Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s Sky Kiss
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, April 11, 1976
Unidentified photographer, reproduced courtesy Kaldor Public Art Projects

Art galleries have long played an important role in enhancing New York City’s new-music culture and supporting its community, and over the last several weeks we’ve seen a number of keen examples. In September, Fridman Gallery in SoHo hosted “9 Evenings + 50,” a concert series commemorating the 50th anniversary of 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering, a groundbreaking cross-disciplinary festival hosted by the 69th Regiment Armory in October 1966. On Oct. 11, the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea hosted the S.E.M. Ensemble in a concert that included an ambitious dance opera by S.E.M. founder-director Petr Kotik and two pieces by Alvin Lucier – one an extraordinary new piece that literally conjoined the married partners of violin duo String Noise with a long, thin, resonating wire – all played out in front of Sol LeWitt’s monumental Wall Drawing #368.

Right now, if you hit Hauser & Wirth’s gallery on West 18th Street to see Rashid Johnson’s I’ll Fly Away at just the right time, you might hear Antoine Baldwin (a.k.a. Audio BLK) performing jazz improvisations on an upright piano for hours at a stretch, hidden from view deep within Johnson’s verdant construction. Brazilian pop and hip-hop provide a buoyant soundtrack for Silence of Music, a giddy show by OsGemeos – São Paulo-born twin brothers Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo – now on view at Lehmann-Maupin Gallery on West 22nd Street. (Both shows close on Oct. 22… act fast if you’re curious.) And you should mark your calendars now for a pair of linked shows featuring work by the musically inclined Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, opening Nov. 5 at Luhring Augustine’s spaces in Chelsea and Bushwick.

But the one show no lover of modern music and/or contemporary art can afford to miss is A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s-1980s, on view through Dec. 10 at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery.

L-R Charlotte Moorman performing Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece with
Nam June Paik, Galerie Aachen 1966 (Photograph: Kenneth Werner; Charlotte Moorman Archive, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University); performing Jim McWilliams’s Sky Kiss, Sydney Opera House 1976 (Unidentified photographer; courtesy Kaldor Public Art Projects); performing on Nam June Paik’s TV Cello wearing TV Glasses, Bonino Gallery, New York City, 1971 (Photograph: Takahiko Iimura)

Widely known as the “Topless Cellist” after she was arrested for performing in public Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique, a work that required the former Little Rock beauty queen to disrobe, Moorman (1933-1991) accomplished so much more than that scandalous nickname implies. Crucially, though, she made savvy use of her notoriety, furthering the cause of contemporary classical music and experimental art by reaching out to vast audiences through mainstream television. She also served as a trailblazing impresario, mounting her Annual New York Avant Garde Festival in high-traffic locations like Central Park, the Staten Island Ferry terminal, and Grand Central Station.

Organized by the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, A Feast of Astonishments is a charming, witty, insightful, and ultimately deeply moving overview of Moorman’s life, work, and contributions. You get a clear sense of both her seriousness and her whimsy, her determination and resourcefulness, the bravery with which she confronted her legal challenge, and the dignity with which she faced her personal battle with the cancer that claimed her life too soon.

The show, concise and smartly organized, is crammed with brash artworks, sophisticated scores amended extensively in Moorman’s hand, vintage television footage, and copious images of Moorman and her extended community – most by the celebrated photographer Peter Moore. You get the sense of a serious artist on a mission, as well as a woman bursting with life, humor, and joy, all of which makes the show’s more somber turns – a cello sculpture Moorman fashioned out of her used syringes; a video of a late, private performance of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, in which anguish and serenity seem to play in impossible counterpoint on Moorman’s face – all the more gripping.

“I don’t want to see it and I never will,” Ono wrote of that video in a preface she provided for Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman (MIT Press; 2015) by Joan Rothfuss. “It’s too sad for me to watch,” Ono continues. “I want to remember us as the beatnik girls who had great fun in the ’60s, before we became such Queens.” Her reluctance is understandable, but a sense of the wilder, more freewheeling days she prefers to recall permeates this entertaining, illuminating exhibition.

A companion exhibition focused on Moorman’s personal archives, “Don’t Throw Anything Out,” is on view nearby at NYU’s Fales Library. Holland Cotter, in The New York Times, wrote gorgeously of the shows’ combined effect:

The two exhibitions, as dense as they are with their hundreds of objects, represent a mere fraction of that material, the tip of the Moorman iceberg. Except it isn’t an iceberg. It’s a big, warm, spreading fire, always on the verge of leaping out of control, but crackling with new ideas and new histories.

Complementing the shows, the Grey Art Gallery is hosting a series of public lectures, discussions, and performance events. And on Oct. 20, Electronic Arts Intermix (535 West 22nd St.) will host an evening of rarely encountered television and video performances by Moorman.

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