Monday, March 13, 2017

Born 1933: Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono is a very important living conceptual artist, whose life is in its final stage at this writing. Conceptual art puts ideas first, so it may take any form. Yoko has made sculptural installations and movies, she has recorded a lot of rock and roll music, and she has staged events for performance art. This post considers only those works that employ visual arts. It is based primarily on the retrospective exhibit of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2015.

Yoko's work took so many forms that it is difficult to characterize, but iconoclasm seems to be her basic theme: break up all the old ideas, focus on new values. She was inspired by Dada, sort of an anti-art movement, in which creative people strove to find novel and unexpected ways to express their ideas.

Yoko was born in Tokyo to conservative aristocrats. Her Buddhist mother was a painter. Her Christian father gave up a career as a classical pianist and became a successful banker. It seems that both her parents were self-involved and failed to give Yoko much in the way of affection and encouragement. It appears that she did get a strong musical education, however.

When Yoko was young, her father's position shuttled the family between the U.S. and Japan. They were in Tokyo when it was fire-bombed, World War II caused her family separation and suffering.

Yoko was able to return to school after the war. Yoko's education was in philosophy, not art. When she was 18, in 1951, she became the first female student to enroll in the philosophy department at a university in Tokyo, but dropped out after 2 semesters. She then joined her family in New York, and attended Sarah Lawrence college, planning to be a writer.

Around 1955 Yoko became involved with the avant-garde scene in Greenwich Village. She married a music student, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and the couple began hosting a concert series in their loft. Yoko's first public works were performance pieces at those concerts: In one, she took eggs and Jell-O out of her fridge and smeared them onto a canvas, and when she was done she lit a match and set it on fire.

In the 1960s, Yoko was a groundbreaking and influential artist, working in London, Tokyo and New York. She hung out with the members of Fluxus, a tribe of cultural radicals who wanted to destroy the old values, in the European tradition of Dada. She became known as the "High Priestess of the Happening." She was always at the cutting edge of emerging trends in visual art and performance.

Yoko and Toshi moved to Tokyo, but in 1962, they filed for divorce. Yoko was suffering from clinical depression and was briefly placed in a mental institution. Tony Cox, an artist and filmmaker, sought Yoko out in Tokyo having seen some of her work in an anthology of avant-garde art, and helped her get out of the institution. Yoko and Tony married and their only child, Kyoko, was born in 1963. Yoko found the process of giving birth and dealing with an infant traumatic, and Tony became the househusband, as agreed before the marriage.

Yoko and Tony soon returned to New York, with Kyoko. Yoko and Tony were divorced in 1969. In 1971, Tony took Kyoko with him when he joined a religious cult, and the two were not seen until 1977, when they left the cult.

Yoko resumed making conceptual art and staging happenings in New York and London.

Yoko's most famous work was a performance from 1964 called "Cut Piece," in which she sat impassively while members of the audience snipped off pieces of the suit she was wearing.

In another film from 1964, called Bottoms, Yoko directed hundreds of people to walk on a treadmill as she filmed their bare asses.

Another landmark project from 1964 was a book called Grapefruit.  It consists of instructions for future works of art, many of which she later realized. The instructions sound like poetry.

In 1966, Yoko met John Lennon, of the Beatles, when he came into a preview of her show in London.  She was 33, and twice-divorced; he was 26, and married. Coming from totally different worlds, the two seemed to hit each other with gale force. They were constantly in the news. They made a sort of performance out of their lives by staging kinky events that gained them huge publicity. For instance, when they married in 1969, they spent their honeymoon in Amsterdam campaigning for peace with a week-long Bed-In.

Yoko and John settled in southeast England, and they collaborated on several albums of music. In 1968 they made Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins, an album of experimental music using sounds as well as instruments. They also contributed tracks to a few Beatles albums.

In 1969 Yoko and John created their own band, called the Plastic Ono Band. The couple both appeared nude on the cover of their first album, an image that is still shocking. The Plastic Ono Band performed both rock standards and Yoko's avant-garde works consisting mainly of feedback along with singing and screaming. Yoko and John were very involved in the music scene for a few years, but Yoko was still making conceptual art.

In 1971 Yoko created an imaginary exhibit for herself at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, without the museum's permission, called "Yoko Ono — One Woman Show." She distributed publicity  saying (falsely) that she had released an army of flies around the museum. She retouched a photo of the museum's sign by adding a letter f so that it became "Museum of Modern (f)Art."

Announcement for Yoko's conceptual exhibit

Yoko and John's relationship was  tumultuous, and they were in the news all through the 1970s. In 1973 they separated flamboyantly, though they continued daily phone calls. A year later they reunited with fanfare. In 1975 Yoko gave birth to their son Sean. John already had a son, named Julian, by his first wife. The family maintained a low profile for the next 5 years. John became a househusband to care for Sean.

In 1980, Yoko and John were returning home after a recording date, when John was shot dead in front of their apartment building.

Yoko went into seclusion for several years after his death but she gradually resumed creating conceptual art. Eventually she got together another band and started making recordings.

Yoko is also very prominent at major Peace Demonstrations, and stages her own events in support of Peace. Lastly, she promotes Lennon's legacy.

Yoko in 2015, during installation of "One Woman Show"

In 2015, the Museum of Modern Art finally made the solo exhibit that Yoko had imagined for herself a reality, with "One Woman Show, 1960-to 1971," covering her work from age 27 to age 38. I had the good fortune to see that show with my husband Dan.

Announcement for Yoko's 2015 show at MoMA

My photos from Yoko's "One-Woman Show, 1960-1971" in 2015

In the work below, Yoko radically questioned the division between art and the everyday, by presenting a scrap of canvas tacked to the floor as a work of art, and inviting viewers to walk right over it.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
Painting to be Stepped On, 1961

Painting in Three Stanzas, 1961
Sumi ink on canvas, vine, wood, thumbtacks, cotton cord

Three instruction cards like the one below were shown with the above painting.

Instructions for Painting in Three Stanzas
Handwritten by Toshi Ichiyanagi

In the film Cut Piece—a still shot is below—Yoko confronted issues of gender, class, and cultural identity by asking viewers to cut away pieces of her clothing as she sat quietly on stage. This work is sometimes considered her masterpiece in performance art. She has performed it many times, and permits others to perform it as well.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
iPad shot of film "Cut Piece," 1964

She placed very high value on the sky as something eternal and shared by all, so she created a machine to sell the sky, or at least cards with the word 'sky' in her own handwriting. While the sky seems to be available to all, in fact it is in short supply in a city of skyscrapers.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
Sky Machine, 1961/1966

In the Dada art movement, there was a sort of tradition of isolating some commonplace object and calling it art. In 1917 Marcel Duchamp famously presented a urinal as a sculpture. He later presented a bicycle wheel and a bottle rack as art. In this spirit, Ono declared an apple, and the organic process of ripening and rotting, to be a work of art.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933

In a challenge to games of warlike competition, she created an all-white chessboard. She might have been saying, "If there are no differences between you, there's nothing to fight over." People do try to play chess with this set, or one like it, but it requires cooperation to remember which person made which move, and eventually the players must give up.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
White Chess Set, 1966

When she was left suddenly by a lover, she created a room in which all the objects had been sawn in half. She felt like half her life or half of herself had been cut off. She said, "We're all just halves, anyway."

Yoko Ono, b. 1933

For the 2015 show, she created a new site-specific installation. It consisted of a slightly wobbly spiral staircase to a platform beneath a skylight with a view of the sky, or at least the skyline.

Yoko Ono, b. 1933
To See the Sky, 2015

Skyline of New York City
from viewing platform of To See the Sky, 2015


In 2017, the music publishing industry acknowledged Yoko Ono as a co-writer of the lyric for John Lennon's hit song "Imagine." They sited an interview in which Lennon admits that the concept came from Yoko.

“Actually, that should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song because a lot of it, the lyric, and the concept, came from Yoko. Those days, I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of ‘Grapefruit,’ her book. There’s a whole pile of pieces about ‘Imagine this’ and ‘Imagine that.’”

Yoko Songwriter

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Born 1939: Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago contributed several important innovations to the story of art in the second half of the 20th century.

Most importantly, Judy promoted the idea of Feminist Art, which boldly asserts women's issues, women's bodies, and women's values. She frequently used explicit feminist and sexual imagery in her work, however the images were abstracted and streamlined into an attractive design in gorgeous colors. Her insistence on depicting female sex organs, and other centered designs, caused a great deal of her work to be rejected without further consideration, but these designs were her way of asserting a female-dominated world view in contrast to the prevailing male-dominated society.

Judy's second important contribution was collaborative or community art. She created projects in which she employed the talents of many artisans, and gave them all credit, while maintaining her identity as creator of the whole.

Third, Judy created projects that promoted all sorts of crafts normally associated with women—and under-valued because of that—such as embroidery and ceramic.

On top of all this, Judy originated Feminist Art Education. She noticed that women artists had been overlooked and underrated in the story of art, and she devised a curriculum centered around women's achievements in the arts, and developed a program for college students in California. Although Feminist art studies impacted the story of art in the long run, and eventually led to many women artists being re-discovered, her programs have been abandoned.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Judy is her capacity for growth, which enables her to admit when she was wrong. After some years of promoting bold and assertive Feminism, Judy realized, she said later, that she and her friends were operating on a wrong premise.

"When I was young in the 70s, we cast the dialogue entirely around gender. We assumed all women were our friends and all men were our enemies. That was a completely erroneous assumption. It has to do with values, not gender. Some of the best feminists are men."

Background: Judy Cohen was born to a Jewish family in Chicago, one of two children. Although her father Arthur came from a long line of rabbis, he rejected the practice. He worked for the Post Office. Judy credits him with giving her strong support in her pursuit of art and identity. Arthur became a union activist and a Communist; he was hounded out of his job and died in 1953, when Judy was 13.

Judy's mother, May, worked as a medical secretary. She loved the arts and instilled a passion for them in her children.

Judy changed her name from Cohen to Chicago, the town of her birth, in the late 1960s when she turned to feminist content in her art.

Training: Judy had all the proper academic training, West Coast style. She took her first art classes at the age of 5 at the Art Institute in her Chicago, but for college, she went to the University of California in Los Angeles, where she earned both a bachelor's (1962) and a master's (1964).

In the early part of her career, Judy wanted to be like the guys. She cropped her hair, wore boots, and adopted tinted glasses to look tough. She also learned skills that seemed cool to the guys in Los Angeles, namely auto painting and boat building.

Private life: While studying at UCLA, she fell in love with Jerry Gerowitz and married him in 1961. In 1963, Jerry lost his life in a car accident, which left her devastated.

In 1965, she married sculptor Lloyd Hamrol. During the 1970s, Judy became the spearhead of the Feminist movement in art and created projects involving the cooperation of many women. During that period Lloyd was having a series of short affairs with female students, which he later confessed. The irony of her position struck her very hard, and the couple were divorced in 1979.

In 1985, Judy married photographer Donald Woodman, with whom she collaborates on artistic and teaching opportunities. They live in New Mexico, with five cats.


1965-1973: Minimalism

Judy's earliest work was Minimalism: content-free sculptures that featured rigid geometry and refined finishes.

Exploring color through a limited number of geometric phase. Pursuit of the experiential nature of color, transformation, and visual perception.

Judy was part of the "Finish Fetish" movement that favored refined finishes that did not show the human touch. She  pioneered the use of a spray gun for fine arts, both on car hoods and on canvases.

1970-1974: Early Feminist

In the early 1970’s, Judy Chicago concentrated on fusing her abstract iconography with a new-found determination to openly express her experiences as a woman, something that had been impossible when she was in college. During this period, she expanded the central-core imagery that has become emblematic of her work. She created centered, vibrant designs that could as easily be interpreted as mandalas as sex organs.

1974-1979: The Dinner Party

Symbolizing the fact that women don't have much place in history, The Dinner Party is an installation that celebrates women’s history by giving each of 39 important women a place at a triangular table. Each woman is represented by a place setting and a plate of Judy's design. A goblet and cutlery of identical, neutral design are also included.

A unique and defiant aspect of the project was that Judy used traditional women’s crafts such as embroidery, needlepoint, and ceramics which were not respected in the male-dominated art world.

Judy innovated a community process in which the huge project was completed by hundreds of volunteers. Judy created all the designs, but skilled artisans realized them. By demonstrating an openly female point of view, Judy helped to initiate a worldwide Feminist Art movement.

One big part of the project was the research it took to select each woman to be honored and to learn enough about her to determine what symbols would express her essence. The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor. A large research team worked on the project.

Artistically, the project is characterized by narrative devices, instant readability, and a clear didactic message. This is quite unconventional; the art world tends to prefer ambiguity, irony, and detachment.

In the early 1970s, while she was working on The Dinner Party,  Judy worked to expand educational opportunities for women artists. She developed the country's first art program for women in 1970–71 at California State University, Fresno, and the following year she teamed with artist Miriam Schapiro to establish the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

From 1980 to 1985: the Birth Project

Observing that there wasn't much art about birth, Judy designed a series of birth and creation images for needlework which were executed under her supervision by 150 skilled needle workers around the country.

1982-1987: PowerPlay

While completing the Birth Project, Judy also focused on individual studio work to create, a series  of artworks that explore how the prevailing definitions of power have affected the world in general, and men in particular. Judy said she was tired of using the female body as a repository of emotions; she wondered what feelings the male body might express, and why men act so violently.

1985-93: Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light

Judy and her husband Donald spent 8 years trying to understand the evil and cruelty just beneath the surface of civilization. It is structured as a journey into the darness of the Holocaust and out into the light of hope. This exhibition combined Judy's painting with Donald's photography and additional work in tapestry and glass by selected artisans.

1994-2000: A Stitch in Time

This exhibition consists of a series of painted and needlework images created by Judy and executed by a group of needleworkers. Judy's intention was to address the breakdown of social values. She reinterprets traditional adages and proverbs.


Periodically, Judy produces a fireworks display, generally featuring a butterfly design.

Examples from Internet

Pure Minimalism, 1965-1973

Rainbow Pickett, 1964
Private collection / Internet

Introduction of imagery based on sex organs

Birth Hood, 1965
Sprayed automotive lacquer on car hood
Collection of the artist / Internet

In the painting below an abstract penis is stopped before it can unite with an abstract vagina.

Bigamy Hood, 1965
Sprayed automotive lacquer on 1965 Corvair car hood

Silver Blue Fan, 1971
From Fresno Fan series
Sprayed acrylic on sheet acrylic, 10 ft. wide

Early Feminism, 1970-1974

Heaven is for White Men Only, 1973
New Orleans / Internet

Through the Flower, 1973
Sprayed acrylic on canvas, 5 ft square
Sackler Collection / Internet

Below: Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the US to receive a medical degree.

Elizabeth in Honor of Elizabeth
from the Great Ladies series

The Dinner Party, 1970s

Here's a link to the Brooklyn Museum's coverage of this work: The Dinner Party

Entry Way Banners

Banner #3
Modified Aubusson tapestry, 5 ft. tall

Ceremonial table representing 39 females who influenced history

Primordial Goddess
Artemisia Gentileschi place setting
Artemisia Gentileschi plate

Below: Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S.

Elizabeth Blackwell place setting
Elizabeth Blackwell plate

Below: Judy chose Georgia O'Keeffe as a foremother of the feminist art movement.

Georgia O'Keeffe plate

Heritage Panels, explaining the contributions of the 999 women on the Heritage Floor.

Acknowledgement Panels, identifying Judy's assistants and collaborators.

The Birth Project, 1980-1985

Mother India, 1985
Painting, applique, embroidery on fabric, about 10 ft. tall

Individual studio work, 1980-1985: PowerPlay

The Three Faces of Man, 1985
From PowerPlay / Exhibited at Indiana University
Photo by Dan L. Smith, from slide

The Holocaust Project, 1992

 "Shabbat" means day of rest and remembrance.

Rainbow Shabbat, 1992

Resolutions: A Stitch in Time, 1994-2000

Home Sweet Home, 2000
From Family
Sprayed acrylic, oil paint, and embroidery on linen
2 ft. tall banner


A Butterfly for Brooklyn, 2014
fireworks, flares, and LED lights
Prospect Park, Brooklyn /