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by Alan Moore
|"The World of Charlotte Moorman," Mar. 28-June 30, 2000, at Bound & Unbound,
601 West 26th Street, 12th floor, New York, N.Y.
After 1967, Charlotte Moorman was known to the New York media as the "topless cellist." A beautiful woman and a classically trained musician, she gained notoriety after performing a cello composition bare-breasted for avant-garde bad boy Nam June Paik. A 1969 score by Paik, for which Moorman was also known, required the performer to wear miniature television sets on her nude breasts.
Moorman's life and work is currently celebrated in an exhibition at Bound & Unbound, the airy but intimate, archive-like shop run by Barbara Moore in the Starret-Lehigh building on West 26th Street. As a performer, Moorman's work embodied the effort of the mid-20th-century performance avant-garde to force open an indeterminate area of innovation between the high and the low, between art as a high-minded civic ritual and "art" as a pretext to sell sex.
Paik was glad to find her: "Pretty girl, who is ready to strip, cannot play cello," he wrote in a letter. "And young and pretty cellist will never strip." Indeed, for her antics, Moorman was arrested for indecent exposure. (Oversized copies of her court transcripts are free at this exhibition.)
Moorman lived at the intersection of advanced art and music during a moment when the two modes of practice were blurring together. In esthetics, the influential composer John Cage was inspired by Marcel Duchamp's abstruse example and worked closely with visual artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. In her work, Moorman, who played an oversized instrument between her legs, opened up the complex sexual valences of committed musical performance.
A photo in this show has the cellist improbably suspended over the gothic modernist forms of the Sydney Opera House in a 1976 performance of Jim McWilliams 1968 work Sky Kiss, a classic image of what architectural historian Marc Dessauce has called "the inflatable moment" of simultaneous artistic and political revolution.
Another oversized color photograph by Peter Moore shows Moorman performing McWilliams' 1973 Candy, or the Ultimate Easter Bunny. Covered in chocolate and shredded coconut, Moorman plays her instrument at the Clocktower in a prefiguration of Karen Finley's on-stage romance with chocolate sauce.
Moorman was not, strictly speaking, a feminist. She performed scores written by men. But, unlike the nude models a tuxedo-clad Yves Klein led from paint bucket to canvas before an audience accompanied by a string quartet, Moorman was an agent. Her mode of chamber spectacle individualized the role of performer, and broadened the role of composer.
Moorman's subject was the female body as erotic spectacle, and as such her work can be compared to that of women artists like Carolee Schneeman, Hannah Wilke, Marina Abramowicz, Finley and Vanessa Beecroft. And, unlike Yayoi Kusama's nude group romps in Central Park and MoMA's fountain during the 1960s, Moorman's exposures usually took place within the genteel context of classical music performance. She did perform her one-time roommate Yoko Ono's Cut Piece, in which the female performer invites an audience member to use scissors to cut off her clothes.
This exhibition foregrounds another significant part of Moorman's life -- her work as a producer and avant-garde animateur. She was the impresario of the New York Avant-Garde Festival, a unique barometer of international performance and installation art, which evolved between 1963 and 1980 from concert halls into sprawling multi-focus events in venues like Central Park, Shea Stadium, the Staten Island Ferry and Grand Central Station.
In the festival's cause, Moorman parlayed her notoriety into an effective bohemian celebrity. She may have been the topless cellist, but she was also a soft-spoken classy southern belle, and she charmed Gotham's bureaucrats into letting her international crew of advanced musicians and artists play in New York City's public spaces.
The festival received few grants and was sponsored by no corporation. Yoko Ono and her husband John Lennon were among its quiet patrons.
Proclamations by New York mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins honored Moorman. This now-forgotten civic festival of advanced oddness marked a halcyon moment of understanding between elected officials, bureaucrats and artists.
Barbara Moore's tribute exhibition, she said, is informed by her personal experiences of her friend's career. The show is a kind of expanded scrapbook, with photographs, scores, posters, clippings and objects from an archive that is still being sorted. Moorman's paper cut-outs dangle from the ceiling, and the catalogue is a boxed collection of vintage materials.
The show is also a kind of stalking horse for a major objective of the Charlotte Moorman estate, which is to rehabilitate a second version of the Joseph Beuys work, Infiltration Homogen für Cello. The first felt-covered cello made for Moorman's 1966 performance, Moore says, was sold during her last years to cover medical bills. A second version that Beuys made for her was withdrawn from a 1993 Sotheby's sale when its authenticity was questioned by the collector who had sold the first version for $350,000.
ALAN MOORE is a New York art historian. He is not related to Barbara Moore.