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.