The story of Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991), cellist, performance artist and festival producer is a compelling tale of riches to rags, a lyrical and yet heartbreaking inversion of the typical coming of age narrative. Frequently known only as the “topless cellist,” Moorman was a rule-bending polymath, who advocated for the most experimental art of her time. However, despite shaping how we experience art and performance today, her own work has sat critically undervalued in the archives, avoiding critical attention or analysis until recently. 

black and white image of a woman wearing glasses, sitting astride 3 television sets, old fashioned in style. She is holding a cello bow over the screens as if she is playing them. Wired and cables are all around her.

Having studied at the legendary Juilliard School of Music and beginning to build a career as a freelance classical musician, in the spring of 1961 everything changed for her when she was introduced to the New York City downtown avant-garde arts scene, and she played a minor part in a mixed media performance directed by the now infamous Yoko Ono, who was to become her role model.

Discovering Moorman’s Signature Work

That night she heard fellow Julliard student Kenji Kobayashi perform 26ʹ1.1499ʺ for a String Player by American composer John Cage, an unconventional score that includes “non-musical” sounds of the performer’s choosing.  It was a work that she would go on to perform over 700 times in her career, becoming a signature piece for her, and truly her entry point into the avant-garde, although by the time they met Cage was turning more to theatre, combining visual and sonic elements, which appealed to her immensely. She was clearly drawn to the playful performance nature of the work and it soon became a popular repertory piece for her. 

It was an exhilarating work, offering an immense amount of creative freedom. In addition to cello, she blew a slide whistle, shot off a toy gun, tossed a cymbal to the floor, hit a bin lid with her bow, read instructions from a tampon box, and scraped her shoe on a cookie sheet with sand on it. She even presented an excerpt on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” 

the cover for a box set of recordings from the composer Charlotte Moorman. It is a white box with a black and white image of the composer playing the cello, surrounded by text with a list of all the composers featured in the set

I was just seven months old in December 1964 when she performed it at the Avant Garde Concert III at Judson Hall in New York City. Listening to the recording of this today is an extraordinary experience, as she fiercely performs this work where her cello has an equal role to play to everything else around it, including metal sheets, chains and whistles. We even hear recorded supplements such as the Queen Mary’s departure blast and Big Ben in London. Then she glides through works from Earle Brown, Terry Jennings and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In the latter work Plus-Minus, Moorman is assisted by a full-size robot called Robert Opera, built by Nam June Paik.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate today but embracing the work of a polymath like Yoko Ono or the celebrated John Cage back then was akin to committing professional suicide, and unbeknownst to her, this was indeed the beginning of a downward spiral for her professional career.

Meeting Nam June Paik

Arguably the most important meeting of her career took place in 1964 with Korean artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006), who had just arrived in New York City. He’d made a name for himself with ‘action music’ – a mix of live sound, theatre and magnetic tape sound. He felt that classical music needed ‘sexing up’ so he convinced Moorman to become his partner and immediately wrote her a new piece, calling for her to play passages from Brahm’s, stopping every few bars to remove an item of clothing until she was down to her underwear. Unfortunately, the performance abruptly stopped as plains clothes police arrested her and Paik, and later Moorman was given a suspended sentence for indecent exposure.

Black and white photo. A woman is naked, covered only by a transparent plastic raincoat. She is playing the cello, with a big smile on her face, sitting on top of a man on the ground on all fours, wearing a suit. There is a crowd of people standing around watching them

Not that this seemed to stop her. Such moments were crucial markers in her path and in the seventies she expanded her repertoire to include works such as ‘Candy’ where she became a living Easter Bunny, and another where she played a cello made of ice until it melted, whilst playing in the nude. Almost anticipating the Pixar film Up, she even performed ‘Sky Kiss’ in which she and her cello were lifted into the air by colourful helium balloons.

Very colourful image of a woman playing the cello floating in the sky, held up by about a dozen large colourful balloons, red, blue, orange, yellow, white. The sky behind is a bright blue with light white clouds

The Annual Avant-Garde Festival of New York

A quick glance at the listings for the Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival, which she organised and produced between 1963 and 1980, is truly inspiring. The sheer range and diversity of figures and characters from all styles of music were to meet head to head in these incredible shows. Classical music would nudge against free form improvisation, free-jazz would balance against theatrical works. In so many ways, these festivals were very much ahead of their time.

A colour image of a yellow and green tinted piece of paper on a wooden floor. The paper is filled in tiny script with handwriting and printed text listing the 7th annual new york avant garden festival on two islands

“Don’t Throw Anything Out”

Thankfully for us today Moorman was her very own historian, holding on to every scrap of paper, every remnant and memento of her life. Images from the time capture a woman almost extinguished in her New York apartment, surrounded by stacks and stacks of cardboard boxes, manuscripts, diaries, and programmes. Incredibly apparently nothing was too small to keep for posterity and after her death it took more than 178 boxes to pack it all away.

Black and white image of a woman seated on a bed, dressed all in black, surrounded by furnishings and her belongings on every surface. The walls are covered in papers, objects lie on every shelf. The photograph uses a fish eye lens so the focus is directly on the main woman

The photograph above was taken by Peter Moore and captures Moorman in her studio apartment in the Hotel Paris in Manhattan where she lived from 1962 to 1971. Moorman is at the centre of a vortex, one that seems ever likely to collapse into itself, or even onto her! The apartment was so very small that she had to store her beloved cello in the bathtub and practice on the roof of the building outside.

There’s also another story behind this image and it relates to her chronic failure to keep to schedule. On the very day this photograph was taken the photographer Moore and his wife were visiting to help her move to a new apartment on West 46th Street. Unfortunately, as it patently clear, she was far from ready. This aspect of her life rather trailed alongside her, as she was regularly late for her own performances and festivals, as well as missing planes, trains and even paying bills on time. Apparently patience, and heaps of it, were required by her friends and supporters.

A Sad Downfall

Tragically her work did not earn her a lot of money and her dedication to the avant-garde drove her deeply into debt. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45 her situation became rather desperate. She continued to perform even when she needed to have a shot of morphine every couple of hours to contain her pain, but passed away at the age of 57.

Back in 2019 Tate Modern in London exhibited a large retrospective show on the work of Paik, and I was delighted to see significant space given to this creative partnership. The show also highlighted his partnerships with other avant-garde artists, musicians, choreographers and poets, including John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Joseph Beuys. It was especially moving to experience Paik’s Room for Charlotte Moorman (1993) installation featuring dresses that she wore, ghosts waiting for their host to reappear.

Several dresses hang up on a white wall, suspended by wires. Black dresses and a blue dress hang with a lot of space between them

Moorman remains significant today, especially as a woman who refused to play by the rules. She always knew what she wanted and never conformed to anyone’s expectations. We need more people like her in the world! 

Watch the documentary below for more on Moorman, and don’t forget to use the incredible resource Ubu.com for free, to discover more.

A very colourful book cover. A Feast of Astonishments reads the text. Then in small letters Charlotte Moorman and the Avant Garge 1960s-1980s. The image is of the same woman playing the cello floating in the air with very colourful balloons all around her holding her suspended.