A Feast of Astonishments: Museum der Moderne Salzburg


Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991) was a groundbreaking, rule-bending artist, musician, curator, and advocate for the experimental art of her time. Trained as a classical cellist, she performed and championed the works of visual artists, composers, and choreographers who were redefining art. Image: Charlotte Moorman performs with Paik’s ‘TV cello’

A Feast of Astonishments explores many facets of the career of Charlotte Moorman, including her early years, the music she performed, the festivals she organized, and the sculptural cellos she created. Moorman’s repertoire featured performances devised by others, but she made them her own through interpretation, improvisation, and repeated presentation. Moorman’s varied activities are as difficult to categorize as the boundary-crossing art she championed. Drawing on unique holdings from the Charlotte Moorman Archive housed at Northwestern University’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, A Feast of Astonishments immerses viewers in the vibrant and complex network of artistic ferment that Moorman sustained over three decades as an artist and a promoter of new art.

A Feast of Astonishments. Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s includes work from a wide variety of fields and media: music, film, performance art, audio and video installations, photography, literature, and materials from the archive of the artist, who died in 1991 in New York City. The exhibition is divided into two main themes: Moorman’s repertoire as an artist and her work as the founder and organizer of the Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival. These two areas are linked by a section about her concert tours to Europe and their influence. Works by such innovative figures as John Cage, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Jim McWilliams, and Joseph Beuys fueled her fearless and risk-taking approach as well as her enthusiastic promotion of what she called “mixed media.”

The exhibition also documents Moorman’s production of fifteen avant-garde festivals, held mostly in New York City between 1963 and 1980. A consummate and magnetic networker, Moorman engendered a strong sense of community among hundreds of artists, filmmakers, dancers, poets, musicians, and festival audiences, who were all willingly caught in “Charlotte’s web.” Over the years, these festivals migrated from traditional performance venues to public spaces, freeing artists from the constraints of concert halls and museums, and creating important precedents for future large-scale, urban art exhibitions.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1933, Charlotte Moorman first came to New York to pursue a classical training as a cellist at the famous Juilliard School, but soon turned to experimental music. The composer Edgard Varèse even dubbed her the “Joan of Arc of New Music.” Moorman organized numerous concerts for contemporary musicians, among them Joseph Byrd, La Monte Young, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Yoko Ono. However, her involvement in radical new forms of art was not confined to music. She furthermore worked with Allan Kaprow, Otto Piene, Carolee Schneemann, Yvonne Rainer, and Joseph Beuys.

Moorman’s fervent exploration of contemporary music, art, literature, dance, and innovative cross-disciplinary art forms fueled her commitment to bring these to the widest possible public. To this end, between 1963 and 1980, she organized the Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival on 15 occasions. From 1966, this legendary festival brought together the world’s avant-garde artists at public spaces in New York, including Central Park (1966), Staten Island Ferry (1967), and Grand Central Terminal (1973). At the same time, Moorman developed her own highly personal repertoire of musical pieces, which she repeatedly performed. These included works by John Cage, Giuseppe Chiari, Philip Corner, Jim McWilliams, Yoko Ono, and Nam June Paik. Her work also took her to Europe: in 1965, she participated in the 24 Hours Happening in Wuppertal; in 1973 she took part in the Bochum Kunstwoche (art week), and in 1982 she contributed to the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz. “Moorman not only made an outstanding contribution to the New York avant-garde in the 1960s and 1970s, but she also forged ties between the American and European art scenes. The documentations of her performances in Linz and Wuppertal constitute Austrian and German TV history,” says Sabine Breitwieser, Director of the Museum der Moderne Salzburg.

In 1967, her partially nude performance of Nam June Paik’s “Opera Sextronique” in New York led to her arrest and conviction on indecency charges. As a consequence, Charlotte Moorman became publicly known as the “topless cellist,” which dominated her image thereafter—a situation this exhibition now aims to amend. Nam June Paik and Moorman collaborated on further pieces that are closely associated with her name, as they were created exclusively for Charlotte to use and perform: the famous TV Cello (1971/1973) features in this exhibition. Her performances were staged all around the world and have been circulated in iconic images. Examples include Jim McWilliams’ Sky Kiss—Moorman plays the cello while suspended in mid-air from helium-filled balloons—and John Cage’s “26′ 1.1499”” for a String Player, in which Moorman among others draws her bow across a cello string on a man’s bare back and adds other “instruments” to her repertoire, ranging from a rubber duck to a “cello bomb.”

Charlotte Moorman was an enthusiastic archivist. The exhibition draws from a wealth of materials offering glimpses of Moorman’s personal life, her connections with other artists, and her tireless efforts to promote the avant-garde. Parts of Moorman’s archive, now housed at the Northwestern University in Chicago, are shown for the first time in this exhibition.

An exhibition in collaboration with the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, and the Northwestern University Libraries, supported by a major grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art. Additional generous support is provided by: Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, Alumnae of Northwestern University, Colonel Eugene E. Myers Foundations, Illinois Arts Council Agency, Dean of Libraries Discretionary Fund, Charles Deering McCormick Fund for Special Collections, Florence Walton Taylor Fund, Block Museum Science and Technology Endowment.

Related program

In the Spirit of Charlotte
March 8, 6–7:30pm
Lecture-Performance with Deborah Walker, cellist, new music performer and improviser

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964
May 13, 11am–12:30pm
Performance with Weronika Trojańska, artist, Warsaw, Poland

Concert matinee
June 4, 11am–12:30pm
Mozarteum University Salzburg, Institute for new music

Director: Sabine Breitwieser, Museum der Moderne Salzburg

Curatorial 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 Laura Wertheim Joseph, Consulting Curatorial Associate; Tina Teufel, Curator, Museum der Moderne Salzburg

Also on view:

Pichler. Radical: Architecture & Prototypes
until June 5

The retrospective of works by Walter Pichler, spanning five decades, has been extended until June 2017. Crossing the boundaries between architecture, design, and sculpture, Pichler was one of the most idiosyncratic artists of his time.

The Museum as a Space of Action
April 7–July 16

In this project the Museum der Moderne Salzburg addresses questions about the changing nature of its audiences and its role as an interactive space. The Museum der Moderne Salzburg is the only European venue of this extensive exhibition about the work and influence of the US-American musician and performance artist Charlotte Moorman. The first comprehensive tribute to Moorman’s art and her role as ambassador of the avant-garde, it reveals the artist in a fascinating new light.

A Feast of Astonishments. Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s
March 4–June 18, 2017

Museum der Moderne Salzburg
Mönchsberg 32
5020 Salzburg
Hours: Tuesday–Sunday 10am–6pm,
Wednesday 10am–8pm

T +43 662 842220403

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About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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