A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s
1/16/2016 - 7/17/2016
This exhibition replaces the indelible image of Charlotte Moorman (1933-1991)—playing the cello topless save for a pair of strapped-on miniature television sets—with a more complex but equally powerful portrait of the girl from Little Rock, Arkansas, who metamorphosed into a seminal and barrier-breaking figure in performance art and an impresario of the postwar avant-garde.
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,” says 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, 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, entitled Don’t Throw Anything Out, organized solely in conjunction with the Block’s presentation, frames 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 is 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 spills out onto the Northwestern University 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, Director, 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. Exhibition design by Dan Silverstein, Associate Director of Collections and Exhibitions Management.
A Feast of Astonishments will travel in fall 2016 to New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in Manhattan and to the Museum der Moderne Salzburg in spring 2017.
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, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the National Endowment for the 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; the Florence Walton Taylor Fund; and the Block Museum Science and Technology Endowment.Image: Charlotte Moorman performs Nam June Paik’s TV Bed, Bochumer Kunstwoche, Bochum, West Germany, 1973. Photo © Hartmut Beifuss.