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Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman

by Joan Rothfuss, Introduction by Yoko Ono
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
448 pp., illus., 100 b/w. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 9780262027502.

Reviewed by Dr Elizabeth McCardell


Thoroughly researched and somewhat fast paced, this book by Joan Rothfuss, Charlotte Moorman, American performance artist, avant-garde musician and entrepreneur is an intriguing read. She was an interesting woman and participated in innovative works, but I'm not sure why the author calls hers an "improbable life".

Charlotte Moorman (18 November 1933 - 8 November 1991) was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, to an alcoholic mother and a father who died when she was young. She toyed with a classical career and trained with various teachers, including, briefly, the Julliard School of Music. She also played with various orchestras and quite possibly would have succeeded as a classical musician, although appointments were difficult for her to find. She soon came under the influence of certain avant-garde composers and experimental artists, like Yoko Ono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Nam June Paik (with whom she collaborated a great deal), and John Cage, allowing herself to be used in exciting, but sometime very dangerous ways. She wore a television set bra, rested TV sets on her bare breasts, caressed an ice cello, performed nude, hung suspended by several helium-filled balloons above the Sydney Opera House while playing the cello, hanging suspended from helium-filled weather balloons in a piece called Sky Kiss created by Jim McWilliam, and so on.

Paik created many works for Moorman, including TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and TV-Cello (1971). An inevitable notoriety came her way when she performed Paik's Opera Sextronique at the Film-Makers Cinematheque in New York City (1967). This musical event required she perform acts with her cello in various states of nudity and props that included a bikini with blinking lights in the first movement and then being topless in the next, and so forth. She was arrested and charged with indecent exposure mid-performance by three plain-clothed policemen. It was this arrest that gave her fame as "the topless cellist.

As an entrepreneur, Moorman may have had the most influence on the avant-garde scene. She founded the Annual Avant Garde Festival of New York in 1963. This festival presented experimental music (of the Fluxus group and Happening) as well as performance, kinetic and video art, which was in its infancy at the time. The title "Annual" was a bit of misnomer as the festival wasn't held every year; instead, just 15 events happened from 1963 to 1980. The events were performed in very interesting places, including the Shea Stadium, the World Trade Center, and the Staten Island Ferries. Moorman was a valuable spokesperson and negotiator for what were challenging and controversial performances, even speaking on a well known popular television show in order to drum up support for her ventures.

The Korean-American composer Paik and others employed Moorman to expose prevailing ideas about femininity and the role of women in music, but she herself was never a feminist and she was uninterested in feminism. It is this point that I question the author's remark that Moorman's performances critiqued the way classical music just uses female musicians as a conduit for male authority, for Moorman's absence of interest in speaking her own voice, merely perpetuated this same scenario. She was obedient to the intention of the composer and usually a male composer. This point is crucial to my query regarding the "improbability" of Moorman's life. That she did not ever question the authority of the male gaze is the thread that connects her life, as I see it. For sure, she broke away from the conservatism of the "white picket fence" mentality of the small town in which she grew up, but she continued to see, as they did, that the man was the mover and shaker of life.

Moorman contracted breast cancer and, typical to her way of being, used this experience as a performance piece. Not even death was to be excluded. This endeavour was not a matter, for her, of ideological, aesthetic, or even cathartic purpose, but, as she said, a way "to make something positive out of this damn fiasco." A number of performance pieces were shaped around her mastectomy, medical procedures, and even the syringes used to inject painkillers. In this way, she married her history, her body, her desires, and her disease, thus fulfilling a fundamental of performance art, that is. It is art in action; it is what happens between this moment, and this, and this.

Dr Elizabeth McCardell, BA, BA (Hons), M. Couns., PhD, is a psychotherapist, independent scholar and writer living in Lismore, New South Wales, Australia.

Last Updated 9 April 2015

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