Jane DeBevoise (JD): We’re going to start now, and I just want to thank all of you for coming out tonight. My name is Jane DeBevoise and I’m the Chairman of Asia Art Archive, a non-profit organization based in Hong Kong and New York. Our focus is recent art from Asia, and while an exhibition like this may not appear immediately related to Asian contemporary art, in fact many artists in this exhibition are from Asia, and our walk through tonight will highlight the activity and role of these Asian artists. Our speaker tonight, Midori Yoshimoto, is an expert in artists from Japan during the postwar period, in particular Japanese artists living and working in New York. That was the topic of her PhD dissertation. She is now Associate Professor of art history at the New Jersey City University. Midori, we are delighted to be here with you tonight. Lynn Gumpert, the Director of the Grey Art Gallery, will also take part in the conversation. So now I’ll hand you all over to Lynn and Midori.
Lynn Gumpert (LG): Thank you Jane. We’re all thrilled to be working again with Asia Art Archive. Before we start, I would like to say that we have a parallel show that’s on view for another week, Monday through Friday, at NYU’s Fales Library. This show is called “Don’t Throw Anything Out” which was Charlotte Moorman’s mantra. Charlotte Moorman was a pack rat; she saved everything, and it’s all now in the collection of Northwestern University. I also want to say that the exhibition you are going to walk through tonight, Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s, originated at the Block Art Museum when the Director Lisa Corrin realized that Northwestern University had these amazing holdings of Charlotte Moorman’s work. Northwestern University was a partner in organizing this show.
The Grey Art Gallery is NYU’s art museum. We’re a small university museum situated in the middle of New York City, and we have two main areas of focus. One is the downtown scene —artists who live and work in lower Manhattan. NYU has been located in lower Manhattan since 1832, so there’s a historical connection to this material. The Grey’s other focus is the Abby Grey collection of Modern Middle Eastern and Asian Art. Mrs. Grey founded the Grey Art Gallery in 1975, when she donated her collection of some 800 objects. The largest concentration of material in this collection is from Iran, India, and Turkey. The Charlotte Moorman show presently on view connects with both sides of the Grey’s permanent collection—on one hand Charlotte was the quintessential downtown avant-garde entrepreneur. On the other hand, many of the artists with whom she worked were from Asia.
By way of a little background, Charlotte was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was a beauty queen, a winner, in fact, of a pageant called City Beautiful. And she was a cellist. She came to New York to study cello at Julliard. She was playing in orchestras, and at one point, the story goes, she was playing a Brahms concerto, when some part of her mind starting wandering. She was worried that she’d maybe forgotten to turn off the gas on the stove in her kitchen. And then she thought, well, if my mind is wandering, what about the audience’s. That was about the time she was introduced to avant-garde music and fell madly and passionately head over heels in love with the avant-garde experiments of the time. From that point on, it became her mission to bring avant-garde art to the people. She wanted to make it accessible to all.
Now for the show. When it was installed at the Block Museum, it was divided into components. One was Charlotte Moorman’s repertoire, works that she performed as a musician—that is, when she performed other people’s works. The second part of the show presented the 15 avant-garde festivals that she organized. At the Grey, the festival objects are mostly displayed in our downstairs space, where we will let you go on your own. It’s a narrow space, but there you can look at the 15 avant-garde festivals that she organized. Judson Hall on 57th Street was where the first avant-garde festivals were held, and you will be able to see how the venues expanded from there, with the festivals ending up in places as diverse as Shea Stadium, the Staten Island Ferry, Floyd Bennett Field, Grand Central Terminal, and Central Park. Moorman even organized a parade down Central Park West.
Charlotte was tireless and had an amazing personality, and she managed to charm everybody into participating. It is reported that some of the artists who participated in these festivals afterward vowed never to do so again, complaining that the events were too chaotic, too challenging. But then, given the quality of the performances, they would always end up changing their minds and coming back the next year, because they couldn’t help but get caught up again in Charlotte’s enthusiasm and spectacular kind of dynamism.
Charlotte Moorman is perhaps best known for her collaborations with Nam June Paik, a Korean artist who moved to Manhattan around the same time she did. Midori will tell us a little bit more about that, but the two were very simpatico and influenced each other in many different ways.
Now I’m going to turn you all over to Midori to talk a little bit about Charlotte Moorman’s early days in New York, when she started to meet some of the Japanese musicians who were also in New York at that time.
Midori Yoshimoto (MY): Thank you again for inviting me. First of all, a big thank you to Jane, Hilary, and Lynn for organizing this event and for inviting me to speak. I’d like this to be a conversation. I would like you to ask any questions you may have at any point throughout this talk. For the talk, we will be staying in the Grey’s Upstairs Gallery. However, after the talk you are encouraged to go downstairs to see rest of the exhibition. Now I’d like to give some historical context and start with this area [of the exhibition], which includes ephemera relating to Yoko Ono and Kenji Kobayashi.
Yoko Ono was a close friend of Charlotte’s for many years. Actually, their friendship goes back to Charlotte’s studies at Juilliard, where there was another Japanese student, Kenji Kobayashi, who became Charlotte’s friend. Before that Charlotte had another friend, Toshi Ichiyanagi. He was a Japanese composer who was also studying at Juilliard. Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko eloped in 1957 and went to New York City. Yoko was from a well-to-do family. Because of her father’s job at a Japanese bank, she and her family moved to San Francisco. Later she spent her early childhood between Tokyo and the U.S. She attended Sarah Lawrence College. In other words, she was quite Americanized from the beginning. After Yoko eloped with Ichiyanagi, the couple began living in downtown New York. There, Yoko started hosting a series of concerts in collaboration with American composer La Monte Young. It was rather a series of events that included dance performances by Simone Forti, and also one of the earliest art installations, by the sculptor Robert Morris. These all took place in a loft on 114 Chambers Street in Tribeca.
Yoko became one of Charlotte’s first roommates in New York City. I assume it was through Toshi Ichiyanagi that Yoko met Charlotte, or perhaps it was through Kenji Kobayashi. I am not sure. Charlotte organized Kenji’s concert, a solo concert, as well as Yoko’s solo concert, her first one in 1961 at the Carnegie Recital Hall. This was not the main auditorium in Carnegie Hall, but rather a smaller space in the same complex. In the program announcement of Yoko Ono’s first recital in New York City 1961, Charlotte Moorman is listed as personal manager for Yoko Ono. And because of Charlotte’s early exposure to these series of events, and the experimental music events at Yoko’s loft, Charlotte learned to appreciate experimentalism and work within it. She was no longer interested in performing classical or even contemporary music compositions without any interpretation. She wanted to interpret on her own.
In this image Charlotte is performing an interpretation of John Cage’s piece called 26’1.1499″.
Here is the score. You can see that Charlotte added her own ideas and even developed her own instruments, some of which were not prescribed by John Cage. In fact, Cage had some objections to her way of performing this piece. But this became Charlotte’s signature piece. Wherever she was invited, she would perform this piece, which meant that she had to carry all these boxes. Her unusual props included a plastic bomb, a telephone, and a blender, for example.
LG: [On this little monitor] you can see Charlotte performing on television on The Merv Griffin Show. This is another example of how she would take the opportunity, when offered, to get the work greater circulation. She took these opportunities very seriously. People in the audience laughed. They found the piece absurd and thought that perhaps she was performing it tongue–in-cheek, but she was not; she was serious. She was presenting the piece as serious music, and she maintained a serious demeanor the whole time. Working on this exhibition and having the opportunity to install it, I became very impressed with how committed she was and what a great impact that she had on this avant-garde scene that was starting to bubble up in Manhattan. Midori mentioned that Yoko Ono and La Monte Young organized a series of events at 114 Chambers Street. This loft series is actually going to be featured in our next exhibition, which will look at at artist-run spaces in Manhattan from 1952 to 1965. So in our upcoming exhibition, entitled Inventing Downtown, you will see a continuation of Charlotte and Yoko’s contributions to the art scene at the time.
MY: Next is Yoko’s self-drawn poster done in ink on newsprint for the Carnegie Recital Hall. After this, she became friends with George Maciunas, a Lithuanian-American architect and designer, who took up the ideas that La Monte Young and Yoko Ono developed in the concert series at 114 Chambers Street. He started hosting a similar version at his gallery, the AG Gallery, in 1961. This became one of the core [platforms for] Fluxus. During another concert series, Maciunas consulted Yoko and reportedly asked her what she thought of “Fluxus” as a name for this new movement. Yoko was not really interested in becoming part of a group, but she said that sounds good—or so the story goes. But by the beginning of 1962, Yoko felt that New York was becoming quite limited. It was, she felt, the same people coming to the concerts, a very small downtown community coming to see and share the same ideas. She wanted to test out the kind of activities she was experiencing in NY in Japan, so her then-husband Toshi Ichiyanagi arranged for her to go back to Japan and perform at the Sogetsu Art Center, which was a magnet for avant-garde experiments in Tokyo at the time. Shortly after her concert, the couple, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko, hosted a concert tour for John Cage. That was 1962. And it was during this trip that Peggy Guggenheim, who accompanied them, became a promoter and supporter. This is a picture taken during a visit to Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto. They did some sightseeing along the way of the long concert tour.
This trip famously brought something historic to Japan, historic to the history of music and art there. It is called the John Cage Shock. It was during this tour that musicians and visual artists, soon to be called performance artists, were exposed to John Cage’s avant-garde way of playing music, which used things like blenders, pressure cookers, telephones … all kinds of devices from daily life. That created a big shock in Japan. And this connects to the next vitrine. Both Yoko and Nam June Paik were pivotal in turning the cellist, the classical cellist Charlotte Moorman, into an avant-garde artist and impresario. I think that without the two of them she probably would never have become what she became.
Nam June Paik didn’t come to New York until 1964. That is because he first went to Wiesbaden, Germany for a time and studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen, the composer. Paik had previously been educated in Japan at the University of Tokyo. Toward the end of his stay in Germany, he turned to electronic music and to manipulating TV monitors with magnets and things like that. He even had an exhibition there. But he was already thinking ahead, and what he was thinking about was the robot.
Recently I have been working through some of the primary archival material at the Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota Foundation on Mercer Street in SoHo. There I saw a document that suggested that Paik felt that in order to make robots, the most logical destination would be Japan. This is supposedly why he went back to Japan in 1963 to educate himself on how to build robots. To that end he befriended engineer Shuya Abe, who became his primary engineer throughout his life.
Nam June Paik was only back in Japan for less than a year when he managed to make an intense connection with the Japanese avant-garde. Here is a photo of Nam June Paik participating in an avant-garde art event with the collective Hi Red Center. This event was called ‘Shelter Event’ (1964) and took place in some of the rooms that they rented in the Imperial Hotel.
This photo is part of a series made of each of the participants in the ‘Shelter Event’. They comprised friends, artists, and critics—a very small group. Yoko Ono attended this event as well. At the event, pictures were taken of each participant, and their bodies were measured in preparation for making a bomb shelter. Hi Red Center Center was at the core of the Japanese avant-garde in Tokyo. In 1964, Nam June Paik went to New York. Yoko returned to New York from Tokyo that same year. She subsequently made Cut Piece, which we will talk about next. In short, Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik bridged these two avant-garde worlds, in Tokyo and New York.
Next is an image of the Originale, a Happening concert piece by the notorious German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. While Nam June Paik was in Germany, he performed in the Originale’s premier performance. On hearing about this piece Charlotte wanted to perform it in New York, at the 2nd New York Avant-Garde Festival, which Charlotte had initiated in 1963. This is a publicity photograph taken in 1964. By the way, many of the photographs in this exhibition are by Peter Moore, who is known for taking almost all of the Fluxus-related events and performances. In Moore’s photographs, you can see artists such as Nam June Paik, Takehisa Kosugi, and many others. The New York festivals were inclusive.
Upon his arrival in New York, Charlotte recruited Nam June to perform in Originale, because Stockhausen had specified specified that that in order for her to receive permission to perform the piece, Paik had to be in it. That was Stockhausen’s personal request, and that’s how Charlotte heard about Paik. That’s how their friendship and partnership began.
The next section of the exhibition presents the scandal. Nam June used Charlotte in a couple of his performances of Opera Sextronique. As a result, she was arrested by police officers. Paik, who composed the piece, was not arrested, but Charlotte, who performed it, was convicted of lewd conduct. This series of ephemera comes from that time. This vitrine contains the verdict from Moorman’s trial and all the ephemera associated with Opera Sextronique. This is a light bulb bra that Paik made; it was made with small light bulbs. Charlotte’s challenge to and assault on classical music escalated through this performance of Originale, in which she performed semi-naked. She was wrapped in gauze, and underneath she wore nothing. She came up with the idea, supposedly in talking to Carolee Schneemann at the time. Charlotte thought nothing of the nudity in her performances. In a way, she was taking advantage of her beautiful female body. It was sort of a tool in this avant-garde performance, and she didn’t immediately think of it as sexist.
LG: We had a panel discussion about that very issue – about how feminists later held different opinions. But I should say that Nam June famously indicated that he felt that sex had not been addressed by music. And this was the reason for his Opera Sextronique; that he wanted to bring sex into music. An example is the electronic bikini and so forth.
MY: This room is devoted to Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece. Charlotte claimed that she performed this piece as many as 700 times in her lifetime, but many art historians and critics think that this is an exaggeration. In fact, Charlotte tended to exaggerate quite a bit. But this is the documentation of her 1982 performance of Cut Piece, right after she found out that she might have breast cancer. It was a charged performance, taking place shortly after she had a biopsy of her breast. After the performances of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, she kept the dresses in her archive. Here are some of them. This performance was also documented in videos and photographs.
Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece was performed for the first time in Kyoto, Japan, in 1964, during Yoko’s two-year sojourn that I mentioned before. For this work, she invited audience members, one by one, to come up to the stage and cut a piece off her dress with a pair of scissors. It is said that when Yoko performed this piece, she was always wearing the best dress she had at the time. When she did this performance right after the war on Iraq in 2003, she wore a Chanel suit. By wearing her best dress and by letting the audience cut a piece of it and take it with them, she saw the performance as a gesture of giving. There have been many feminist readings of this piece, and Yoko agrees that a feminist message was obviously there—but she doesn’t think that’s the only thing this piece was about; she felt there was more. Charlotte was in the audience in 1965 when Yoko performed in Cut Piece at Carnegie Recital Hall. That was when Charlotte saw it for the first time, and she must have participated. She was moved by the idea of giving.
LG : I didn’t realize that Yoko always wore her best outfit at the time, but I was struck by the fact that these are classical violinist (or cellist) gowns that Charlotte would have worn to play in front of audiences.
Audience Member: I am struck by how much fabric Charlotte’s dress had. Usually Yoko would wear a suit that was quite form fitting, so it didn’t take a long time to cut through to her bra. Charlotte’s dresses had a lot of skirt, so it seems there was more to cut and more left over as well.
LG: Charlotte stored these dresses in plastic garbage bags. Apparently there were many, many bags, but they couldn’t all be saved because the number was so overwhelming. We’re happy that we have these three examples from this special collection. The Block Museum came up with mounting them on canvas, which is an interesting way to show them.
Audience Member: Was her music being played while the dresses were being cut?
LG: Not for this piece. This is Charlotte Moorman’s interpretation of Yoko’s piece.
MY: The silence creates a tension that builds up within the audience. In some cases the audience was quite afraid, hesitant to go up to the stage, until somebody would break the ice.
In this performance, you can see many people in the audience were Charlotte’s dear friends or associates; some of them give her a hug or kiss, so it’s very warm. It’s not anonymous performance. This performance was introduced by her friend, another Japanese member of Fluxus, Yasunao Tone, who is now known as an avant-garde composer in his own right and lives New York City.
On the opposite wall from this display is documentation of Charlotte’s performing the Japanese composer Takehisa Kosugi’s piece called Chamber Music. Chamber Music is actually a tongue-in-cheek title. Anima 1and 2 are the titles of the original pieces, and Kosugi performed them the first time in Tokyo’s legendary Yomiuri Independent Exhibition [annual non-jury exhibition sponsored by the Yomiuri newspaper]. He made this bag with several zippers. His then-girlfriend, Shigeko Kubota, who later became Nam June Paik’s life partner and a video artist in her own right, helped sew this original Chamber Music bag. Throughout this performance, he would go inside the bag and then poke out a hand or a leg, as if he was doing something inside. Often he was taking off his clothes. This piece aligns with a later performance by Yoko Ono called Bag Piece. I don’t know how much Yoko knew of Chamber Music. Charlotte loved Chamber Music, and in her interpretation she brings the cello inside the bag with her. The cello creates a bulbous shape in addition to her body. Without making any sound, she sometimes takes something off, like her shoes…. In this piece, people are imagining what’s going on inside by looking at the changing shape of the bag. It’s not really about the music or the sound; it’s about the changing shape.
LG: Before we move on to the next area, I want to point out that the two banners [that are hanging above the photos] were made for different avant-garde festivals. For us, the size of our exhibition space is challenging, so we are showing them [high on the wall] where we could fit them. But they do give a sense also of the design of the festivals. One says “Think Crazy” which I think is a perfect motto for this show.
This banner was for the 10th Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival, the one that was held in Grand Central Station, so you can imagine how it would look inside the station.
[Around the corner, in the next section of the exhibition, you will see] a group of works that was in the 4th Annual Avant-Garde Festival, held in Central Park. You have Jeff Hendrick’s Sky Laundry, which he hung between two trees. There is a T-shirt by John Lennon. There is also a can piece by Max Neuhaus that you are invited to walk on. It makes a lot of noise. Once we turn the sound track back on, you’ll hear a cacophony of noises. There is a lot going on in this space and that was intentional. We did it this way to recreate the sense of these festivals, of which not many objects are left; what’s left is mainly photographs.
The next section presents a combination of Charlotte’s multiples that she made, in order to try to fundraise for the festivals. Again she was working on a shoestring budget, and she was making multiples of objects to sell to support her projects. In this section are also objects from her performances abroad, including posters from performances in Germany and Italy. Midori is now going to talk about one performance in Italy.
MY: These are objects representing the European tour. They include a hand drawn poster by Jörg Immendorff from 1966. Paik and Charlotte were a performer duo, traveling throughout Europe between 1965 and 1966. You can see that they are mentioned together, as an inseparable duo, performing Paik’s pieces like TV Piece where she sits on top of Nam June’s TV.
Downstairs, you can see photograph of them together with Joseph Beuys. They were really welcomed and embraced in Germany, maybe more than New York. New York was a little more Protestant.
LG: This piece is by Joseph Beuys, and it’s the only piece he made in homage to another artist. It’s a cover for a cello made from felt; that was his recognition of the importance of the role she played in post-war art.
MY: There are not many photographs of Charlotte’s performance of Mieko Shiomi’s piece called Cello Sonata. which was originally performed. In 1963, the Japanese composer Mieko Shiomi created and performed Cello Sonata [before she came to New York] in Okayama in western Japan, which is where Mieko is from. Shiomi hung a cello from a pole while standing on the rooftop of a modernist concrete building in which she held her solo concert . The cello then all the way down, to the top of a modernist concrete building he ground, taking a long, long time. Mieko Shiomi, by the way, is also known for making objects for fluxus like this set of boxes of white paper.
Each box goes inside the other, like a matryoshka doll. With this work, she wanted to visualize the musical idea of diminuendo, in which you gradually decrease the volume of a sound. Reportedly Nam June Paik, whom Shiomi met at his concert in Tokyo, upon seeing this work, said ‘oh that’s very fluxus; you should send that to George Maciunas right away’. And that provided the connection for Mieko Shiomi and an opportunity to make more work for Maciunas, because Maciunas immediately liked it and wanted 20 more. Reportedly, when she received the money for this work, she bought her airplane ticket to New York in 1964. She and Shigeko Kubota, (who later became Nam June Paik’s companion) came together to New York on the same plane in 1964 on July 4th, Independence Day.
I thought it would be interesting to show you this postcard that was sent to Mieko by Charlotte. I found it in Mieko Shiomi’s house this summer. Charlotte would often draw a heart around her messages. This postcard was written when multiple artists were performing at an event at Castello di Asolo in Asolo, Italy in 1983. In this postcard she says, “Dear Mieko, for two hours I performed your piece on the tallest building in Asolo, a clock tower. Clock tower is 500 years old. Francesco Conti, who invited us here, loved your work and hoped your family would come to Asolo. I love you, Charlotte.” In a way, Charlotte functioned like an ambassador, extending the idea of fluxus and performing fluxus pieces wherever she went.
Shiomi responded many times to Charlotte’s requests. Often Charlotte was so last minute that she would just telegraph her requests to Japan with a short note, like ‘Mieko, please send a piece, love Charlotte.’ That’s it! Even when Charlotte wanted a piece for the 15th Annual Avant-Garde Festival, which took place on July 20, 1980 at the Passenger Terminal at Pier 92 [in New York], that’s the only information she gave to Mieko. [In response] Mieko asked Charlotte to faithfully reenact Cello Sonata, asking her to hang a cello from a high spot, fishing-pole style, while listening to a prerecorded sustained chord. But often Charlotte did not comply with the instructions she received; she would freely interpret pieces and do it in her own way.
Downstairs there is some documentation about another Japanese artist, Ay-O, whom I did not get to talk about. He is known for his rainbow-colored artworks, which were exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo in 2012. He did a number of rainbow works, including a rainbow banner that was installed between the two World Trade Center towers in 1977. Downstairs you can see the original drawings and instructions he made for Charlotte. He participated every year in her festivals.
LG: Now, please feel free to walk around and go downstairs. But before you do, I would like to draw your attention to the posters that are as crazy and chaotic as the festivals were. We just received an email from Printed Matter, which is going to be selling some of these posters this Sunday. It’s a special sale that will benefit Printed Matter, which is located on 11th Avenue. So if you would like a poster, you’ll have a chance to buy one and support Printed Matter to boot. But now I suggest you take some time to go downstairs. Thank you very much, Midori, for speaking with us tonight and to AAA for bringing this great group to the Grey.
JD: Thank you, Lynn, and thank you, Midori, for the very interesting tour.
Midori Yoshimoto is associate professor of art history and gallery director at New Jersey City University with extensive curatorial background. Yoshimoto’s areas of expertise are post-1945 Japanese art and its global intersections, with a particular emphasis on women artists, Fluxus, and intermedia art. While earning her Ph.D. at Rutgers University between 1996 and 2002, she served as Assistant Curator at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum. Her dissertation, Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York, was published in 2005 (Rutgers Univ. Press). She has contributed to numerous museum catalogs, including: Yayoi Kusama (Centre Pompidou, 2011); Ay-O Over the Rainbow Once Again (The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 2012); Gutai: Splendid Playground (Guggenheim Museum, 2013), and Yoko Ono One Woman Show (MoMA, 2015).
Lynn Gumpert has been Director of the Grey Art Gallery, New York University’s fine-arts museum, since 1997. Among the more than 60 exhibitions she has overseen at the Grey are Global/Local 1960–2015: Six Artists from Iran (2016); Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera (2015); Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography, A Project by Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari (2005); and Between Word and Image: Modern Iranian Visual Culture (2002). She previously worked as a writer, consultant, and independent curator, organizing shows in New York, Japan, and France. From 1980 to 1988 she was curator and senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York.
Transcribed by Aleena Malik and edited by Jane DeBevoise
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.