The indelible image of Charlotte Moorman (1933-1991) playing the cello topless – save for a pair of miniature television sets strapped to her chest – is about to be replaced with a more complex, but equally powerful, portrait of the girl from Little Rock, Ark. She metamorphosed into a seminal and barrier-breaking figure in performance art and an impresario of the postwar avant-garde.
The occasion is “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s –1980s,” opening Jan. 16 at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, where it will remain through July 17.
The exhibition is organized by the Block in partnership with Northwestern’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, home of the Charlotte Moorman Archive.
For three decades, beginning in 1960, the dedication of Juilliard-trained Ms. Moorman 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,” said 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 (a Korean American artist), 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.”
“A Feast of Astonishments” presents an assortment of artworks, film clips, music scores, audio recordings, documentary photographs, snapshots, performance props and costumes, ephemera and correspondence.
A companion exhibition, titled “Don’t Throw Anything Out,” organized solely in conjunction with the Block’s presentation, will frame the scope of the archive with a selection of objects and media ranging from Ms. Moorman’s double-barreled, heavily notated Rolodex to audio recordings of greetings and voice messages saved from her telephone message machine.