By Madeline Bocaro ©
Why do I love Charlotte Moorman? Because she loves Yoko…
“…A hundred years from now, it’s Yoko Ono the world is going to remember – not John Lennon or the Beatles.”
– Charlotte Moorman
Photo: Yoko & Charlotte @ at the 10th Annual Avant Garde Festival of NY December 9, 1973.
Madeline Charlotte Moorman played cello since the age of ten. She received her master’s degree from Julliard in 1957. She was also a notable performance artist, proud of the fact that composer Edgar Varese called her “The Jeanne d’Arc of new music.” Charlotte was a southern belle born in Little Rock, Arkansas on November 18, 1933. (The same year as Yoko). She succumbed to breast cancer at age 57 on November 8, 1991. All those who knew Charlotte spoke of her beauty, her amazing wit, incredible sense of humor, her generosity toward her colleagues and how deadly serious she was about her art.
After a brief time as a classical cellist with the American Symphony Orchestra, Charlotte’s life changed completely when she became roommates in New York City with Yoko Ono in the early 1960s. Her first introduction to Avant Garde music was John Cage’s ‘26 Minutes, 1.1499 Seconds for a String Player’ in which the performer is instructed to cook and eat mushrooms.
See my story: Yoko and John… Cage
As founder of the Annual Avant Garde Festival of New York, Charlotte led a never-ending campaign for new music and performance art. The series of fifteen festivals (the final one held in 1980) staged Happenings and various forms of visual arts. They were held at odd locations; Grand Central Station, the Staten Island Ferry, the World Trade Center and at Shea Stadium where Charlotte performed on a flying trapeze. Karl Stockhausen performed at the second festival along with Nam June Paik. Some of the many performers over the years included jazz musicians Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra, the artists Christo and Jon Hendricks, poet Allen Ginsberg, Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins, Joe Jones (who created the musical instruments for Yoko’s 1971 album Fly, and Yoko’s Japanese biographer Takahiko Iimura.
“For me, the Avant Garde Festival is her artwork. What she did was, she gave a platform for the Avant Garde artists…She was very naïve but wise. A lot of people would have probably perceived her as being very shrewd because she accomplished a lot. But it was a very naïve beautiful loving force and that’s what kept her going.”
– Yoko Ono, (Topless Cellist documentary film, directed by Nam June Paik)
Charlotte was a part of Yoko’s first major solo concert at Carnegie Recital Hall in November 1961. She soon performed with John Cage and with founders of the Fluxus movement until she was inexplicably shunned by its founder, George Maciunas. Charlotte often collaborated with Nam June Paik, with whom she merged several art forms including performance and sculpture. For Charlotte, Paik created TV-Cello (1971) an electronic cello made with three stringed television sets (which emitted sounds of static as she bowed across it) and also TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) in which Charlotte was naked except for two small television sets attached to her breasts while she played cello.
Moorman performed Otto Piene’s Sky Kiss – suspended by helium balloons. She had an ice cello (from which she actually got frostbite) and a chocolate cello (also covered in chocolate herself) both created by Tim McWilliams. One of her pieces had her playing cello under water. But mostly, she insisted on wearing elegant gowns for her performances as a cellist.
Charlotte appeared on several American television shows in the 1960s/70s, hosted by the likes of Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas. She was mostly misunderstood and ridiculed, much in the way that Tiny Tim was treated on those same TV shows. However, she played along with their ignorance while maintaining her integrity. She has been described as chaotic and intense.
One event led to Charlotte becoming infamously known as the topless cellist. On February 9, 1967 she performed Paik’s Opera Sextronique at New York City’s Film-Makers Cinematheque, co-founded by Jonas Mekas (which later became Anthology Film Archives), playing the cello while nude. Charlotte made the headlines when she was arrested during the second half of the performance. The charges of indecent exposure were later dropped.
Moorman had been fighting a decade-long battle with breast cancer since the late 1970s. Despite intense pain and illness, she persevered with unbridled energy, performing throughout the 1980s and generously continuing to help other artists. Charlotte passed away on November 8, 1991 at age 57 in New York City.
Her archives have been exhibited in museums at Northwestern University, New York University and at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg.
Charlotte made a gift to Yoko Ono of all the scraps of all the pieces of fabric that had been cut away during her many performances of Cut Piece over the years.
She continued to perform Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece throughout her life as well.
See my story all about Yoko’s Cut Piece here:
(See Charlotte performing Cut Piece in 1989– with a hug from Yoko @ 20:00 in the film clip below)
After Charlotte’s passing Nam June Paik made a documentary film, Topless Cellist (1995).
Please Watch Here: (29:00)
In 1992, Yoko performed her own work Promise Piece at the Whitney Museum in a memorial tribute to Charlotte Moorman.
“The Beatles were fantastic. They left their mark.
But a hundred years from now, it’s Yoko Ono the world is going to remember
– not John Lennon or the Beatles.”
– Charlotte Moorman
Performing Cut Piece +
Charlotte’s Cut Piece dresses – installed in ‘A Feast of Astonishments’
Annual Avant Garde Festival of New York Listing:
Innaugural Festival – Aug. 20 – Sept. 4, 1963 “6 Concerts ‘63” @ Judson Hall – West 57thStreet NYC featuring John Cage.
2nd Annual Festival – August 30 – September 13, 1964. @ Judson Hall featured Paik’s Robot Opera starring the robot K456 and Yoko Ono’s ‘Wish Poem’
3rd– Sept. 7–11, 1965. @ Judson Hall lasting 2 weeks.
4th– Sept. 9, 1966 – Yoko: Sunrise Event and Cut Piece
5th– Sept. 29–30, 1967- a 24hour event at the Staten Island Ferry
6th– Sept. 14, 1968 – Central Park
7th– Sept. 28, 1969 – October 4, 1969
and Oct. 26–31, 1969 – (two weeks on two islands in the East River).
(There was no festival held in 1970 as Charlotte was ill)
8th– Nov. 19, 1971 – @ 69th Regent Armory – Yoko contributed a 16- foot Plexiglas Human Maze and John Lennon’s orchestral ‘Wind Piece’.
9th– Oct. 28, 1972 – On the Alexander Hamilton ship @ South Street Seaport.
10th– Dec. 9, 1973 @ Grand Central Station aboard 20 railroad cars. Yoko: F Art (a railroad car filled with empty boxes labeled with names of parts of her physical and psychic anatomy). Also, ’46 Reflections’ from Dawn to Knight, This is a wish piece. Each time the sun hits a mirror, make a wish and it will come true).
11th– Nov. 16, 1974 @ Shea Stadium – Yoko blinking lights on the top tier.
12th– Sept. 27, 1975 @ Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn
13th– June 19, 1977 @ World Trade Center
14th– May 14–20, 1978 – part of Cambridge River Festival
15th– July 20, 1980 @ Pier 81, Hudson River Park