When Beatle John Lennon, artist Yoko Ono’s third husband, was shot and killed in 1980, Ono went into deep mourning. As part of her three-month grieving process, she consumed only chocolate and mushrooms. After seeing Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), this retreat into neutral monochromatics and narrow food choices made complete sense. Ono’s choice of palette is exceedingly spare — though her innate language and tools are vastly complex. Her art is primarily conceptual, secondarily sonic, followed by text-based works, and, lastly, moving images. Her roots come from Fluxus-inspired conceptual art, as well as Japanese traditional practices like brush painting and calligraphy, Zen, and early black-and-white cinema.
The Fluxus and Zen emphasis kicked in when Ono dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College in 1956 and eloped with composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, defying her parents’ wishes. Ichiyangi and Ono both met John Cage at D.T. Suzuki’s legendary classes on Buddhism at Columbia University, and together listened to pianist David Tudor play Cage’s compositions. Ichiyangi, who would go on to become one of Japan’s most important post-war avant-garde composers, subsequently enrolled in Cage’s course in experimental musical composition at the New School, and Ono audited the class as well. That was fortunate because it was chockablock full of nascent Fluxus members like Dick Higgins (married to Fluxus artist Allison Knowles) and George Brecht. Though Ono was not an ‘official’ Fluxus artist, it’s impossible to deny its influence throughout her entire oeuvre.
Ono moved into a decrepit, fifth-floor walk-up loft at 112 Chambers Street, and in conjunction with avant-garde composers La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield, initiated the invitation-only series THE PURPOSE OF THIS SERIES IS NOT FOR ENTERTAINMENT, from December 1960 to June 1961. The series contained dance pieces by Simone Forti with sets by her then-husband Robert Morris, concerts by Terry Jennings, Henry Flynt, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Philip Coner, Joseph Byrd, Jackson Mac Low, Richard Maxfield, La Monte Young, Dennis Lindberg, and readings by poet Diane Wakoski. Even though the audience’s chairs and tables were made from discarded, wooden orange crates, the uptown crowd quickly swooped downtown, including esteemed guests Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, Marcel and Teeny Duchamp, John Cage, David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg, and Isamu Noguchi.
George Maciunas, the artist and indefatigable bullhorn for Fluxus, first met Ono at one of these concerts. In dire financial straits himself, he nonetheless sponsored her very first show (and his last one) at his AG Gallery at 925 Madison Avenue just before he was evicted for non-payment of rent. (“Instruction”) paintings, which ran in July of 1961, displayed pieces that resembled Fluxus “Event Scores,” or staged sets of instructions. In fact, Ono called her pieces “Instruction Paintings.” Since the electricity had already been turned off, the show could be viewed only during daylight hours.
Ono has recreated these pieces — originally made on upstretched and unframed canvas — for the MoMA retrospective. “Smoke Painting and Waterdrop Painting (Version 1)” is essentially a raw canvas with a hole in it. A burning candle is placed into the hole and pulled out once the canvas catches fire. At that point the flames are blotted out with a damp cloth. The instructions for the piece say: “Light canvas or any finished painting with a cigarette at any time for any length of time. See the smoke movement. The painting ends when the whole canvas is gone.” The other pieces are just as spare; “Waterdrop Painting”‘s canvas is cut into shapes that do nothing more than absorb water dripping from an overhead glass bottle. At AG Gallery, Maciunas had also asked Ono to focus on making sumi ink paintings to capitalize on her ‘exotic’ Japanese identity. He thought these works would sell and he was right. Two of them did. Her more avant-garde work remained unsold.
Ono and Ichiyangi drifted apart, and he moved back to Japan in 1961. The following year, 1962, both he and Ono participated in the First Concert Exhibition at Tokyo’s Sogetsu Art Center. In May of that same year, Works of Yoko Ono premiered at Sogetsu Art Center as the prologue to a six-part performance series that Ichiyangi had set up in October for John Cage and David Tudor. Ono appeared in their performances of “Music Walk” and “Arias for Solo Piano with Fontana Mix.” There is an iconic picture of her laying across the event piano in a black dress, her hair dangling over the edge — a photo eerily symbolizing her internal turmoils. She had no real reputation and felt identified by her affiliations — Ichiyangi’s wife and Cage’s friend. Shortly after that performance, she checked into a sanatorium and divorced Ichiyangi. She emerged to marry jazz musician Anthony Cox who helped her leave the hospital, and she gave birth to their daughter, Kyoko.
Motherhood was difficult for Ono, though it propelled her to produce a whole new body of work. On May 24, 1964 she mounted another show at Sogetsu, The Works of Yoko Ono, and shortly thereafter in July, along with Cox and Al Wonderlick, gave a ‘farewell’ concert before returning to the US at the CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE MUSIC CONCERT: Insound and Instructure at Yamaichi Hall in Kyoto. There she presented “Bag Piece” and “Cut Piece.” “Bag Piece” has been recreated for the MoMA show, and consists of someone getting into a big, black bag, removing all of his or her clothes, putting back on the clothes, and exiting the bag.
Returning to New York in 1964, Ono performed “Cut Piece” at Carnegie Recital Hall. She wore her best suit. Even though she was very poor at the time, she felt it necessary to offer the audience something of value. Ono sat impassively while participants cut swatches of her clothes off her body. Though viewers engaged in the performance, they did not really understand it, thinking it was a strip tease, though its real basis was in Zen Buddhism. Ono’s inspiration came from Buddha, and how he had let go of everything, even his family. The subtheme of the piece highlighted female suffering, most likely her own. She was operating in ‘survival mode,’ and even if most people ignored her work, she kept making new pieces.
Beginning in 1966 and until 1971, Ono produced approximately 21 black-and-white films such as “Film No. 4” (Bottoms) (1966) and “Fly” (1970), both included in the MoMA show. She filmed various nude bottoms in motion, and up close, focused shots of a fly crawling around different parts of her naked body. She also created controversial pieces like “Rape” (1969) and “Erection” (1971) that were not included in this MoMA show, or even alluded to.
The John and Yoko extravaganza did not begin until they met in November 1966, during her exhibition Ceiling Painting at the Indica Gallery in London. Lennon climbed a ladder up to a small telescope, looked through its lens, and saw the word “Yes.” The rest is history. The ladder, or a facsimile of it, is included in the current show, and can’t be climbed anymore. However, there is a special part of the exhibition that can be experienced sonically: tucked inside a music room are headphone stations where one can listen to and look at album covers of the Plastic Ono Band.
MoMA ignored Fluxus when it was happening, though oddly enough the museum did purchase Ono’s 1964 book Grapefruit. In 1971, she took the outrageous step of staging her own ironically apt, solo “intervention” — in no way, shape, or form did the museum give her permission. She called the intervention “Yoko Ono – One Woman Show,” which in retrospect is a prescient intro to this current show; at the time, museum shows of Fluxus-affiliated artists, women, or Asians were mostly inconceivable. Ono falsely put out her own PR in newspapers and flyers, and via word-of-mouth, saying not only was she going to have a show, but it would consist of a cache of released flies buzzing about the museum, and other locations. Her announcement card for the non-existent show inserted the letter (F) into the museum’s signage, playfully turning it into the “Museum of Modern (F)Art.” Ono was so intent on the intervention she actually printed a 112-page catalogue that sold for one dollar: “Museum of Modern (F)art: Yoko Ono–one woman show: Dec. 1st–Dec. 15th 1971.”
The current show, Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, was organized at MoMA by Christophe Cherix, chief curator of drawings and prints, Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator at large and director of MoMA PS1, and Drawings and Prints Curatorial Assistant Francesca Wilmott, who, decades later finally got it right on behalf of the museum and artist. Because of them, Yoko finally gets her one-woman “intervention” MoMA show, which proves the power of art if one can “imagine” the impossible.
Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971 continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown West, Manhattan) through September 7.