In 1968, the cellist Charlotte Moorman played a violin by raising it high above her head and then, with extreme elegance, smashing it over a pedestal. Several photos of the piece, scored by Nam June Paik and wryly titled One for Violin Solo, attest to Moorman’s power as a graceful iconoclast. You can sense how ready she was to violently attack tradition, to change everything that people thought music could be—but it also had to be done with poise and confidence.
The Grey Art Gallery’s “A Feast of Astonishments” offers Moorman the spotlight she has so long deserved. Curated by Northwestern University’s Lisa G. Corrin, Corinne Granof, Scott Krafft, Michelle Puetz, Joan Rothfuss, and Laura Wertheim Joseph, the show provides a compelling case for why Moorman was more than just a Paik collaborator or a fringe Fluxus artist.
It’s true, the works by Moorman that people know best still shine brightest. Her most memorable outing, perhaps accidentally, was a 1967 performance of Paik’s Opera Sextronique, in which she played the cello in the nude, with lights all over her body. She was arrested at the performance, charged with obscenity, and then was given a suspended prison sentence. Though best remembered for earning Moorman the title of the “Topless Cellist,” Opera Sextronique proved that the rules of music—that performers be clothed, that music sound nice, that no score be left to chance—needed to be broken.
Before she started destroying instruments and organizing New York City–wide avant-garde festivals, Moorman had a traditional background in music. But once she came into contact with Happenings and other avant-garde events, Moorman grew interested in chance. Her early performances of John Cage scores were so radical, with so many Dadaesque spur-of-the-moment acts, even Cage himself wasn’t sure about Moorman’s choices. And he wasn’t alone—she was blacklisted by Fluxus founder George Maciunas, and many feminist artists (except her longtime friend Carolee Schneemann) publicly denounced her, believing that she too willingly offered her body up for Paik and other men.
In spite of all that, Moorman continued to create original gestures in the mid-’60s and early ’70s. Some of my favorite works are those in which Moorman protested the Vietnam War, using such effects as crawling around on stage in combat uniform with a cello tied to her back. Another memorable performance involved her “Bomb Cello” sculptures, for which she turned military practice bombs into makeshift cellos, tuners and all. Were these bombs ever to have been agitated, they could have, at least theoretically, exploded, and along with that would go all of our preconceptions about chamber music.
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about “A Feast of Astonishments” is that it proves Moorman was more than a musician. She was also a sculptor and a festival organizer, and, in some cases, a classy performance artist. By her estimation, before she died in 1991, Moorman had performed Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece close to 700 times. Some videos of her performing the work, in which the audience is given a pair of scissors and instructed simply to cut, show Moorman sitting in place as people snip off parts of her dress. Rather than giving her audience a cold stare, the way Ono often does when she performs this work, Moorman smiled at her viewers. Her look is the kind someone gives you when they take pleasure in destroying something.