Making a Spectacle of Herself

Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman
By Joan Rothfuss
Cambridge, MA, MIT Press , 2014, 448 pp., $34.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Debra Cash

Up on the fourth floor of the new Renzo Piano-designed consolidation of the Harvard University Art Museums, an unstrung cello hangs on the wall. On either side of its wooden curves, two forty-inch Sony monitors display a collage of grainy video footage from decades ago that, upon close inspection, shows a musician in a black bra playing a stack of three television screens with a bow. Her face is screened behind large dark sunglasses; it’s hard to know what she is thinking beyond the evident concentration of her effort.

Cello Memory is a work from 2002. The stringless fingerboard is signed, in English and Korean, by the artist Nam June Paik. The woman in the video, and the inspiration for this recursive evocation of a cello being played between two female breasts, was Charlotte Moorman.

Cello Memory is installed in a slightly out of the way corner of the museum complex. Below it are two sets of grey metal lockers where students can store their belongings. It seems apt that they will encounter Cello Memory while they peruse the university’s vast teaching collection on the history of the visual arts, because Moorman, with her voracious, try-anything- more-than-once curiosity, was always celebrating the present.

Charlotte Moorman (1933-1991) made a name for herself as “the topless cellist.” She played her instrument, as well as a number of faux-cellos made of carved ice, television monitors, and a man’s naked back, in settings as diverse as art-house theatres, a Venetian gondola, a vat of water, and in the sky over Linz Austria suspended by a bouquet of helium balloons in what the writer Jill Johnston called “a cross between Lady Godiva, the Pied Piper, a female Orpheus, and a host of winged mermaids. She’s really just Charlotte being superbly and supremely ridiculous.” (There’s footage of the 1982 version of Sky Kiss on the internet.)

She didn’t start out as a rebel. In Joan Rothfuss’ sympathetic and beautifully researched Topless Cellist, she was a dutiful daughter of Little Rock, Arkansas. The book includes a picture of her as “Miss City Beautiful” of 1952, during the town’s Cleanup, Paintup and Fixup Parade. Coquetry was second nature to her, Rothfuss writes, and she never lost and artfully deployed her accent and ladylike manners when they suited the occasion.
Moorman did not understand herself or her work as feminist, but Rothfuss explains that

classical music concerts, tea parties, and beauty pageants are all, fundamentally, performances. Each involves costumes and codified rituals of behavior, and each is enacted before a critical audience. The power of Moorman’s work as an artist lies in her fusion of these three old-fashioned modes of performance, all of which are associated with genteel Southern womanhood.

Given that avant-garde antics would become Moorman’s calling card, it’s worth noting that from early on, she was a serious orchestral musician. Never at the top of her class, she practiced conscientiously; pursued demanding teachers, including Julliard School of Music cellist Leonard Rose; went on auditions; and was a union member available for pick-up gigs and small ensembles. Chronically broke, she played for television jingles and answered phones to make money.

In late 1960, she encountered the New York avant garde, which forever changed her direction as a performer and presenter of concerts and events. She informally apprenticed herself to a local impresario, Norman Seaman, and started helping a Julliard friend, the violinist Kenji Kobayashi. She had an epiphany in the spring of 1961, when she attended a series of New Music performances in which, for instance, Kobayashi tied a violin to a kitchen stool “like a sacrificial victim” and kicked a metal wastebasket, and Yoko Ono performed a “dramatic poem” to the amplified sound of a flushing toilet.

Moorman was off to the races. She continued to play classical gigs when she could get them, but increasingly concentrated on a “vast new sound world,” playing works by John Cage, La Monte Young, Frederic Rzewski, and even a piece written for her by the free-jazz multi- instrumentalist Ornette Coleman. She called in favors in order to present concerts by herself and her friends; she scrounged resources. Some of the concerts were played straight, but an increasing number were full of subtle or raucous stage business: she might blow a whistle, pop some balloons, or throw things on the floor. Rothfuss is honorable enough to include the information that John Cage hated Moorman’s grandstanding theatrics, in which such liberties were “in favor of actions rather than sound events.” She started to get publicity, including a Movietone short and an article written by the young journalist Gloria Steinem.

In 1964, Moorman met the Korean pianist-composer-visual artist Nam June Paik. Like Moorman, Paik bowed to the altar of John Cage. Paik was a dyed-in-the-wool provocateur. Rothfuss is good at placing him in the context of his creative milieu, a blend of Dadaism, Antonin Artaud, and an interest in juxtaposing objects and actions in ways at once shocking and hilarious. Most specifically, Paik wanted to introduce sexuality into classical music. He wasn’t subtle about it: he wrote Moorman a musical strip tease where she ended up flat on her back with her cello on top of her in a parody of missionary position. He knelt between her legs, his torso naked, while she plucked a single cello string laid across his back. He designed a six-pound “television bra” and electronic pasties. Over the decades of their collaboration, her breasts were disclosed, masked, and transformed into transmission devices. Breasts were a synecdoche for Moorman, while Paik remained invisible, associated not with her breasts but with video art and the televisions she was wearing.

Rothfuss is careful to distinguish between Paik’s aesthetic voyeurism, Moorman’s game willingness to reframe her voluptuous femininity in the service of avant-garde exploration, and the reception of their collaboration by insiders (members of the small but distinguished contemporary art world, many of whom would later become superstars); the critical press, which wavered between dismissiveness and avidity; the befuddled general public; and ultimately the vice squad.

Moorman was an artist who, knowing she was breaking boundaries, often pointed to Paik’s—and other composers’—objectification of her with disingenuous innocence. She was, she said, simply following the composer’s score. When does another’s permission become the vehicle of personal agency? When does acting as a “muse” warrant redefinition as a collaboration between equals? Rothfuss poses questions that Moorman waved off. She was making boundary-pushing art, and she was having fun doing it, even if more than occasionally she bolstered her courage with shots of scotch.

She made headlines in 1967, when plainclothes police officers busted her performance of Paik’s Opera Sextronique on misdemeanor charges of indecent exposure. Rothfuss is inspired in her description of the cultural moment in which Moorman was hauled offstage into the freezing winter street, a time when there were lawsuits over topless waitresses, and the Guinean dancers of Les Ballets Africains added tops to their traditional costumes just to be safe. Should public nudity be regulated, and if so, how? (It goes almost without saying that the nudity being debated was typically female.) The accounts of Moorman’s arrest vary, but the night ended with a raid and the dispatch of eight carloads of police in riot helmets to control the booing audience. Moorman spent the night in jail, and when she was released the next morning faced the possibility of a year in prison.

Briefly, Moorman became a household name. She went on talk shows—Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin. Famous artists signed petitions. Found guilty that May, she received a suspended sentence from a judge who said that Pablo Casals would not have been as great a cellist if he had performed without his pants.

While Moorman’s performances are what makes for the best copy, this biography indicates that her expansive thought about how to generate a public for unfamiliar art may be her more lasting legacy. She wanted, she said, to make art be less of a “snobbish, mysterious thing.” As a presenter, her increasingly flamboyant, multimedia Avant Garde Festivals moved from cabaret clubs and concert halls to huge public venues, including Central Park, Shea Stadium, the Staten Island Ferry, and Grand Central Station. Rothfuss reports that by 1980, when she staged her fifteenth and last festival at the Passenger Ship Terminal on the Hudson River, 650 artists participated, and she received an official proclamation from New York Mayor Ed Koch. The events were more Woodstock than Carnegie Hall at a time when New Music usually attracted a tiny coterie, primarily within academic settings. The feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann noted,

She was treated like a wild, improvisatory, penniless, entrepreneurial girl. Had she been a guy, this would have had such authority and weight to it, because through her will and crazy vision she created the avant-garde community, the most extensive one that we have. But she did it like a crazy girl.

Moorman died as she lived, considering even her illness a performance and an opportunity for a combination of obsessive preparation and will power. When she found the first lump that signaled breast cancer in 1979, it was inevitable that many of her friends would surmise that her illness had something to do with the TV Bra and its ionizing radiation. Rothfuss tracked down Moorman’s doctor and then a physicist to gather evidence and reports that Moorman would have had to wear TV Bra five times more often than she did to receive the equivalent of even one mammogram’s worth of X-rays. Moorman’s breasts may have been her professional calling card, but that profession did not kill her.

Charlotte Moorman was a packrat— one who was so convinced of her own historical significance that on her deathbed in Roosevelt Hospital she was reported to have told her husband, Frank Pileggi, “Don’t throw anything away.” Rothfuss, a former Walker Art Center curator who now works independently, had access to the entire archive, now at the Northwestern University Library, and Topless Cellist is lavishly illustrated with photographic documentation. Charlotte Moorman’s journey from Southern belle to avant-garde impresario may have been improbable, but it is no longer unconsidered.

Debra Cashis executive director of the Boston Dance Alliance and scholar in residence at the Bates Dance Festival.

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