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