 1960s-1980s,” at Grey Art Gallery, and “Don’t Throw Anything Out,” at Fales Library, to argue convincingly in her favor.
Born in 1933, Moorman studied classical cello from the age of 10, earning a seat as a student apprentice with the Arkansas State Symphony at 13, and going on to receive a master’s degree from the University of Texas. In 1957, she moved to New York to study at the Juilliard School. But classical music, in the superheated ’60s, was a mode that had gone cold. It was the experimental work she heard around town that gripped her, and she fell in with that scene. But she held on to her cello. By the mid-’60s she was performing pieces by John Cage and the video artist Nam June Paik, with whom she often collaborated, among others. “I find in this music a sensuous, emotional, aesthetic and almost mystical power that can be overwhelming,” she wrote.
“A Feast of Astonishments” catalogs those performances as well as her other major accomplishment, her advocacy of other’s works, most notably the New York Avant Garde Festival, a carnival of artistic license that was an epicenter of the experimental art scene and which she produced more or less annually for 15 years beginning in 1963.
The festivals are probably her biggest legacy. For sheer organizational might, especially pre-internet, they are probably unrivaled, as they are for municipal tolerance of public spectacle: Central Park, the Staten Island Ferry, Shea Stadium and Grand Central Station were all willingly handed over by city officials to the merry band of misfits when Moorman came to call. Her charm was legendary.
But as art, the festivals have aged badly, an uncurated fire sale of madcap ideas that were relevant only in a specific time and place and to a certain few, like a group hallucination. Clearly you had to be there. Photos, notes and footage are unconvincing, and surviving relics are neutralized by the years. Several pairs of pants and shirts, painted bright blue with white fluffy clouds by “sky artist” Geoffrey Hendricks, are strung across the ceiling of Grey Gallery like battle banners from a once-proud family of lords, House Happy Hippie.
For a good time, browse participants’ proposals for artworks: an installation of two dozen dead whiting fish on the field-level seats in Shea Stadium, “watching” clips of football games on a giant television; two men eating traditional American picnic foods until they vomit; a video event documenting “the environment and sayings” of Sam Pogensky, owner of a Manhattan hardware store; a found art piece, by John Lennon, using the windsock from Floyd Bennett Field; a man making mayonnaise for 12 hours; a man riding a horse backward for 12 hours; a man wanting to hold the Goodyear blimp on the end of a string; a man weaving hemp hammocks with hemp-hammock-weaving collaborators, listening to authentic hammock-weaving music; a ballet being performed by eight Department of Sanitation salt-spreading trucks.
It wasn’t all disposable silliness — Sun Ra performed one year on a truck with his Arkestra, and Yoko Ono could generally be counted on to contribute something poetically above-average — but an awful lot was. The main point, in aggregate, seemed to be a scorched-earth approach to traditional arts culture. “An event so extreme, it mystified everyone,” the New York Post noted, after the third Festival in 1966.
Moorman’s personal performances were different. Abrasive, bizarre, unbalanced, witty, or sad, they never felt random. They meant something to her and so to her audience, whether the audience liked it or understood it, or not. Like the festivals, the performances were also a rebuke to tradition, but disguised as tradition, smuggled in behind her glossy beauty-queen poise, her concert-musician guise, her formal dress, like a blade baked into a cupcake.
Moorman understood the natural metaphorical potential of the cello, an instrument the size of a person, with a mournful voice, which lent itself to endless variations: a cello strapped to her back as she military-crawled desperately along a beach, a cello made from a bomb, a cello made of syringes, a cello made of television monitors that flashed distorted images of her face and other images as she played. Maybe most memorably she made a cello from a shirtless man, his face hidden as he kneeled in front of her, grief and love on her face, a postmodern Pieta. But she could be just as effective in her playing, as in Giuseppe Chiari’s “Per Arco,” composed for her, in which she scraped the bow over the strings, fumbled clumsily along the neck of the instrument, smacked it, stroked it and wept.
Along the way, she began to use her body as part of the performance. Nam June Paik constructed a bra top for her with breast-sized televisions instead of cups. He also made her a bed of televisions, which she lay down on and played the cello on her back, erotically, auto-erotically. She wore a gas mask while she played, or went topless, or completely nude. In a series of photographs taken in Italy she is zipped into a blue sack with her cello and rolls around in a field of wildflowers, various parts emerging from an opening in the fabric, the neck of the cello, the body, her bare rear end.
The world that these works were made, as a response to, is almost entirely gone, which means the most valuable part of the exhibits is the material that restores some of the context: video clips of performances and TV talk shows that show people grappling, in real time, with something that was obviously blowing their minds. In a shadowy clip of an early performance, neatly groomed young men, eager new scenesters, watch Moorman and other performers with their mouths hanging open.
It was a world still rigidly fixed into castes of young and old, feminine and masculine, good and bad, rich and poor. A 14-minute montage of Moorman’s answering machine messages, from the exhibit in Fales Library, plays as a missive from a lost world of men, high-tone, suave, rolling their Rs, piano music tinkling in the background, inviting her to some art opening or another. You start to sweat just listening to them. The only one who sounds like any fun is the typewriter repairman, with his tough-guy Brooklyn patois, offering to deliver her machine to her apartment. (Moorman seems to think so, too, picking up the receiver mid-message. “I’m here, but I’m not dressed,” she tells him, letting her voice trail off.)
Watching Moorman interact with people is endless fun. On “The Mike Douglas Show” in 1969, she performs, in a full-length gown, one of her signature pieces, John Cage’s “26′ 1.1499” For a String Player. She reads from the phone book, plays her bomb cello, swigs a soda and belches, and breaks eggs into a frying pan.
Douglas, predictably, plays it for laughs, looking at times as though he is wondering if he is being punked. His questions for her have a nasty edge. Is she serious about her music? Is there a future in it? He thinks her bomb cello has “a very bad tone.”
But there is no snowing Moorman. “Well, I think war generally has a very bad tone,” she chides him, as though speaking to a child.
“Oh, good comeback,” Douglas says, infinitely patronizing. “That’s very good.”
He is outmatched, but hasn’t realized it yet. “It looks so uncomfortable for a lady to play such an instrument,” he leers, to titters from his audience.
“No, it feels good,” Moorman says, beaming at him guilelessly.
He asks how her family feels about her career. “You’ve performed topless,” he points out.
“Partially nude,” Moorman clarifies. “You know, I’m also wearing a gas mask. The press never mentions the other things I’m wearing.”
Why Moorman would put on this hair shirt in the first place is a mystery until the end. “When these people come to your show, they come to see Mike Douglas. They’re kind of prisoners. … I’m very lucky I can reach this audience.”
This was missionary work. Her art and, arguably, her beauty allowed her to move through the world like a double agent, someone who satisfied people’s strict expectations and also messed with them, someone who understood that her effect on people was the best card in a crummy hand. Which is to say, a woman. And especially a woman then. Performance was perfect for her. Metaphors, props, masks, roles: All these exploded the limited range of a proper Southern lady.
What were her deeper impulses? Neither the shows nor an excellent 1995 documentary, “Topless Cellist,” shown in “Feast of Astonishments” and available on YouTube, do much psychologizing. Her father died when she was 12, and she was raised by her mother and grandmother, who had high hopes for their prodigy and never squared with her path. (One of the sadder papers from the archives is a long handwritten letter from her grandmother, detailing precisely the depth of the family’s disappointment.) “She was reserved, guarded,” recalls one of her childhood friends in the documentary. Later friends remember her as irresistible, ballsy, loving, but also maddening and draining, chronically late, chronically poor. She filled one apartment after another with junk. Trucks hauled away the garbage when she died.
But if she had issues, she didn’t talk about them; her work was not confessional. Its emotions show in oblique appeals for human contact, mannered expressions of pain. In Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” which Moorman made one of her signatures, audience members were invited to cut pieces from her clothing until there was nothing left, a process which took on the feel of a communion. “It’s endless, the lovely things people do,” Moorman commented once, about those performances. “They often give me a little kiss after they cut … .” She meant her work to be theatrical, but not a farce. When she was arrested for indecency during a performance, she was photographed being removed by the cops; she looks stricken.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 48, she insisted on having her procedures filmed, as though turning life into a performance made it bearable. Among her effects is a Polaroid of her after her mastectomy, topless, staring levelly at the camera, and then later, emaciated, a month before she died, at 58.
If that isn’t radical female art, what is? But feminists wouldn’t claim her, whatever wave of them was waving at the time and ever after. She was too sexy, too flirty, too obviously in cahoots with men, though the men she collaborated with generally took the credit for themselves. John Cage reportedly accused her of “murdering” his “26′ 1.1499” For a String Player, in part by adding a section where she read the directions on a tampon box, though the work was designed as discretionary.
Whomever history named the victors, a life like Moorman’s did its work anyway, contaminating the era’s purebred social codes with other possibilities. In the 1995 documentary, Moorman’s childhood peers in Little Rock are interviewed, genteel, buttoned-up ladies of a certain age who perch in their tidy parlors like Moorman’s road not taken. They reminisce about her walk, her attitude, her beauty with a mix of pride and disapproval. “It’s kind of embarrassing to know that she went to such great lengths to attract attention,” says one, adding, not unkindly, “She may just have thought of it as a real art form.”
Except one: Joann Martin, a Nancy Reagan lookalike in large pearl studs and a matching brooch, who recalls in vivid detail a dress Moorman had owned in high school, 45 years earlier. “It was perfectly straight in the front, long-sleeve black velvet. But,” she says, shooting the interviewer a look. “The whole back of it was out. And in 1951, that was a rather risque dress for a high school senior.” A beat. “And I wore Charlotte’s dress in the senior play,” she declares. The expression on her face is triumphant.