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Yoko Keeps Lennon's Art Legacy Humming

Out of love and empathy, widow tends to pop legend's sketchier reputation as a visual artist.


The drawings are simple, spare and linear, almost to the point of being naive. Stylistically, they sit somewhere between Picasso's later sketches and gonzo cartoon art, more the latter than the former. The subjects are usually gently satirical, surreal or deeply personal, whether frank depictions of erotica, sketches from travels, or signature self-portraits as a pair of specs and a cascade of hair.

Welcome to the world of John Lennon, globally famous rock star and struggling artist. Art school dropout Lennon, who formed his legends-to-be band with classmates, produced hundreds of drawings and other works before, during and after his days as a Beatle.

A collection of Lennon's art, serigraphs, original drawings and hand-scrawled lyrics, is coming to a shopping mall near you this weekend, when the traveling show lands at the Promenade at Woodland Hills. It may not seem like the most prestigious venue for an art exhibition, but the art of Lennon is gradually earning respect after years of benign neglect.

Much of the credit goes to Lennon's wife, Yoko Ono, who has for a decade been trying to reshape her husband's reputation as an artist. "In the beginning, it was very hard," Ono said in an interview from Manhattan's Dakota building, where she has lived since the mid '70s and where Lennon was killed in 1980.

"It was a real uphill climb, in the sense that many galleries were not interested. They were saying, 'Oh, we don't want to do something with a rock star's dabblings.' They didn't even bother to see the work.

"Now, his work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. It has been in a one-man show in Bremen [Kunsthalle] museum, the most prestigious museum in the world for drawings. People are starting to understand that it's really legit. And yet, it took 10 years to make it legit, in a way."


Ono felt a sympathetic twinge from the icy reception and preconceived notions that greeted Lennon's art. "It was a kind of prejudice that they had about John's [art], which was similar to the kind of prejudice they had about my work, and so, of course, I know what's what. I just kept on plotting. Now, people really seem to understand that John was a good artist."

Of the Fab Four, Lennon maintained the closest link to his early art school training, diverting his restless creative urges toward drawings and extra-musical writings. In a sense, despite the critical and commercial respect he enjoyed as a Beatle, Lennon felt misunderstood.

"He was a kind of artistic, intellectual kind of guy," Ono said. "In the pop world, he was very successful, but by the time he was totally successful, I don't even think people understood them as musicians. They were just pop figures. So, there was a kind of dissatisfaction about his reputation."

As the story goes, Lennon's restlessness and interest in the art world led him into the arms of Ono, a conceptual artist and member of the post-Dada Fluxus movement. The couple married in 1969. "He was like a rebel," Ono said. "We were both rebels. We met and we felt very comfortable with each other. But I think two rebels was maybe too much for the world," she laughed. "They just didn't take it very well."

Controversy followed the couple, as accusations flew that Ono was a catalyst in the Beatles breakup. Many observers felt that the couple's avant garde-leaning collaborations and albums on Apple--including "The Wedding Album" and "Two Virgins"--were pretentious indulgences of the rich and famous.

While Lennon and Ono collaborated on short film projects and on music, theirs was hardly an insular relationship.

"We kept up our individual things, our independence, as well," said Ono. "That's how it was. . . . His drawings are something very special that he did by himself, and he was doing it before he met me."

One of the notable impressions in Lennon's later drawings is a quality of domestic bliss, which can also be heard on his last musical efforts. He found warmth and a new kind of emotional validation in family life with Yoko and then-infant son Sean.

"He had a very tumultuous kind of childhood," Ono said. "He was trying to be a good father and husband in his first marriage, but it was a real make-it-to-the-top time, and that's hard for anybody. Usually a person wants to try to treasure the family situation. I don't think it was more important to him (in the later years). It was just a part of his life that was very dear to him."


Recently, Ono collaborated with another male Lennon, son Sean, who played guitar and co-wrote music for her surprisingly accessible album "New York Rock."

"I really think that was a gift that was given to me, and I was very thankful," she said. "When I was pregnant, I wasn't thinking, 'OK, I'm going to have a guitarist.' He's now at a very important juncture in his life. He can go out there on his own, but he's not quite sure yet, especially because of his father. So there's a real hesitation there."

In addition to her own ongoing pursuits in music and art, Ono puts energy into overseeing Lennon's work in music and art. She was involved in the recent Beatles Anthology project and doesn't want Lennon's visual art side to slip into obscurity.

"I feel better that I'm doing something for his work," she said. "Because I'm an artist myself, I know that if it got out of hand and nobody took care of it, I would feel very bad. I feel responsible about this. I'm doing my best."


* WHAT: "A Tribute to the Art of John Lennon."

* WHEN: Today through Sunday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.

* WHERE: The Promenade at Woodland Hills, 6100 Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Woodland Hills.

* CALL: (818) 884-7090.

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