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A FEAST OF ASTONISHMENTS: CHARLOTTE MOORMAN AND THE AVANT-GARDE, 1960S-1980S

 

 Hartmut Beifuss Charlotte Moorman performing Nam June Paik’s TV Bed, Bochum Art Week, Bochum, West Germany, 1973 Digital print Peter Wenzel Collection. © Hartmut Beifuss
 

Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library of New York University, through December 10

By PETER FRANK, DEC 2016

“A Feast of Astonishments” was the breathless title given a remarkably favorable review of the 1964 Avant-Garde Festival in New York. That second iteration of a concert series devoted to new music broke through the “music” rubric and transformed a chamber concert space by Carnegie Hall into a site for a multi-media happening, albeit one formulated by a composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Subsequently, the Avant-Garde Festival – as many New Yorkers of a certain age recall – abandoned the concert hall for the open (and not so open) spaces of the City. Meanwhile, Charlotte Moorman, the Festival’s inventor, organizer, and mother superior, maintained her own international career as a musician associated with the most extreme, boundary-challenging kinds of composition. As the Festival grew, so did Moorman’s reputation worldwide – a reputation not simply for adventurous programming, but for fearless performing. 

Kenneth Werner, Charlotte Moorman performing Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece with Nam June Paik, Galerie Aachen, Aachen, West Germany, 1966, Chromogenic color print, Charlotte Moorman Archive,  Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries

“A Feast of Astonishments” documents the parallel lives of Charlotte Moorman, as experimental (including, alas, “topless”) cellist and as über-organizer of the intermedial avant-garde. In its somewhat scattered presentation of Moorman’s accomplishments the exhibition mirrors the ADD-inducing multivalency of a typical Avant-Garde Festival – and the equally head-spinning career of Moorman herself. It’s a wild ride, but ‘twas always thus. There is plenty to look at in the show, but even more to watch on monitors – everything from a video of Moorman performing her friend Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece to a talking-head doc about Charlotte and the Festival(s) – and yet more to hear and, especially, to read. This is not so much an “art” show as it is a cultural history exhibition. Happily, the history is recent and vivid – even those unfamiliar with Moorman and her magic will recognize her environments (Central Park! The Staten Island Ferry! Shea Stadium!!) and contexts (Hippies! Antiwar protests! Hair!!) – and a hell of a lot of fun. Moorman herself approached problems and challenges with a blithe spirit that wafts throughout the show – although every so often her fearlessness turned to fecklessness (as when she got busted for performing Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique) which she would greet with momentary dismay before gathering her resolve, and her allies.

Charlotte Moorman performing on Nam June Paik’s TV Cello wearing TV Glasses, Bonino Gallery, New York City, 1971, Photo: Takahiko Iimura. © Takahiko Iimura

Moorman had a lot of allies, especially as she accomplished more and more and came, in spirit and in practice, to fit and even drive the 1960s’ – and the Lindsay administration’s – prevailing mood of celebration. The Festivals were wacky, and so was Charlotte, but both were the more endearing for that. She could be as controversial as any festival organizer or daring performer; but her spirit, personally and as manifest in her presentations – and in this exhibit – was voluble and inclusive. Her mission was that of a traditional instrumentalist, and traditional impresario: to present works by others to a curious and receptive audience. (Only late in life did she start making her own artwork.) That mission put Moorman in the limelight to the point where she became at least as much a star as the artists, of all types, she championed. But that’s par for the course, certainly in the classical realm where performers are lionized, and also in the rock realm and the theater world, where dynamic figures like Joseph Papp and Bill Graham didn’t simply organize events, they galvanized scenes. 

Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s Sky Kiss, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, April 11, 1976 Unidentified photographer, reproduced courtesy Kaldor Public Art Projects

In her invention and management of the Annual Avant-Garde Festivals, Moorman arguably contributed as bountifully as Papp did to the artistic discourse of New York City in the 1960s and ‘70s. In Europe, however, she was known as a solo performer, a worthy colleague to and interpreter of composers as respected as Stockhausen, John Cage, and Giuseppe Chiari. And Nam June Paik, the Korean-born intermedialist who moved to New York specifically to help Moorman mount Stockhausen’s happening Originale. Paik and Moorman became a performance team, realizing their own versions of others’ compositions and increasingly outré pieces Paik would write for the ever-game Moorman. The debacle of the Opera Sextronique bust – documented in the show as just one event (if a big one) among many in her and their repertory – only cemented their lifelong collaboration. “A Feast of Astonishments” also notes Moorman’s eagerness to work with other composers and intermedialists, and documents the ongoing relationships she developed with such diverse figures as Jim McWilliams and Otto Piene.

Charlotte Moorman, Neon Cello, c. 1989, Plexiglas, neon tubing, and electrical parts, 48 1/2 x 16 in., Courtesy Emily Harvey Foundation, Photo: João Simões

Given the documentary nature of “A Feast of Astonishments,” the show’s pendant, “Don’t Throw Anything Out,” seems almost redundant. Moorman, quite aware of her pivotal role in the art of her time, kept every last scrap of paper connected to her performance career and the Avant-Garde Festival – and to the rest of her life. She was a borderline hoarder, but there was method to her madness, one well appreciated by librarians and archivists. (Both shows are organized by Northwestern University and borrow from Moorman’s archives there.) The carefully arranged show of notes and clippings does bring a note of clarity, even sanity, to Moorman’s lifestyle; but what truly saves “Don’t Throw Anything Out” (supposedly her dying words) from superfluity is its loving portrayal of Moorman the person – the ingénue (she was a homecoming queen in her native Arkansas), the wife (her second husband, Frank Pileggi, was her most devoted fan and helpmate), the collector (not just of paper but of dolls and other chachkes), and the crazy lady who just happened to mastermind an artistic phenomenon that still resonates half a century later. WM

 

Peter Frank

PETER FRANK is an art critic, curator, and editor based in Los Angeles, where he serves as Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine. He began his career in his native New York, where he wrote for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News and organized exhibitions for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Alternative Museum. He is former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum and former editor of Visions Art Quarterly and THEmagazine Los Angeles, and was art critic for LA Weekly and Angeleno Magazine. He has worked curatorially for Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and many other national and international venues.

(Photo: Eric Minh Swenson) 

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