In: Yoko Ono

It is no secret that music is often a selling point for art exhibitions. From the Museum of Modern Art’s 2015 blockbuster Björk retrospective to the recently closed ‘Stuart Davis: In Full Swing’ show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which focused on the artist’s Jazz-like techniques; music and art just go together. It’s no wonder then that so many great musicians are also talented artists.

David Bowie

David Bowie’s 1976 painting “Portrait of J.O.”. ©David Bowie.

David Bowie’s 1976 painting “Portrait of J.O.”. © David Bowie.

The late, great, thin white duke was known for for being a jack of all trades; musician, actor, publisher, avid art collector, and, of course, artist. Besides his impressive collection of Modern British art, which was unveiled during the massive three-part ‘Bowie/Collector’ auction recently held by Sotheby’s, Bowie was himself a gifted painter. Studying art and design since his days Bromley Technical High School, the South London native’s work reveals heavy influences from German Expressionism, from his use of primitivistic and esoteric symbols to his haunting self-portraits.

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono and John Lennon at John Sinclair Freedom Rally, 1971. By Unidentified (Michiganensian is the University of Michigan yearbook published by University of Michigan) (1972 Michiganensian, p. 203) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon at John Sinclair Freedom Rally, 1971. By Unidentified (Michiganensian is the University of Michigan yearbook published by University of Michigan) (1972 Michiganensian, p. 203) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Another subject of a MoMA retrospective, Yoko Ono’s impact on art and music, regardless of your opinions on her, are undeniable (but seriously, she didn’t break up The Beatles). From her influence on her late husband, John Lennon, and the importance of their experimental albums’ for New Wave music, to her ongoing peace activism and solo music career, Yoko has deservedly left a mark on contemporary culture. Collaborating with Fluxus artists from the 1960s, the conceptual multimedia artist has done everything from text-driven instructions -such as her famous Painting to Be Stepped On (1960/61), which invites the audience to step on a piece of canvas on the floor-, to provocative performance art, acting as a pioneer for the medium. Check out an excerpt from Yoko’s iconic Cut Piece (1965) below.


Grimes

Grimes’ Original Album Art for “Visions” 2012. Source: Arbutus Records.

Grimes’ Original Album Art for “Visions” 2012. © The artist. Source: Arbutus Records.

Drawing inspiration from Japanese anime, manga, and comic artists, Claire Boucher, better known by her stage name Grimes, creates strikingly graphic paintings and drawings. Although the 28-year-old synth-pop singer is known for her experimental music -which channels influences from Marilyn Manson and Panda Bear to Yayoi Kusama and The Legend of Zelda-, she also creates all of her album art. In 2012, during the promotion her album Visions, a collection of Grimes’ drawings were featured in an exhibition at the Audio Visual Arts Gallery in Manhattan, where they were auctioned in support of “Sisters In Spirit,” an organization which raises awareness of violence against Aboriginal women.

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.

During my last year of university, my Contemporary Art professor completely changed my views on art history. On the first day of class, she asked us to think about the artists we had studied in depth during the previous three years. How many women could we remember? The answer was simple: not a single one. A few had been mentioned briefly, often as this or that artist’s wife. The next question seemed to follow naturally: Why have there been no great women artists? This was precisely the title of a 1971 ground-breaking essay by Linda Nochlin, then a Professor at Vassar College, where she questioned the whole intellectual structure upon which this inquiry is based.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1965.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1965.

Yoko Ono’s 1965 performance Cut Piece examined in a very simple way the role that the female body has played in art throughout the ages: that of a passive object. In art history, women appear mainly as models or muses. For centuries, the work of those few women that had access to artistic training has been considered to be inferior and secondary compared to that of their masters, fathers, brothers, husbands or lovers. Misleading categories such as “Genius” and “Great Artist”, reserved only for men, have been intrinsic to the discipline of art history for a long time and were not really challenged until the 1960s and 1970s by scholars like Nochlin, who stated that doing so “would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based”.

The immediate effect of Nochlin’s essay was to increase the interest of scholars in recovering the work of those women that had been forgotten by history. This idea crystallised in the exhibition Women Artists: 1550-1950 organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, which included works by more than thirty artists from different periods, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Rosa Bonheur, Gwen John and Lee Krasner.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974–79. Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York. © Donald Woodman.

The flourishing of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s prompted not only art theorists but also artists to re-discover lost role models for women and attack the male-centred version of history that had always passed as legitimate. Perhaps the most important work in this sense was Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), an installation where the names of thirty-nine notable women from history (most of which still do not appear in any history textbook) were represented by embroidered textiles and porcelain plates, artistic expressions that have traditionally been considered “women’s work” and have therefore been excluded from the category of “high art”.

Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975. (Watch a clip here).

It is important to remember, however, that not all art produced by women is necessarily feminist or aimed against patriarchy. In opposition to the initiatives that simply sook to lessen the effects of discrimination, such as women-only exhibitions, important voices like that of feminist scholar Griselda Pollock urged for a more political model of feminist interventions. Rescuing the work of women who have been excluded from art history is not enough; in order to undermine patriarchal society, it is necessary to explore and deeply question the social structures that have led to this process of exclusion.

Many female artists have brought awareness to the oppression, marginalization and violence that women have suffered for centuries through their art, particularly after the 1960s. One of the most iconic pieces in this regard is Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), a video performance in which the artist not only criticised women’s roles within the home, but also the culture of frenetic consumption fostered by capitalism.

Frida Kahlo, My Birth, 1932. Private collection.

Frida Kahlo, My Birth, 1932. Private collection.

The female body, very often the artist’s own body, became a key tool for visually expressing a multiplicity of issues that directly affect the lives of women, such as menstruation, maternity, sexual violence, gender roles, and body image. For me, one of the most interesting examples of this is Frida Kahlo, who in the 1930s depicted her own birth in a way that finds no parallel in the history of art. This unusual image is still shocking today, as is any that deals frankly with female genitalia, often erased by male painters in their idealised depictions of the female body. In the 1970s, artists like Chicago, who insisted on the existence of a distinct “female sensibility”, scandalised audiences and generated controversy in feminist circles with their use of vaginal imagery.

Judy Chicago, Peeling Back, 1974. New Mexico Museum of Art.

Judy Chicago, Peeling Back, 1974. New Mexico Museum of Art.

Sexual violence against women was (and still is) a very prominent subject in feminist art. One of the projects that first prompted a social dialogue around this important issue was Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May (1977), a three-week performance that took place in a shopping centre and exposed the amount of rapes reported in Los Angeles during that period of time.

Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May, 1977.

Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May, 1977.

A few years before, Ana Mendieta had addressed sexual violence in a very powerful manner, presenting her own body as that of a rape victim in a performance that took place in the artist’s apartment.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Rape Scene), 1973. Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Rape Scene), 1973. Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection.

Finally, I want to mention the work of Cindy Sherman. From the beginning of her career she has photographed herself in many different roles and scenarios, reminding the viewer about the important role of stereotypes in modern society. I find her striking images fascinating because they seem to highlight what Judith Butler has called the “performative” character of gender and the instability of identities.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #479, 1975. © 2012 Cindy Sherman.

Just as there is not just one way of being a woman, there is not only one feminist approach to art. The introduction of feminist perspectives in art history is important because it puts into question the discourse centred on the white, Western, heterosexual male gaze, opening up the discipline to criticism and new points of view.

The development of what has been termed the Feminist Art Movement is greatly indebted to the work of the aforementioned artists. Although most of my examples come from the United States, similar expressions simultaneously appeared in the rest of the world. Still, the question that the feminist collective Guerrilla Girls posed in the 1980s, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?, is, as their ongoing project shows, still relevant today.

Guerrilla Girls, 2012.

I highly recommend reading Pollock’s recent article “The National Gallery is Erasing Women from the History of Art”. Sadly, in 2016 many museums and cultural institutions are still way behind art theory and practice when it comes to ending discrimination and promoting inclusiveness and diversity.