In: NYU

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.

Absolutely breathtaking, powerful, beautiful, visually striking, and so utterly important in today’s milieus of self-representation and socio-cultural movements.

This week I had the greatest pleasure of attending a lecture featuring world-renowned photographer Zanele Muholi at New York University’s Gallatin Galleries. I had stumbled upon about this talk on a poster pinned up inside an academic building while waiting for class to begin. I had studied Muholi in class before and had been instantly captured by her striking images and powerful portrayal of the stories of South African women, specifically black lesbian women. The presentation had been stunning and the talk was beyond illuminating; the event was concurrent with Gallatin’s current show Zanele Muholi: Zinathi.

Bester V, Mayotte, 2015 - 9257-LR

Muholi self identifies as a black lesbian and a visual activist.

She was born in 1972 in Umlazi township in Durban, South Africa; she currently lives in Johannesburg. Before her photographic career took off she worked as a human/lesbian rights activist, as a reporter for the LGBTI website Behind the Mask, and co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) as well as Inkanyiso, an organization dedicated to queer visual arts, activism, media, and advocacy.

The lecture began with the presentation of a short film (2013) from the Human Rights Watch with whom Muholi collaborated with. The revealing film explores her work, speaks to the pressing issues surrounding homosexuality in South Africa, and marked the start of the global campaign—16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

Lebo Leptie Phume Daveyton Johannesburg 2013-LR

Working almost exclusively in black and white film, Muholi creates powerful images that confront the viewer and simultaneously tell a story, always seeking to educate. Gallatin’s current exhibition, entitled Zinathi, brings together new works from two series Faces and Phases and Somnyama Ngonyama. Zinathi is a Zulu expression that means “All races, nations, communities and cultures” have LGBTI individuals.

The works from Faces and Phases focus on portraits of black lesbians and trans men surrounding Muholi within her community in South Africa. This continuous series began in 2006 as a visual project and has turned into an unprecedented archive of photographs documenting the community and the country. Stretching until today, Muholi has revisited a number of these women, re-capturing them at different stages in their lives. Her intent is “to fill a gap in South Africa’s visual history that, even 10 years after the fall of apartheid, wholly excluded our very existence,” (Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases 2006-14, 2014).

Lesedi Modise Mafikeng North West 2010-LR

These women stand proud and defiant in front of the camera. Most are portraits and the rest are shot from the waist up. Muholi made a point throughout her lecture to mention that she made sure that all of these women “looked good,” as in clean, put together, with fresh haircuts—because she is tired of seeing the same images of Africans perpetuated throughout the media. These are ones of poverty, sickness, uncleanliness, and extreme desperation, ones that provoke pity. However, these archetypes are not her or her community’s reality. She wishes to uplift these women and present them as members of society worthy to be celebrated, respected, and documented within history. Each woman stands in front of a different background and has a unique way of interacting with the camera, of interacting with Muholi. She has developed relationships with almost all of these women; they trust her and have shared their stories with her. Many of these narratives revolve around the unrelenting hardship of living as a lesbian woman in South Africa as well as other countries where African leaders have criminalized homosexuality and publicly projected hate speech while doing very little to prevent violent hate crimes.

{ In 2006, with the Civil Union Act, South Africa became the first country in Africa to legalize same sex marriage and the 5th country in the world. The legislation includes same sex marriage under common-law definition and legally gives gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples. }

Her second series displayed, Somnyama Ngonyama, translates to “Hail, the Dark Lioness” and confronts the politics of race and pigment in the photographic archive, while commenting on specific events in South Africa’s political history. Here, Muholi turns the camera on herself and shows a series of self-portraits where she takes on different characters and archetypes while referencing traditions of portraiture and fashion photography.

“The black face and its details become the focal point, forcing the viewer to question their desire to gaze at images of my black figure. By exaggerating the darkness of my skin tone, I’m reclaiming my blackness from the privileged gaze.”

 I cannot play down the importance of Zanele Muholi as an artist, as a photographer, as an activist, and as a deeply impassioned [gay female] human being.

Zanele Muholi: Zinathi is on view at NYU’s Gallatin Galleries until February 26th.