In: Joseph Beuys

A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s is currently on view at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University’s fine art museum. The exhibit was drawn from the Charlotte Moorman Archive housed at Northwestern University’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections. With more than 300 items on view, ranging from film clips, performance props, musical scores, photographs, audio recordings, and vintage posters, this marks the first major exhibition devoted to a groundbreaking, yet under-recognized figure in the post-war avant-garde.

View of the exhibition "A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s", Grey Art Gallery, New York. Photo: Nicholas Papananias.

View of the exhibition “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s”, Grey Art Gallery, New York. Photo: Nicholas Papananias.

Along with works by Moorman, the exhibition includes pieces by some of her frequent collaborators, including Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, John Cage, Takehisa Kosugi, Jim McWilliams, Joseph Beuys, and Giuseppe Chiari, many of whom created works for Moorman to perform. While she is often remembered as Paik’s muse, Moorman -or the “topless cellist,” as she was known- was dedicated to both performing and promoting the innovative work she and her colleagues would create. Moorman later remarked: “With all of my formal training at Juilliard, I feel I know the rules. That’s something that is very important if you are going to break them.”

Vin Grabill, Charlotte Moorman performs Num June Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture on the roof of her loft, 62 Pearl Street, New York, July 30, 1982. ©Vin Grabill.

Vin Grabill, Charlotte Moorman performs Num June Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture on the roof of her loft, 62 Pearl Street, New York, July 30, 1982. ©Vin Grabill.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1933, Moorman began her career as a classically trained musician. After earning an MA in music from the University of Texas at Austin, she moved to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Music while building a career as a freelance classical musician. After attending a concert by fellow Juilliard student Kenji Kobayashi in spring 1961, in which Kobayashi played Cage’s 26’1.1499″ for a String Player a “non-musical” score with sounds of the performer’s choosing-, Moorman began to shift focus. Kobayashi introduced Moorman to the downtown avant-garde arts scene, where composer La Monte Young, artist Yoko Ono, choreographer Simone Forti, and others were experimenting with new interdisciplinary art forms.

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

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

Moorman went on to organize fifteen avant-garde festivals from 1963 to 1980 (which are also documented in the show), where she was able to cultivate a strong community of hundreds of artists, filmmakers, dancers, poets, musicians, and festival goers who wanted freedom from the constraints of concert halls, galleries, and museums. Over the years, these festivals migrated from traditional performance venues to public spaces, setting a precedent for future large scale multimedia festivals of this kind.

Charlotte Moorman, Bomb Cello,1965 (left) Bomb Cello, c. 1990 (right) Paint and mixed media on metal, 48 x 10 x 10 in. each Courtesy Sammlung Hoffmann, Berlin.

Charlotte Moorman, Bomb Cello,1965 (left) Bomb Cello, c. 1990 (right) Paint and mixed media on metal, 48 x 10 x 10 in. each Courtesy Sammlung Hoffmann, Berlin.

A typical performance could include playing a cello made from a practice bomb (i.e. non-explosive), frying an egg or mushrooms, drinking Coke, letting air out of a balloon, breaking glass, or reading passages ranging from a newspaper article on the Watergate scandal to instructions on a box of tampons. Combining classical training with pop culture, Moorman once pointed out: “I don’t feel that I’m destroying any tradition. I feel that I’m creating something new.”

As an artist, Charlotte Moorman subverted traditional notions of beauty and society’s obsession with the female form by referencing the very sources from which these notions began. It is nearly impossible to look at images of Moorman performing and not be reminded of classical paintings of inexplicably nude women lying in repose in scenic landscapes.

One of the many highlights of the show is a video of Moorman performing Yoko Ono’s iconic “Cut Piece” in 1982. The artist sits before a large crowd gathered at the roof of her Manhattan loft. The guest, good-spirited and a little drunk, really give the party life. But the occasion is marked by a solemn tone. It takes place only a few days before she was to have a lump in her breast biopsied, three years after having a mastectomy to remove the other breast.

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.

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.

As each guest approaches to cut a piece from her gown, Moorman exhibits her characteristic stoic sensibility and poise, traits that distinguish her as a master of her craft. Barbara Moore, an art historian and friend of Moorman’s, noted that the artist kept all the remaining scraps of clothing from her numerous performances of this work “packed into heaps of shopping bags, the ultimate dossier,” epitomizing her endless dedication to her work. “Don’t throw anything out” were Moorman’s dying words as she succumbed to her illness in 1991 at the age of 57. The result, the Charlotte Moorman Archive, allows us to trace the prolific career of one of the most provocative artists of the 20th century.


A Feast of Astonishments will be on view at the Grey Art Gallery until December 10.

Also on view: Don’t Throw Anything Out: Charlotte Moorman’s Archive, at The Fales Library, Tracey/Barry Gallery, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, Third Floor.

In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a major exhibition of performance art, which included live performances taking place daily in the rooms of the museum. I am talking about The Artist is Present, a retrospective of the work of the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art”, Marina Abramović, which attracted thousands of visitors (700.000 according to The New Yorker).

The presence of performance in leading institutions such as the MoMA has definitely contributed to its acceptance into the mainstream during the last few decades. However, some people still question why performing in front of an audience can be considered art, and not drama/theatre. Abramović herself gave her opinion on this matter in an interview while promoting her MoMA show, stating that “To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.”

Marina Abramović, ‘Rhythm 10’, 1973, performance, 60 min.

I am sure many actors –and perhaps some artists as well- would have many counterarguments to Abramović’s words, but her assertiveness shows that the performance vs. acting debate is still alive. The lines separating performance art and drama are certainly blurry, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a world where everything seems to be more and more interconnected. So instead of focusing on trying to define what performance is against other disciplines, I think it is much more interesting to examine here why its irruption in the world of visual arts has been so important for the development of contemporary culture.

The beginnings of performance art can be dated back at least to the early twentieth century, and particularly to the Dada movement. Dadaists defied conventional definitions of art by mixing poetry, music and visual arts in unconventional performances that took place in alternative spaces such as the famous Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely, 1956. Paint and marker on wood, approximately 200 x 450 x 3 cm. Installation view: Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park, Ashiya, July 27–August 5, 1956. © The former members of the Gutai Art Association. Courtesy Museum of Osaka University.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely, 1956. Paint and marker on wood, approximately 200 x 450 x 3 cm. Installation view: Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park, Ashiya, July 27–August 5, 1956. © The former members of the Gutai Art Association. Courtesy Museum of Osaka University.

Between the 1940s and the early 1960s, a series of artistic actions (often derived from  “action painting”), interactive installations, and performative events organised by artists such as Yves Klein and groups like Gutai, anticipated some of the characteristics of what was to be labelled “Performance Art” from the 1960s onward.

The Japanese group Gutai was one of the first to take exhibitions and artistic actions outside the traditional spaces of the museum and the gallery. They organised many outdoor events, like the 1956 Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition (Ashiya, Japan), where visitors were invited to take part in the artworks. The idea of opening up art to the participation of the public was also at the heart of Allan Kaprow’s happenings, in which art became a collective experience.

Allan Kaprow's happening Fluids, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963.

Allan Kaprow’s happening ‘Fluids’, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963.

This new role of the public -who is no longer contemplative and passive as in traditional art exhibitions- that comes with performance art, disrupts the conventional relationship between the viewers and the artworks, and generates new dynamics between the viewers and the artists. Because, as the title of Abramović’s exhibition points out, one of the most important characteristics of performance is that the artist is present. In performance art, the body of the artist is the medium, and it becomes an incredibly powerful tool to express different narratives and ideas.

In opposition to an inert painting or sculpture, the presence of the very alive body of the artist means that art stops being a safe experience for the viewer, given the unpredictability of the situation. With performance, art invaded the “real world”, the here and now. Some artists have put the public in particularly difficult positions by putting themselves in danger in front of an audience. Abramović, Joseph Beuys, and Chris Burden are some of the most prominent examples. The latter is known for his 1971 piece Shoot, in which he was shot in the arm by a friend in front of a small audience.

Chris Burden, Shoot (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA. November 19, 1971. At 7:45 p.m. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me. © Chris Burden. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

Chris Burden, ‘Shoot’ (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA. November 19, 1971. © Chris Burden.

In the 1970s, performance was already a quite established artistic practice, with Fluxus –an international, heterogeneous conglomeration of artists, designers, composers, dancers and other professionals that shaped a highly experimental artistic community- as one of its most important representatives.

Why was performance such a success at the time? One of the main reasons was the rise, particularly in the United States, of a series of social and political movements that demanded civil and social rights, equality, and justice. In such a politicised environment, many artists used performance as a means to address the concerns behind different social groups and communities. For instance, some of the most well-known performances from this period are linked to the rise of feminism and the Feminist art movement. This is the case of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975), which culminated with the artist extracting a paper scroll from her vagina while reading from it.

Carolee Schneemann performing her piece Interior Scroll, 1975.

Carolee Schneemann performing her piece ‘Interior Scroll’, 1975.

These are just a few of the many artists and actions that contributed to the early developments of performance as an art form. It would be impossible to cite them all here, but the changes they introduced during the second half of the twentieth century -the organisation of artistic actions outside traditional spaces, the increasingly active role of the publics, and, most importantly, the use of the artist’s body as a medium- are essential in order to understand our current artistic context.