The Juilliard-trained cellist Charlotte Moorman sat nude behind a cello of carved ice, performed while dangling from helium-filled balloons, and deployed an array of instruments on The Mike Douglas Show that included her cello, a whistle, a cap gun, a gong, and a belch. She did a striptease while playing Bach in Nam June Paik’s Sonata for Adults Only. In the 1960s, Moorman (1933–1991) became famous for her madcap (and often unclothed) performance antics; less famous but more significant is Moorman’s transformative influence on contemporary performance practice--and her dedication to the idea that avant-garde art should reach the widest possible audience. In Topless Cellist, the first book to explore Moorman’s life and work, Joan Rothfuss rediscovers, and recovers, the legacy of an extraordinary American artist.
Moorman’s arrest in 1967 for performing topless made her a water-cooler conversation-starter, but before her tabloid fame she was a star of the avant-garde performance circuit, with a repertoire of pieces by, among others, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, John Cage, and Paik, her main artistic partner. Moorman invented a new mode of performance that combined classical rigor, jazz improvisation, and avant-garde experiment—informed by intuition, daring, and love of spectacle. Moorman’s annual festival of the avant-garde offered the public a lively sampler of contemporary art in performance, music, dance, poetry, film, and other media.
Rothfuss chronicles Moorman’s life from her youth in Little Rock, Arkansas (where she was “Miss City Beautiful” of 1952) through her career in New York’s avant-garde to her death from breast cancer in 1991. (Typically, she approached her treatment as if it were a performance.) Deeply researched and profusely illustrated, Topless Cellist offers a fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking, often hilarious story of an artist whose importance was more than the sum of her performances.
About the Author
Joan Rothfuss is an independent writer and curator based in Minneapolis.
“Topless Cellist is a brilliant portrait of a true original and the chaotic, confrontational, destructive, absurd era in which she lived. It's also a must read for anyone who was flirting with Artland back then, or wishes they'd been on the scene. A portrait of the times as much as the woman, Topless Cellist, gives a full measure of a life lived with ‘extreme passion, extreme sex, extreme beauty.’”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Ms. Rothfuss has written not just a fine biography of an absorbing character but a necessary one—a closely researched tale of a life in art where all was fleetingly possible. The illustrations, needless to add, are exhilarating.”—Norman Lebrecht, Wall Street Journal
“Essential for art historians, fun for New York City history buffs, inspirational for Lady Gaga fans.”—Library Journal
“Fascinating, thorough and insightful, Topless Cellist is the first biography of Moorman to appear, and Rothfuss is careful to position it carefully within the fluid art historical context of its time.”—The Wire
“Charlotte Moorman hit the headlines in 1967 when she was arrested for indecent exposure by New York police while playing her cello bare-breasted for a performance of Nam June Paik’s ‘Opera Sextronique.’ But her career amounted to much more than a sensational single run-in with American morality. Born in Arkansas in 1933 and trained at Juilliard, she was a trailblazer in avant-garde performance art. To the composer Edgard Varèse, she was ‘the Jeanne d’Arc of new music.’ To her native city, Little Rock, she was ‘Miss City Beautiful of 1952.’ Complex and indomitable, she turned her death from cancer in 1991 into an anarchic event. Joan Rothfuss’s level-eyed critical biography captures it all.”—Holland Cotter, New York Times
“...with a few exceptions Moorman does not appear in histories of 20th-century music. The vividly written and lavishly illustrated account that is Topless Cellist should go some way to rectify that neglect.”—John Robert Brown, Classical Music
“Rothfuss’s is an essential volume: not just a record of a remarkable span and its rich artistic milieu, but testament also to the ways Moorman could be so easily written out of the history of the avant-garde.”—Brian Dillon, The Guardian
“This book is terrific. It makes a vital contribution to our understanding of one of the most important innovators of mid-century performance, music, and intermedial art. Following Rothfuss following Moorman out of Arkansas, from concert training and ‘50s marriage into the heady, vibrant, and 'very, very far out' scene of ‘60s New Music, Fluxus, and Happenings is exhilarating. As music becomes theater, becomes dance, becomes noise, becomes sculpture, becomes TV, becomes music, Moorman becomes a key player of cowbells, of cellophane, of cellos, of ice, balloons, striptease, Johnny Carson, and the NYPD. Closely researched for impact as well as intimacies—with infamous musical scores and scores of famous artists from Ono to Cage, Paik, Beuys, and Schneemann—this book is as deeply enjoyable to read as it is rigorously researched.”
—Rebecca Schneider, Professor of Performance Studies, Brown University
“This long overdue volume rescues Charlotte Moorman—more than two decades after her death—from near obscurity, the result of persistent art-world chauvinism and of historical accounts that ignored the centrality of live performance to the multiple new art movements of the 1960s. Joan Rothfuss counters these lapses with a vivid biographical portrait that immerses us in the chaos of Moorman’s life and times while lucidly rendering a tale filled with avant-garde performances, police raids, and courtroom drama. A deeply moving personal saga and a meticulous social history, Topless Cellist is lively, essential reading.”
—Bruce Jenkins, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
“Joan Rothfuss may not have known the living Charlotte Moorman but her book brings Charlotte back in all her glory. Meticulously researched, Topless Cellist doesn’t leave out any facet of this pre- and post-feminist woman who lived for performance and performed her life.”
—Edith Decker-Phillips, author of Paik Video
“Charlotte Moorman, a classically trained cellist, was an intrepid international icon of the avant-garde, whether being arrested while performing Nam June Paik's Opera Sextronique topless, appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, or performing Sky Kiss aloft with her cello suspended by balloons outside the Sydney Opera House. She was also the tireless, grassroots impresaria who organized the annual New York Avant Garde Festivals involving hundreds of jazz, electronic, and avant-classical musicians, poets, dancers, performance artists, and filmmakers, taking the most radical arts out of wayward spaces into the public arena. Joan Rothfuss's excellent biography opens a wonderful window on the arts of the time. She takes us from the young girl in Little Rock, Arkansas, to the woman who died too young, performing her own protracted illness and impending death. On every page between we are given the human being behind the icon.”
—Douglas Kahn, Professor at National Institute for Experimental Arts, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney; author of Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts and Earth Sound Earth Signal