A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s focuses on Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991) a rule-bending artist, musician, and advocate for the experimental art of her time. We talk to Corinne Granof, curator of academic programs at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art and editor of A Feast of Astonishments as well as Laura Wertheim Joseph, Consulting Curatorial Associate, about the barrier-breaking musician and performance artist.
Charlotte Moorman was known for having “a proclivity for the feminine.” Her favorite holiday was Valentine’s Day, she loved donning the formal dress of classical performance, and she won the Little Rock Arkansas Miss City Beautiful pageant in 1952. However, she retained many characteristics of stereotypical femininity in her performance practices at a time when Second Wave feminism was on the rise, and artists like Judy Chicago were coalescing around the feminist art movement. How did her embrace of the feminine effect the perception of her work in the late 60s and 70s and long-term? Has “Third Wave” feminism triggered a further reevaluation of Moorman’s work?
LWJ: Self-described feminists of the 1960s and 70s held a wide range of attitudes about the value of conventionally feminine dress, behavior, and roles. Many felt that casting off attributes traditionally associated with femininity was necessary for the realization of gender equality. In embracing traditional signifiers of femininity, Charlotte Moorman was out-of-step with many of her feminist contemporaries. Her willingness to perform sexualized works, written by such composers as Nam June Paik, incited explicit criticism from second-wave feminist artists. Additionally, Moorman did not express outward interest in the feminist politics of her time or in aligning with the feminist movement. As the exhibition attests, Moorman eventually developed her own vocabulary to assert for the importance of her artistic contributions. But the fact that her work was largely criticized or ignored by her feminist contemporaries certainly played a role in Moorman’s subsequent underrepresentation within histories of the period. Third-wave feminism did advance ideas about the constructed-ness and performativity of gender that eventually made Moorman’s reevaluation possible, but it did not, at the time, trigger that reevaluation. Because the emergence of third-wave feminist thought coincided with a wider cultural backlash against feminism—inaugurated by the election of Ronald Reagan and his call for a “return to family values”— many third-wave feminist thinkers were suspicious of calls to celebrate traditional femininity.
In addition to performing, Moorman was also known for putting on art festivals in New York City. How did Moorman’s facilitation of these festivals make her a conduit for avant-garde art to a wider audience, and avant-garde artists to one another?
CG: Moorman’s festivals are one of her major contributions. The first three festivals were dedicated to avant-garde and experimental music. They took place at Judson Hall, a concert venue in midtown Manhattan, and ran over several evenings. With the fourth event in 1966, however, the festivals achieved a new level of visibility and influence and grew in proportion and ambition. Held in Central Park and taking place over eighteen hours, there was a profound new intersection between the public and the artists, musicians, and festival participants. By bringing the festival to a very public space, where a general audience encountered different kinds of art—installation, music, dance, poetry, film, performance—over the course of a day without purchasing a ticket or going to a designated performance space, Moorman created a platform for a public experience that dissolved boundaries between artists and audiences. Through the festivals, which grew to involve hundreds of artists, Moorman also formed a community. Many artists in “Charlotte’s web” participated in several festivals and would come back year after year. They anticipated the festivals and got to know one another by sharing spaces and seeing each other’s work. A common purpose of coming together for the annual events galvanized these artists, who shared many sensibilities and interests.
One Moorman performance can often involve multiple artists. In describing some of the performance pieces in A Feast of Astonishments how did you pin down ownership?
LWJ: Authorship was a concept that came under scrutiny during this time, initially via French poststructuralist thought advanced by literary theorists such as Roland Barthes. As a result, many of the artistic and performative practices of the era reflected ambivalence towards single authorship. Fluxus artists with whom Moorman collaborated, for example, wrote instructional works that allowed for anyone to be the executor of the artwork or that required audience participation to be realized. This is not to say, however, that an investment in single authorship ceased to exist. The fact that Moorman’s instrumental role in many of Nam June Paik’s works has been largely overlooked or trivialized in histories of the period is a testament to the persistent valorization of single authorship in art historical discourses. Virtually every postwar survey text that includes Paik’s work will only rarely mention or identify Moorman. Our goal in preparing the materials for this exhibition was to convey the collaborative nature of the artistic activities to which Moorman contributed, while still representing the history in a legible way. We made clear, for example, that Cut Piece was an instructional piece created by Yoko Ono, but we also accounted for the ways in which the instructions allowed for Moorman to adapt it to her own ends. More broadly, we tried to open up ways of thinking about artistic production to include activities like Moorman’s annual avant-garde festivals, which facilitated the artistic production of others.
How does this exhibit work toward changing the perception of Charlotte Moorman from participant and muse to artist and creator?
CG: Until the publication of [Joan Rothfuss’s] 2014 biography and the exhibition, Moorman had generally been considered someone who performed on Nam June Paik’s artworks, primarily the TV Cello and TV Bra. The book and exhibition put the focus on her work and explore how she and Paik were collaborators. The TV Cello, for example, is designed by Paik, but Moorman is the only person to have played it. It is identified as much with her as it was with him. She also was very much part of the design of the instrument, as noteted in the Charlotte Moorman Archive show. The exhibition gives a much fuller and richer picture of Moorman and her tremendous achievements. Two main sections of the exhibition explore the major facets of her work. One explores several pieces that were part of her repertoire, works she toured with and became known for performing. The other section focuses on the avant-garde festivals. The fifteen avant-garde festivals she organized between 1963 and 1980 contributed immensely to how performance art is seen today. Moorman also showcased both established and lesser-known artists and provided a democratic platform for their work to be seen. Many of the artists in her festivals, such as Bill Viola (who was a very young artist when he participated in the ninth festival in 1972), went on to became established and very well known. So, in addition to being an artist and creator, she was a curator.
What are some of the challenges of making a museum catalog, especially one about performance art?
CG: Both the exhibition and the catalog have extensive documentation of performance art. For the most part, the works of art themselves are time-based and ephemeral, so the project includes such documentation as photographs, film, relics (costumes, props, and signs), and ephemera (posters, brochures, correspondence, and programs). Where possible, we tried to borrow and include physical objects that were at the festivals. One highlight is a work by Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks—a clothesline with a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, socks, and underwear, painted to look like a bright blue sky with clouds. This hung between two trees at the 1966 festival in Central Park. To represent the 11th festival at Shea Stadium, there is a large cross that is part of a piece by Yoko Ono titled 46 Reflections from Dawn to Knight. The crosses, which have round mirrors at the center, were set up in the bleachers at the stadium. Each time sunlight hit a mirror, the viewer was supposed to make a wish. There is also a lot of documentary film and video in the exhibition that helps to bring the performances to life and allows us to visualize how they looked and were experienced at the time.
“A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s” runs through July 17, 2016 at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. You can purchase a copy of the exhibition catalog here.
There’s no way around writing a poetry book
about hip-hop without listening to James Brown. I could’ve easily selected
“Funky Drummer,” but hip-hop heads are familiar with that track because of Clyde Stubblefield’s ridiculous drumming. I chose the condensed version of “Get
Involved…” that I discovered on YouTube because when the horns come in at the
56 second mark it launches the beginning of a gorgeous break-beat that almost
entices me to rock the body body into backspins and windmills.
2) “My Melody” by
Eric B. & Rakim: Nothing more I can say about this amazing song that
probably hasn’t been said before. There are so many quotable lines in this
track such as “My unusual style will confuse you awhile/ If I was water, I’d
flow in the Nile” that evoke powerful imagery, wit, and science: qualities
that I want my poems to manifest.
3) “Cell Therapy”
by Goodie Mob: I’ve studied this disturbing song over the past twenty years,
and I learn something new after each listen. What’s so frightening is that the
social commentary on the track addresses the sneaky ways that the U.S.
government engages in covert operations and domestic surveillance: “insane
plain, soldiers coming in the dark by plane/to enforce the new system by reign,
tag my skin with your computer chip.” The
second section of Olympic Butter Gold entitled Freistil Battle is indebted to
“Cell Therapy.” I reference how America treats its citizens like potential
suspects and how, at times, we live in a militarized state.
4) “Ice Cream” by Raekwon (feat. Ghostface, Cappadonna, and Method Man): My erotic love poem
“Lovelust á la mode” is where I try to channel Raekwon’s cool demeanor,
Cappadonna’s disarming sincerity, and Ghostface’s vivid detail. The day I
achieve success as a poet is the day when I describe my wife the way Ghostface
describes women: painting a picture so colorful that readers who’ve never met my
wife would instantly recognize her in public based on my imagery. I have a long
way to go, but the idiosyncratic way in which I combine compassion with
debauchery comes off successfully.
5) “The Genesis” by Nas: When I first heard “The Genesis” at 15, the movie excerpt that Nas
sampled was lost on me. I couldn’t
understand what the two guys were arguing about: “… be a man! There ain’t
nothin’ out here for you.” “Oh yes there is. This.” Where the hell was “here”
and what was the “this” that the guy was referring to? For me, I experienced Illmatic in media res; it wasn’t until I was in my mid 20s when I realized
where those voices came from: Wild Style (For some reason, I didn’t see that
movie growing up). I realized that Nas had sampled one of the most memorable
scenes from the film: the argument between the protagonist “Zorro” and his
brother who’d returned home briefly from the Army. The “here” was South Bronx and the “this” was
hip-hop: graffiti to be exact. Zorro’s
brother didn’t just call Zorro’s dreams of being an artist into question: he
explicitly stated that his younger brother’s dedication to art was childish:
“Stop fucking around and be a man!”
I could relate; when I told my parents I wanted to apply to
graduate creative writing programs to study poetry, they shook their heads in
disbelief. I’m not sure if Nas had any
haters in his corner, but I’m damn sure that he knew his craft: not just with
creating intricate rhyme schemes but with creating a sonic collage. In “Genesis”, Nas’s inclusion of that
argument from Wild Style as well as DJ Grand Wizard Theodore’s “Subway Theme”
from the same film influenced the way I alluded to DJ Kool Herc and borrowed a
line from Augustus Pablo’s “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” in my poem “Son of
a…”: to acknowledge hip-hop’s genesis.
For Nas, he focused specifically on South Bronx: the birthplace of
hip-hop. For me, I touch upon South
Bronx (Kool Herc) but also touch upon the country that influenced rap music
production: Jamaica (the place where Kool Herc was born). Like Nas, I also want to give readers a
bird’s eye view of what it was like to experience hip-hop culture as a kid and
an adult. In essence, I’m hoping to put
Frankfurt, Germany and especially Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, and Fresno, Texas,
on the map in the way that Nas bolstered the significance of Queensbridge as
being a force on the scene.
What Nas and other MCs and producers have taught me, though,
is that it’s not enough to pay homage; you have to find some way to propel art
forward. He also taught me that there’s
value behind speaking to a specific audience. Olympic Butter Gold is
unapologetically Southern in the way that Nas’s Illmatic is unapologetically
New York. I’m comfortable with the fact
that my specific reference to Texas slang “choppin’” might go over peoples’
heads the way Nas’s use of “telephone blown” went over my head until I read
Miss Info’s explanation of what it meant in her NPR interview “Miss Info on Nas, Illmatic, and The Source”; however, art can grow with people as people grow
over time. It’s taken me years to
appreciate all of the elements that have made Illmatic such a great album, and
I wouldn’t expect anything less from a reader in order for him or her to
*Out of the 10 tracks listed on Illmatic, “Genesis” is the
only one that’s not a song; “Genesis” functions as a prologue or a marker of
time: we hear the loud sound of a NY subway hurtling over the train tracks and
a barely audible excerpt of Nas’s verse from “Live at the Barbeque” by Main
Source playing at the same time as the movie snippet from Wild Style.
Jonathan Moody grew up during the Golden Ages of hip-hop and listened to rap that was as adventurous and diverse as his military upbringing. Moody was the winner of the 2014 Cave
Canem/Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize. His poetry has appeared in African American Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, The
Common, Crab Orchard Review, good
foot, Tidal Basin Review, Xavier Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and the anthology Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade,
among other publications. He is also the author of The Doomy Poems (2012). Moody teaches at Pearland High School and
lives in Fresno, Texas, with his wife and son.
MJ: Like a lot of us, I
stumbled into publishing. My first exposure was with the University of Illinois
Press, where I worked while still a student, mostly making line corrections for
reprints. After two failed attempts at design positions after graduation, I reached
for the Chicago Creative Directory and started cold calling—first on the list
was Joseph Alderfer, the design manager at the University of Chicago Press. I
wasn’t new to cold calling but was startled when Joe said, “Yes, we have an
entry-level position; when can you come by for an interview?” My early years at
Chicago, as well as a later stint in the ’90s, still hold a special place in my
heart because it’s where I learned book design from some very talented people
and fell in love with typography.
Tell us about your home press, Northwestern University
MJ: From its inception, Northwestern University Press has been at the
forefront in publishing important works of scholarship as well as quality works
of fiction, drama, nonfiction, and poetry. NUP currently
publishes about 60 books a
How many covers do you design in a year?
MJ: About 35% of our covers are in series, which means they’re templated and
need only new imagery, so I’m designing roughly 40 covers a year.
What’s your design process?
MJ: I try to come to a simple understanding of the book, the essence of what
is being discussed. I glean this information from a variety of sources: information
from the acquisitions editor, readers’ reports, the manuscript, and previous
blurbs if the book is a reprint. At times I am in contact with the author about
the cover, but most times acquisitions gives me feedback from the author. I
then start searching out potential visuals and/or check into the rights for
suggested imagery. Occasionally “type only” covers prove best. I meet with
sales & marketing, acquisitions, and the director every two weeks to review
ongoing cover work. If there is a difference of opinion, we often poll our
sales reps, who give valuable feedback on what they predict will do best in the
How is working on a trade cover different than working
on a scholarly cover?
MJ: I feel there is more
freedom in working on trade covers, because more can be left to interpretation.
A novel or book of poetry can elicit a variety of visual images. I take note of
any directives from sales & marketing and also from the authors, although
I’m always careful not to promise that we’ll definitely use their “talented
nephew’s drawing,” just in case. I try to garner most images from royalty-free
stock houses to keep costs down, but sometimes a rights-managed image is the
only way to go. While attending a cover design workshop, a trade publishing
creative director asked “What does the story look like?” I’ve tried to keep
this in mind when working on trade covers.
recent trade novel is about a gynecologist contending with Stalin’s prohibition
of abortions in 1936. In the tradition of Russia’s great family novels, the
story encompasses the history of two families. Their lives raise profound
questions about family heritage and genetics, nurture and nature, and life and
death. Not an easy subject to visualize, but we decided on this:
A totally different kind of book, this next novel’s narrator “couldn’t
stop turning and looking at the ‘bad boy’”:
In working on scholarly covers, I’ve found that one option is to
visualize literally what the book is about—the subject matter, the mood, the
timing—all to help to reflect its content.
Another option with
scholarly titles that don’t lend themselves easily to being communicated
visually is to use nondescriptive art:
books present a different sort of issue–a cover design that looks less scholarly than the content actually is. Acquisitions has rejected covers because of this. Here is one
that made it through:
What about interiors?
With a lot of interior templates in place, I miss the opportunity
to customize interiors. Occasionally a book like Harold or Chicago
and Its Botanic Garden comes along, and I can expand the cover concept to
are some of your favorite covers that you’ve worked on at Northwestern University Press?
This edition of “Incidental Noyes” comes from Ellen Hagan, whose collection of poetry HEMISPHERE just published. Library Journal was led to say that “we see that time doesn’t so much stretch out but circle us in, as reflected in a beautifully compressed language (“be the peacock & the treble, be/ the tremor & the starved”) that doesn’t so much capture as intensify.” Enjoy this intensely energetic, explicit (if every way) playlist. Be prepared to dance!
This is our latest “Incidental Noyes” installment. Paul Breslin, author of BETWEEN MY EYE AND THE LIGHT: Poems shares his list. The highlighted titles aren’t available through Spotify, but are worth checking out. #poetry #music