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Charlotte Moorman was a cellist, avant-garde performance artist, and founder of the New York Avant Garde Festival.
Madeline Charlotte Moorman was born on November 18, 1933, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to J. R. and Vernan Moorman; her father was a sales manager. Moorman began playing the cello at the age of ten, going on to perform with local symphonies while enrolled at Central High School. A member of the National Honor Society and a Central High debutante group called the Southernaires, Moorman graduated in 1951 and attended Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, on a music scholarship. After receiving a BA in 1955, Moorman earned a master’s degree in 1957, studying under illustrious concert cellist Horace Britt at the University of Texas at Austin. She then enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York City, studying there for the next two years.
While at Juilliard, Moorman performed in classical concert hall orchestras, including the American Symphony Orchestra, of which she continued to be a member through 1967. Yoko Ono, Moorman’s friend and one-time roommate, encouraged her participation in the avant-garde scene.
Moorman founded the New York Avant Garde Festival in 1963 at the age of twenty-nine, overseeing all fifteen festivals until its end in 1982. French composer Edgard Varèse, who died two years after the festival was founded, famously designated Moorman as the “Jeanne d’Arc of New Music.” In interviews, she repeatedly asserted that she disliked the term “avant-garde,” insisting that her work was “of its time,” not avant-garde, as in “ahead of its time.”
The first festival featured works from a broad swath of cutting-edge luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, David Behrman, and Nam June Paik, a Korean artist considered the first practitioner of “video art”—as well as Moorman’s future close collaborator.
Paik’s pieces, performed by Moorman, conflated technology and cultural controversies with the female form. A few notable examples include Cello Sonata no. 1 for Adults Only (1965), in which Moorman shed clothes while performing Bach’s C Major Sonata; TV Bra for Living Sculpture(1969), in which two miniature televisions were attached to the cups of a clear vinyl bra worn by Moorman; and Opera Sextronique (1967), during which Moorman was arrested while performing nude, as dictated by the score.
Moorman and Paik also collaborated on a number of multi-media cellos, most notably the “TV Cello” in which the instrument’s body is constructed out of three televisions.
In spite of being diagnosed with cancer in 1979, Moorman continued performing through the 1980s. In September 1982, during the Sky Art Conference in Linz, Austria, she performed Sky Kiss by Otto Piene, in which Moorman and her cello, strapped to a number of helium-inflated balloons, were lifted into the sky. At the same festival, Moorman performed Yoko Ono’s famous Cut Piece, in which members of the audience were requested to cut off pieces of the artist’s dress.
Moorman died on November 8, 1991, ten days before her fifty-ninth birthday, at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan after a twelve-year battle with breast cancer. She was survived by her second husband, Frank Pileggi. Her archival and manuscript collections are held as part of the Dick Higgins Archive at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
In February 2016, a retrospective of her work and life opened at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. Later that year, two exhibits of her work opened at New York University.
For additional information:
Charlotte Moorman Collection. Dick Higgins Archive. Northwestern University Library, Evanston, Illinois.
Collins, Glenn. “Charlotte Moorman, 58, Is Dead; A Cellist in Avant-Garde Works.” New York Times, November 9, 1991. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/09/arts/charlotte-moorman-58-is-dead-a-cellist-in-avant-garde-works.html (accessed February 8, 2016).
Geffen, Sasha. “Avant-gardist Charlotte Moorman Finally Gets the Recognition She’s Due.” Chicago Reader, http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/charlotte-moorman-a-feast-of-astonishments-block-museum/Content?oid=20946060 (accessed February 8, 2016).
Puchowski, Lauren. “Don’t Throw Anything Out.” Arkansas Times, November 17, 2016, pp. 22, 28–29. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/dont-throw-anything-out-the-legacy-of-charlotte-moorman/Content?oid=4710120 (accessed November 17, 2016).
Rothfus, Joan. Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.
Last Updated 11/17/2016
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