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ART : Yoko Reconsidered : Just because she became Mrs. John Lennon doesn't mean she stopped being an artist

April 11, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

In the liner notes for "Onobox," Rykodisc's year-old six-disc survey of Yoko Ono's recording career, music critic Robert Palmer comments that "it's quite likely that having John Lennon fall in love with her was the worst thing that could've happened to Yoko Ono's career as an artist."

Pop culture's blinding light is inarguably so intense that it tends to wash out anything of greater subtlety that might surround it, and Ono's persona as a Beatle wife and widow did pretty much eclipse the career as an avant-garde artist she'd been developing for 11 years before marrying Lennon.

"Falling in love didn't interrupt my career as an artist--it was how society dealt with it that was disruptive," Ono says of that fateful meeting in November, 1966. "The world decided I was gonna be Mrs. Lennon and nobody wanted to hear from me as an artist anymore."

Artist Allan Kaprow met Ono in New York in 1957 at a class taught by John Cage and was in contact with her throughout the '60s when she was making the works that are currently the subject of a flurry of exhibitions worldwide. He remembers her exit from the art world differently.

"Yoko wasn't rejected by the art world. Rather, she turned away from it for a long time," Kaprow says of the 60-year-old Ono, whose first solo exhibition in L.A. runs Saturday to May 29 at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery. "And, the renewed interest in her work is a result of the simple fact that she's decided to return to the art world. Having moved through a painful interlude in her life, I think, she was ready for it, and you don't need to take out an ad--word travels fast and museums and galleries get curious again. So, the interest in her art isn't terribly mysterious, nor is her impulse to work. If you're a real artist, after a while you begin to get an itch, and there's no question she's for real--Yoko is undeniably authentic."

Whether Ono was given the bum's rush out of the art world or she left of her own volition is open to debate; what's indisputable is that interest in her art--both old and new--is now at an all-time high, and that her conceptual and intensely political sensibility is remarkably in sync with current art world trends.

Ono first made a name for herself as part of the Fluxus movement, an international affiliation of radical artists that synthesized ideas of Dada, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage and operated in the United States from 1960 to 1978 under the stewardship of artist and impresario George Maciunas.

Ono formally launched her career in 1961 at New York's Village Gate as part of an evening of three contemporary Japanese composers; her contribution was "A Grapefruit in the World of Park," a multimedia piece that included a tape of mumbled words and laughter, live musicians playing an atonal score and an actor speaking flatly about peeling a grapefruit and counting the hairs on a dead child.

From that beginning, Ono's work blossomed in several directions at once. During the next decade she made films, produced sculpture and paintings, published "Grapefruit," a book of instructions for the creation of conceptual artworks and films, composed and recorded a good deal of experimental music and did installations, sound pieces and performances. (One of her most critically acclaimed installations, the 1967 "Half-a-Wind," will be re-created at her L.A. show.)

A 1962 performance titled "Wall Piece for Orchestra," for instance, was nothing more than Ono kneeling on a stage and repeatedly hitting her head against the floor, and a 1964 work, "Cut Piece," involved the artist sitting on a stage while audience members came forth and cut off pieces of her clothing until she was nearly naked. A feminist long before it was fashionable, Ono courted ideological and experiential extremes during the '50s and '60s that were decidedly at odds with her aristocratic Japanese upbringing, and are initially hard to reconcile with the woman she seems to be today.

Meeting with Ono at the Dakota, the Gothic Manhattan apartment building freighted with complex meanings for anyone with an interest in the ideals and aftermath of the '60s, one encounters a shy, small woman dressed in black slacks and a sweater who seems as though she would like to disappear into the large chair she's curled up on.

Chain-smoking and nervously raking her hand through her short-cropped hair, Ono seems to gird herself against the latest invasion that's about to take place as she says hello. Favoring short, to-the-point answers, she's actually quite good natured about being interviewed, considering that she's been through this drill hundreds of times and that she just got off a long plane flight and is soon to embark on another one.

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