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Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, an exhibition that opens tomorrow at the Museum of Modern Art, examines in depth the early work and ideas of a well-known, influential Fluxus and multimedia artist. It is a slice-of-art-history mini-retrospective (Yoko Ono’s first-ever solo show at MoMA) that has been almost 44 years in the making — or maybe longer, maybe even a lifetime, if one considers that Ono, like many artists, is someone whose art-making has always flowed from the unfolding events of her life’s journey.
As the world knows, some of its chapters have been lived in the glare of the media spotlight. Others have been intensely private, like those of the years just before the death of her late husband, John Lennon, in December 1980, when the Lennons withdrew from the music biz. Certainly the world is familiar enough with Ono’s dramatic personal story to know that it has been filled with struggle, success, fame, pain and tragedy in potent measures. Now, at 82, the woman John Lennon once dubbed “the world’s most famous unknown artist” is enjoying the respect that comes with a high-profile MoMA show. At the same time, this engaging presentation, which examines the development of her art during a formative, early period of her career, gently reveals how profoundly Ono’s art-making has sustained her over the long roller coaster ride of her life.
Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971 has been organized by MoMA’s Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints, Christophe Cherix; Chief Curator at Large and Director of MoMA PS1, Klaus Biesenbach; and Drawings and Prints Curatorial Assistant Francesca Wilmott. This exhibition, with its early-period focus, comes on the heels of larger, career-spanning surveys that in recent years have been seen in the United States and abroad. Among them: Yes: Yoko Ono which opened at Japan Society in New York in 2000 and was the first Ono retrospective to be based on all-new research and to look closely at the artist’s aesthetic roots in Japanese culture; To the Light, a selective retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2012; and Yoko Ono: Half-A-Wind Show, A Retrospective, which opened in early 2013 at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, and then traveled around Europe.
These earlier exhibitions also looked at Ono’s early work, but MoMA’s 1960s survey has a back-story that is as curious as it is uniquely linked to the Museum of Modern Art.
That’s because, more than four decades ago, Ono already had her first-ever, one-woman show at MoMA — well, sort of or maybe not, depending on how you evaluate what actually occurred. In late 1971, she placed advertisements in the New York Times and the Village Voice announcing her Museum of Modern (F)art show at MoMA; it featured a printed catalog, copies of which were sold by mail. Ono’s ads for this conceptual event featured a photo showing MoMA’s entrance, with the museum’s name spelled out in letters mounted above its sidewalk-spanning awning. In the photo, Ono is pictured walking beneath it, carrying a shopping bag onto which, apparently, a large letter F had fallen from a space (created in the retouched photo) between the last two words of the museum’s name. Up there, the fallen F had helped spell out the word — well, you know.
Over a period of two weeks, a man hired by Ono appeared near MoMA’s entrance wearing a signboard. On it, a text explained that a swarm of flies had been captured in a big bottle containing a dollop of the perfume Ono wore; the bottle had then been placed inside the museum, and the aromatic flies released into the air. (This was make-believe, for MoMA had neither condoned nor become involved in her project.)
Ono’s catalog of the imaginary exhibition featured a photo of the artist in the museum’s garden with her jar of flies. This, in fact, was a photomontage. Her publication also contained photos of various locations around the city where the perfume-soaked flies allegedly had landed. In each image, an arrow pointed to the exact spot upon which a fly supposedly had come to rest. Of course, even that invisible “evidence” was something a reader of Ono’s catalog could only imagine. So much for the traditional authority of the exhibition catalog, which normally serves as a valuable document of record.
Now, in effect, MoMA is mounting the kind of exhibition Ono might have assembled herself had she really been able to present a decade-spanning survey there all those years ago.
During the 1960s, MoMA’s exhibition recounts, Ono spent time in New York, Tokyo and London. The artist, who had been born into a well-to-do, well-educated family in Japan in 1933, had studied at some of Tokyo’s best schools before coming to the U.S. in the 1950s. Her father, a pianist who played Western classical music, was a banker who had been posted overseas. Ono attended Sarah Lawrence College, north of Manhattan, where she studied music composition, became known for climbing up a tree to sit and write poetry, and tried to capture the songs of birds using Western musical notation. In those sexist times, she was told that music composition was not a field women were expected — that is, invited or encouraged — to pursue. In 1956, Ono left Sarah Lawrence. With the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagai (later, her first husband), she moved to New York, where she became active in the avant-garde scene.
Her loft on Chambers Street in downtown Manhattan became a venue for experimental-music concerts, dance events and other performances. In 1961, the Lithuanian-born graphic designer and Fluxus founder George Maciunas presented Ono’s first-ever solo exhibition at AG Gallery, a commercial space he and a partner operated on Madison Avenue. In that show, many of whose works have been recreated for MoMA’s exhibition, Ono displayed such unusual creations as a scrap of canvas, lying on the floor, with a title-as-instruction identifying it as Painting to Be Stepped On. In a recent interview, Ono noted that, in the past, such legendary modern artists as Jackson Pollock or Barnett Newman repeatedly had displayed such signature gestures as the former’s all-over dripped and splattered paint or the latter’s “zip” (a vertical line that bisected a canvas). By contrast, Ono told me, “In my AG Gallery show, each work had a totally different function — to be stepped on, etc. — almost like having several different animals, and each one was different.”
Back in Japan briefly in the early 1960s, Ono further developed her ideas about an art that could be realized only in the imagination by readers of her instructional statements. Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971 displays for the first time ever the typewritten/handwritten pages of material that would become Ono’s seminal artist’s book, Grapefruit, which she first published in a limited edition in 1964. A compendium of her instructional works, it includes, for example, “Earth Piece,” which proposes: “Listen to the sound of the earth turning.” Her “Cloud Piece” states: “Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in.” Rooted in poetic-philosophical concepts, such artworks can be perceived simultaneously as events or processes or sometimes as actual objects.
MoMA’s show features works from Ono’s 1967 Half-A-Wind Show at London’s Lisson Gallery, in which white-painted objects — a chair, a shoe, a suitcase, a space heater — were sliced in half (symbolically reflecting the winding down of her second marriage, she would later observe). Other pieces include the components of her Morning Piece to George Maciunas, a 1964 performance on a New York rooftop, in which she sold small shards of glass (each one tagged with a particular date and morning time), and a recreation of her Bag Piece (first performed in Kyoto in 1964), in which visitors are invited to climb into big, black, fabric sacks.
Albert and David Maysles’ film of Ono’s 1965 performance, in New York, of her emblematic Cut Piece (1964) is also on view. Still chilling after all these years, that work, in which audience members, gripping a menacing pair of scissors, stepped onstage and snipped off swatches of the seated Ono’s clothes, remains one of modern art’s most consciousness-raising essays in the meaning of physical and psychic vulnerability. MoMA’s show also features some of the collaborative, public- and media-targeted, conceptual-art projects Ono and Lennon created together, like their peace-themed “WAR IS OVER! IF YOU WANT IT” poster-and-billboard campaign from 1969.
A highlight of MoMA’s survey is its Plastic Ono Band room, featuring a vitrine filled with album covers from Ono’s solo musical projects and her collaborations with Lennon and the conceptual band they founded in 1968-1969. (With no fixed line-up, its members were always changing). There are also listening stations offering a selection of their recordings. In the forty-one years that separate Ono’s “Have You Seen A Horizon Lately?” (1972) and “7th Floor” (with its dreamy-spooky references to shadows and the cutting off of hands and legs), from Ono and the Plastic Ono Band’s 2013 album, Take Me to the Land of Hell, many of her abiding themes have routinely resurfaced in her songs’ lyrics or served to inspire her music-making. MoMA’s curators were right to include this summary of her musical work in relation to the rest of her oeuvre.
“The only sound that exists to me is the sound of the mind. My works are only to induce music of the mind in people,” Ono wrote in early 1966, following performances of some her pieces at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She added, “In the mind-world, things spread out and go beyond time. There is a wind that never dies.”
Ono’s art quietly invites audiences to look at the world with a sense of wonder in the face of the ordinary (pouring water, lighting a match), the unfathomable (contemplating the length of the horizon), the comic (shooting movie close-ups of 365 pair of buttocks) or the eternal (the endless passing of time), much of which, when viewed through her artistic filters, may be seen as, well, beautiful. Ono’s work is poetic in character; into the mix of her aesthetic sensibility she has long stirred playfulness and humor, and subverted the meanings of familiar actions or concrete objects. A former philosophy student (Ono was the rare young woman in Japan who studied in that male-dominated academic domain before entering college in the U.S.; one of her interests was Zen-Buddhist thought), she has developed an art in which a single stone can represent a universe or a drop of water can stand in for an ocean.
Ono’s art, with its peace-and-love ethos, is unabashedly humanistic. It’s more poetic than polemical, and although she has sometimes gone beyond Duchamp’s context-shifting, appropriationist gesture to imbue her “recontextualized” objects with some kind of improbable soul — a shadow falling on a scrap of canvas hung on a wall becomes a “Shadow Painting” (1961); a postage-stamp dispenser becomes a “Sky Machine” (1961/1966), selling “skies” in the form of little pieces of cardboard; four silver spoons on a Plexiglas pedestal become “Three Spoons” (1967) — doctrinaire postmodernists still don’t seem to know what to make of some aspects of her creations. MoMA’s show includes a realization of her “Touch Poem for Group of People” (1963), an instructional work that simply states, “Touch eachother.” [sic]. In the museum, it takes the form of a small, carpeted chamber which visitors may enter and in whose tranquil space they may follow its title card’s command. This work’s sparseness and encouragement of heightened awareness of the people around us seem to come straight out of a Zen-Buddhist primer.
The historian Simon Schama, writing in the Financial Times at the time of Ono’s 2012 Serpentine Gallery show, noted that, “40 years on, Ono is still Giving Peace a Chance.” She told him, “People are still thinking of solving problems by violence and war, and that has to stop.” In response, Schama wrote, “Her position is simultaneously unarguable and absurd.”
Of course, the only thing “absurd” in that exchange of ideas is the dismissive notion that one cannot or should not declare that violence and war should cease and, implicitly, that harboring the hope that they can or will is unrealistic or naïve. “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream we dream together is reality,” Ono has stated with more than a little philosophical oomph. You can take or leave her brand of humanism, including the manner in which she expresses it through her art, and still embrace the option of living compassionately and with your vulnerability exposed. It’s that easy — or that challenging, depending on where you might happen to find yourself in the unfolding of your own life’s journey.
For her part, Ono told me, referring to her audiences, that she will continue making art “that gives them truth, something to chew on.” She added, “I’m a quick thinker and a quick doer. […] I’m not interested in being an entertainer. Nowadays everybody’s entertained. It’s almost like saying, ‘Get drunk!’” The theme of one of her recent projects was the abuse of women around the world. Lately, on her website, she has taken on ageism. There, too, in response to the negative criticism that still sometimes comes her way, she recently wrote, “Let me be free. Let me be me! Don’t make me old with your thinking and words about how I should be.”
Earlier this week, at the press preview for MoMA’s new show, Ono told reporters, “Most artists are rebellious. If they aren’t rebellious, they can’t survive.” She alluded to how long it has taken her art to finally receive the honor of a MoMA exhibition. “Most people didn’t know what I was doing for more than 40 years,” she recalled. With her erstwhile Museum of Modern (F)art event in mind, she added, “But whatever you do, it’s going to be realized. Just to [be able to] let people know that, it’s worth doing this show. Whatever you do, it is being recognized by people, and one day it’s going to blossom.”
The imagination is a powerful force, Ono’s art repeatedly reminds us. In her own life, endurance and survival appear to have been their own satisfying, art-nourishing rewards. When her 2013 retrospective opened in Frankfurt, Ono told an interviewer, “When you’re doing something you love, you don’t feel tired…. You get more and more energy, and that’s how it is with my life. […] I love life.”
That was the voice of experience — and of perseverance — talking.
There is a wind that never dies.
Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971 continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 7.