The Grey Art Gallery is New York University’s Fine Arts museum, featuring works from the NYU Art Collection. The exhibit currently on show is A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde. Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991), pictured below, was a renowned American cellist, however she also performed and championed the works of visual artists, composers, and choreographers who were redefining art, emerging a staunch advocate for all kinds of ‘radical' art. The objects in this exhibition explore and document aspects of her life and her career, serving to reinvigorate her legacy.
One of my most favorite works in 'A Feast of Astonishments’ is a performance piece enacted by Moorman. This is piece is titled ‘Sky Kiss’ and features Moorman suspended in mid-air, cello in hand, by a bouquet of multi-colored balloons. The performance takes place against the backdrop of the Opera House in Sydney, Australia. It was created in collaboration with American artist and graphic designer Jim McWilliams, who wrote and directed the performance. She performed it a total of eight times in the United States, Europe and Australia. Over the years this emerged Moorman’s signature piece; there is an entire section of a wall of the exhibition dedicated to presenting the documented performance.
Props, remnants of her performance pieces are also displayed in the exhibit. Among them is the infamous ‘TV Bra’, which was used in the 1969 performance 'TV Bra for Living Sculpture,' by Korean American 'father of video art' Nam June Paik. Short clips from each televised appearance play on a screen in an alcove where these objects reside, depicting how each of the items were used in performance. In ‘TV Bra for Living Sculpture’ Moorman strapped two miniature television sets onto her chest, playing the cello as she learned at Julliard. Paik created the piece shortly after Moorman’s arrest for indecent exposure at the premiere of his Opera Sextronique (1967), which involved Moorman playing the cello with partial nudity. The contraption which is used in performance after, served to figuratively restore the Topless Cellist’s modesty, and by repurposing the TV and altering its function to that of an undergarment, an intimate and very personal possession, the art piece served to 'to humanize technology'.
Another piece that typifies this idea is ‘TV Cello’ (1971). In this piece, Paik and Moorman stacked televisions on top of one another, so that they formed the shape of an actual cello. In the performance, Moorman, donning massive goggles, draws her bow across the ‘cello,’ images of her and other cellists playing appears on the screens.
'Bomb Cellos', left are painted metal bombs to which Moorman added strings and played as part of John Cage’s “26’1.1499”. This piece serves as a striking example of how Moorman’s interpretations of the piece changed with the times, accreting new props and ideas with unceasing imagination.
I also really enjoyed her various sculptures on display at the exhibit. These, more often than not, consisted of found objects, often parts of, or whole cellos and other such string instruments, and technology, which were spliced together to create new, at times anthropomorphic, forms. One of my favorites is entitled ‘Charlotte Moorman II' a mixed-media sculpture created after Moorman’s death as an homage. The work explores the cellist’s world view through multimedia immersion.
The most poignant area of the show is perhaps the area dedicated to Japanese multimedia artist Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” the only work from Moorman’s repertoire that’s presented in its own room, therefore setting it aside from the other works and aiding in it’s emphasis. It is also the least musical of her works. The work involves audience members cutting off the performer’s dress one snip at a time. Installed among Moorman’s cut dresses (which are splayed out on canvases) and archival photos, a solemn projection shows Moorman performing “Cut Piece” at her loft in 1982, at a party Moorman and her husband, Frank Pileggi, threw at their loft in lower Manhattan. This conceptual work carried personal significance for Moorman: it took place only a few days before she had scheduled to have a lump in her breast biopsied, three years after she had a mastectomy to remove the other breast. With her already transformed body and the new threat of cancer looming, her performance that night was highly emotional and specially charged. Outfitted with a bench for viewing the viewer really has time to sit and absorb the experience and appreciate its artistry.
Another work I was really drawn to was the smashed violins, remnants of her performance of Nam June Paik’s 'One for Violin Solo’. Her best enactment of this performance took place in New York in 1968. This conceptual piece calls for the deliberate destruction of a violin. While the work’s title conveys the decorum of classical music, not a single note is played in it. Instead, as demonstrated in stills of the performance, a musician holds the violin by it’s neck, raises it slowly, then in one swift motion, smashes it down on a table. The fine instrument is destroyed and the audience’s expectations of the classical music genre is undermined.
The exhibition continues downstairs, which documents Moorman’s production of fifteen avant-garde festivals, held mostly in New York City between 1963 and 1980.
Here are some of my favorites: