Charlotte Moorman claimed to hate the term avant-garde.
“There’s no such thing,” she told Stephen Varble, experimental playwright and artist, in a 1973 interview. “Doesn’t avant-garde mean ‘ahead of the time’? The works I perform are of this time. They’re performed in the present tense. How can they be ahead of their time? Whew!”
The truth is that Moorman’s work was neither of nor ahead of its time. The time did not situate the work; instead, the work resolutely helped to define the time.
As an artist, performer and classically trained cellist, Moorman was a key figure in the Fluxus movement. Rather than supplying a set of parameters, Moorman’s involvement reflected and refined her inherent values: experimentation, collaboration, equanimity, awareness and overcoming for the sake of art.
Moorman only ever really did what she felt was vital. On one occasion this meant playing long-time collaborator Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique half-naked. The official charge was indecent exposure, but the real repercussion was infamy. This was 1967, a time when attempts to reconcile art and the human body still had the power to shock.
Before people came to know her this way, Moorman had been working to solidify the place of experimental art in the hearts of a still-undecided New York City public. From 1963 to 1982, she organized fifteen New York Avant-Garde Festivals. It is a testament to Moorman’s gentility that she was able to work in agreement with local bureaucracy rather than against it.
The name of the event for which Moorman is most famous also incorporates her least favorite words, but the use of avant-garde was more about classifying the content of the festivals than trying to typify the intent of the artists or the nature of their work. At the first of these events, named 6 Concerts ’63, John Cage’s performance hurt the hearing of an unsuspecting patron who promptly filed suit. Moorman felt that she had to utilize some recognizable terminology to prevent future confusion.
The festivals themselves were curated chaos – a platform for the multifarious work of her contemporaries, including Joseph Beuys, Jim McWilliams and Yoko Ono. Each event had the richness of a movement but remained self-reflexive and accessible enough to avoid solipsism.
The process of making and presenting art in a city with such limited open space meant that spatial concerns became creative concerns. Moorman broke ground with the use of public sites for artistic purposes, successfully pursuing New York’s biggest venues. Over the course of fifteen festivals, she secured Staten Island Ferry, Central Park, Shea Stadium and Grand Central Station. One particularly innovative year, the entire festival was held as a parade that ran the length of Central Park West.
In an open invitation sent to artists entitled Plans for the 12th New York Avant-Garde Festival, Moorman outlines highlights from previous festivals and gives details for the next event. There are venue specifications, a list of secured acts (including Marilyn Woods and the Celebrations group, Jud Yalkut and Stanley Marsh) and Moorman’s own home phone number.
As if sending a sign of her boundless inclusiveness and faith in the power of the artistic masses, she signs off to her faceless recipient:
“I hope you will want to be a part of the festival, because we will not feel that it is complete without you. Sincerely, Charlotte Moorman.”