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Charlotte Moorman Exhibit to Open at Northwestern in January

Block Museum to host first major exhibition exploring legacy of “The Topless Cellist”
  • Moorman a significant figure in performance art and link within transatlantic avant-garde
  • The Juilliard-trained artist was dedicated to a radically new way of looking at music and art
  • She performed on an “ice cello” in the nude and played cello while suspended from balloons
  • Worked closely with Yoko Ono and John Cage and was guest on “The Tonight Show” 

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The indelible image of Charlotte Moorman (1933-1991) playing the cello topless -- save for a pair of miniature television sets strapped to her chest -- is about to be replaced with a more complex, but equally powerful, portrait of the girl from Little Rock, Arkansas. She metamorphosed into a seminal and barrier-breaking figure in performance art and an impresario of the postwar avant-garde.

The occasion is “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s --1980s,” a groundbreaking exhibition opening Jan. 16, 2016, at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, where it will remain through July 17, 2016. The Moorman exhibition will then travel to New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in fall 2016 and to the Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Austria, in spring/summer 2017.

The exhibition is organized by the Block in partnership with Northwestern’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, home of the Charlotte Moorman Archive.

For three decades, beginning in 1960, the Juilliard-trained Moorman’s dedication to a radically new way of looking at music and art took many forms, some extreme, from playing the cello while suspended by helium balloons over the Sydney Opera House to performing on an “ice cello” in the nude.

“I have asked myself why Charlotte Moorman is largely missing from the narratives of 20th-century art,” said Lisa Corrin, the Block Museum’s Ellen Philips Katz Director and curator of modern and contemporary art. “She is mainly remembered as a muse to Nam June Paik (a Korean American artist), but she was much more. In light of her influence on contemporary performance and her role as an unequaled popularizer of the avant-garde, it is long overdue for her to be appreciated as a seminal figure in her own right.” 

Reflecting Moorman’s commitment to finding ways to bring new art to the broadest possible public by literally taking the avant-garde into the streets of New York, “A Feast of Astonishments” presents a marvelous assortment of artworks, film clips, music scores, audio recordings, documentary photographs, snapshots, performance props and costumes, ephemera and correspondence. The vast majority has never before been exhibited. Together they offer fresh insights into Moorman’s improbable career in the eventful decades of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

“A Feast of Astonishments” benefits from a number of loans from private collections, including that of Yoko Ono, as well as from unfettered access to the Charlotte Moorman Archive at Northwestern University Libraries.

A companion exhibition, titled “Don’t Throw Anything Out,” organized solely in conjunction with the Block’s presentation, will frame the scope of the archive with a selection of objects and media ranging from Moorman’s double-barreled, heavily notated Rolodex to audio recordings of greetings and voice messages saved from her telephone message machine.

During the exhibition period, the two-story Block Museum will be given over to “A Feast of Astonishments” and “Don’t Throw Anything Out,” with its ground floor gallery transformed into a double viewing room for screenings of videos, including rare footage from the Charlotte Moorman Archive, shown for the first time. The exhibition also will spill out onto the Northwestern campus and the campuses of other universities in Chicago in related courses and public programs.

The exhibition has been curated by a collaborative team: Lisa G. Corrin, the Ellen Philips Katz Director of the Block Museum; Corinne Granof, curator of academic programs, Block Museum; Scott Krafft, curator of the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries; Michelle Puetz, Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts, Block Museum; Joan Rothfuss, consulting curator and author of “Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman”; and Laura Wertheim Joseph, consulting curatorial associate.

Inside the Exhibition

Charlotte Moorman built up a repertoire of pieces that she repeated through her career. In “A Feast of Astonishments,” an array of media, documentation, works of art and objects evoke these core performances, which in turn punctuate the largely chronological flow of the exhibition. 

Providing context for John Cage’s “26’1.1499” for a String Player,” a seminal work that Moorman played in venues ranging from orchestra halls to “The Tonight Show,” is Moorman’s heavily annotated score, which she carried with her to performances for more than 30 years.  This is paired with an affecting black and white photograph by Peter Moore (1965) showing her performing the “Human Cello” section of the piece, bowed over the artist Nam June Paik’s bare back, intensely “strumming” him with a bow.

In turn, this photograph is seen in contrast to a never before exhibited black and white television clip of Moorman frying an egg and playing a “bomb cello” in a performance of the Cage piece -- to audience guffaws -- in an appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” (1967).

Another historic moment brought to life is the 1967 performance of Nam June Paik’s “Opera Sextronique,” which led to Moorman’s arrest on indecency charges. A performance by Moorman of Paik’s infamous composition is here captured in rarely seen, color film footage and in the display of the “electric bikini” worn by her during one movement of the work.

Cellos representative of Moorman’s career made from neon, bombs, Plexiglas and syringes are featured, as are key mixed-media works by Nam June Paik, including “TV Bra for Living Sculpture” (1969), “TV Cello” (1971/1990) and “Charlotte Moorman II,” a mixed-media sculpture created after Moorman’s death as an homage. “Bomb Cellos” (1965/1990), painted metal bombs to which Moorman added strings and played as part of John Cage’s “26’1.1499” are striking examples of how Moorman’s interpretations of that piece changed with the times, accreting new props and ideas with unceasing imagination.

Moorman’s role as a connecter within the transatlantic avant-garde is explored in a section of the exhibition, “Moorman Abroad.” Moorman embarked for West Germany with Paik in 1965, participating in the 24 Hours Festival in Wuppertal and in multiple venues interpreting Cage’s “26’1” as “a kind of pop music,” with a gong, phone rings and radio sounds. Later performances in West Germany also are amply documented in “A Feast of Astonishments” by, among other items, black and white photographs of Moorman laying upon on a bed of large TV monitors on a sidewalk, bowing her cello, observed by a crowd of onlookers (“TV Bed,” Nam June Paik, 1972); a hand-drawn poster created by Jörg Immendorff for a concert in Düsseldorf (1966); and a felt-covered cello cover emblazoned with a red cross, used by Moorman in performances of “Infiltration Homogen for Cello,” the only work Joseph Beuys created for another artist.   

A score and video of Moorman performing Giuseppe Chiari’s “Per Arco” also is featured in this section. In Moorman’s interpretation, this composition consisted of five minutes of the recorded sounds of bombs falling during World War II, one minute and 40 seconds of silence, and six minutes of her reaction to the sounds of war with her cello and bow. Another work performed around the world and documented here is Jim McWilliams’ “Sky Kiss,” which called for Moorman to play the cello while suspended by helium balloons.

A section is devoted to the history of the 15 annual New York Avant Garde festivals Moorman organized between 1963 and 1980. In providing a detailed look at these now almost forgotten extravaganzas, “A Feast of Astonishments” supplies a much-needed first draft of a missing chapter to the history of contemporary art. Drawing on the talents of much of New York’s vanguard community, these festivals were first held at Judson Hall on West 57th Street and later in such public spaces as Central Park (1966), Staten Island Ferry (1967), Grand Central Terminal (1973) and Shea Stadium (1974). 

From a letter from artist Ray Johnson describing his performance action Hot Dog Drop to a telegram from New York Mayor John Lindsay politely declining Moorman’s invitation to ride in a hot air balloon, an array of correspondence -- typed, hand-written or drawn and scribbled on scrap paper -- is assembled to reveal Moorman’s utterly personal approach to festival organization. Objects on view include the recently rediscovered hoop and costumes used in “Noise Bodies,” Carolee Schneemann’s wonderful but little known collaborative performance piece with composer James Tenney, a photograph of Takehisa Kosugi’s “Piano ’66” floating in the pond in Central Park; a grainy 16mm film clip documenting performances on the Staten Island Ferry; and Styrofoam blocks that Moorman used to plan an artist parade for the Sixth Festival on Central Park West.  

Photographs capture striking moments in that Sixth Festival: Allan Kaprow’s “metallic ballet,” which sent oil drums rolling down Central Park West; Les Levine’s float -- a glowing grid of neon tubes; Joseph Beuys’ mute piano, wrapped in gray felt; and, pulling up the rear, the Bell Labs and Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) float generating a computer printout of a “five mile poem.” 

An embarrassment of riches, “A Feast of Astonishments” presents more photographs by the photographer Peter Moore than have ever before been exhibited in one place. It also acknowledges the achievements of an under recognized artist, Jim McWilliams, creator of some of Moorman’s most audacious performances, and sheds light on the brilliant graphic design that McWilliams created for the posters that gave a vibrant identity to the festivals. 

Finally, running through the exhibition are images and accounts, some unexpected, of such influential figures of the 1960s, 70s and 80s as John Cage, Nam June Paik, Johnny Carson, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Christo, Merv Griffin, Mayor John Lindsay, Carolee Schneemann, Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainer, Ornette Coleman, David Tudor, Allan Kaprow, Billy Kluver, Alvin Lucier, La Monte Young, George Maciunas, Simone Forti, Philip Corner, Ay-O, Robert Watts, Les Levine, Ray Johnson, Otto Piene, Max Neuhaus, Jörg Immendorff, Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins and Geoff Hendricks.


“A Feast of Astonishments” is organized by the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, in partnership with Northwestern University Libraries. The exhibition is supported by major grants from the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Additional generous support is provided by the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation; the Alumnae of Northwestern University; the Colonel Eugene E. Myers Foundations; the Illinois Arts Council Agency; Dean of Libraries Discretionary Fund; the Charles Deering McCormick Fund for Special Collections; and the Florence Walton Taylor Fund.


“A Feast of Astonishments” exhibition catalogue will be published by Northwestern University Press and will feature new scholarship from art historians, musicologists and experts on the 1960s and 1970s, including Hannah B. Higgins, professor in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Chicago; Kristine Stiles, France Family Professor of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University; and Kathy O’Dell, associate professor of art history and museum studies, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It also will feature essays by emerging scholars in the field. The volume will extend and complement Rothfuss’ biography and existing scholarship on the period by illuminating the artistic activities of Moorman and her circle within a broad social and aesthetic context.

Charlotte Moorman Archive

The Charlotte Moorman Archive was acquired by the Northwestern University Libraries in 2001. Its vast holdings document the dovetailing careers of Moorman as a musician and performance artist and as the producer of 15 New York Avant Garde festivals. It documents Moorman's collaboration with and sponsorship of diverse composers, artists and writers, including Nam June Paik, John Cage, Earle Brown, Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono and Jim McWilliams. The archive contains correspondence, manuscript and scores, photographs, videos and films, audio recordings -- including concert performances, interviews and answering machine messages -- posters, artwork and detailed documentation of the production of the Avant Garde festivals. It also provides unusually complete documentation of Moorman's personal life from her childhood through her final years of struggle with cancer, as well as ancillary documentation of the New York art and music scenes of the 1960s through the 1980s. The archive resides in Northwestern's Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, along with the libraries’ related archives of John Cage and Dick Higgins.

About the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art 

Celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2015, the Block Museum is Northwestern University’s art museum. The Block is a dynamic, imaginative, and innovative teaching and learning resource for Northwestern and its surrounding communities, featuring a global exhibition program that crosses time periods and cultures and serves as a springboard for thought-provoking discussions relevant to our lives today. The museum also commissions new work by artists to foster connections between artists and the public through the creative process. Each year, the Block mounts exhibitions; organizes and hosts lectures, symposia and workshops involving artists, scholars, curators and critics; and screens classic and contemporary films at its in-house cinema.

The museum also reaches national and international audiences through its traveling exhibitions, publications and website. Its growing permanent collection of approximately 5,000 works focuses primarily on prints, photography and drawings. Located on Northwestern’s Evanston campus, the Block is housed in a building designed by Dirk Lohan, the grandson of the pioneering modernist architect Mies van der Rohe.

The Block Museum is at the heart of Northwestern’s new Arts Circle scheduled to open in fall 2015. The Arts Circle will, for the first time, unite all visual and performing arts in one neighborhood, inspiring collaborations across art forms and underscoring the University’s commitment to providing a unique site where campus and community can connect to celebrate creativity across artistic disciplines. The Block is free and open to all. It is located at 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston campus.

Visit the Block Museum website for more information.

About Northwestern University Libraries

Northwestern University Libraries serve the Evanston, Chicago and Qatar campuses by providing access to more than 5 million books; 3.5 linear miles of manuscripts, archives and unique materials; and tens of thousands of journals, databases and periodicals. Their distinctive holdings include the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, which houses more than 250,000 rare materials ranging from Mesopotamian tablets to one of the largest second-wave feminism collections in the country; the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, the world’s largest collection of materials relating to Africa; and the Music Library, recognized internationally for its commitment to 20th-century classical music and the John Cage Notations Collection.