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In Her Life: Yoko's Art

A retrospective of Ono's performance and conceptual pieces may help to illuminate the work of one of the world's 'most famous unknown artists.'

October 15, 2000|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

Yoko Ono has always considered herself an artist, despite the often disparaging opinions of others. She admits, however, that art was never a professional goal for her.

"I think we're all artists in some way," she says, calmly sipping from a coffee mug in the enormous kitchen of her apartment in the Dakota on Central Park West in New York. "I was just inspired by things and putting out things. If you made a career decision, then you would have to follow up--going to galleries and trying to get your works exhibited. Well, first of all, you have to have art school, maybe, and create the kind of work that's speaking the right language for the art world."

That was not her intention in the '60s, when she was on the far edge of the avant-garde, selling what she called "future mornings," in the form of glass shards, for a quarter. That is not her intention now, even though she is selling works for several thousand times that amount at the Ubu Gallery on the tony East Side and is the subject of a major retrospective, "Yes Yoko Ono," which opens at the Japan Society in New York this week. Instead, Ono has always been a loner, rather gleefully bucking--or was it setting?--the trend.

She created pieces of performance and conceptual art well before the terms became the common currency of the art world. She put ideas, not objects, at the center of her artmaking--manipulating text, composing sound art, setting up happenings. And then, Ono as artist became overshadowed by Ono as Mrs. John Lennon. Even Lennon dubbed her the world's "most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does."

With the retrospective, which will travel to six other venues over the next three years, maybe that will change. "Let's hope so," says Ono, who cooperated fully with the exhibition and lent much from her own collection.

A trim and petite woman wearing oversized, tinted glasses, Ono exudes a brisk sense of self-confidence and composure. Her dark hair is cropped, a hint of blond coloring on top. The punk-chic look goes with the canary yellow, crisply pressed bowling shirt she wears over a black tank top and black stretch slacks. She talks rapidly, in a stream, barely pausing before a question ends to register her response.

"I think dilettante is the most superb position to be in," Ono says blithely, upon being reminded that some critics have found her a mere dabbler in the arts. "I think professionalism immediately limits one to a certain form of thinking--it's very dangerous. So I'm proud to say I'm an outsider. There are things that an outsider, a dilettante, can bring in to the world, to the center--to give awareness, so to speak."


Born in Tokyo in 1933, Ono grew up in Japan and in the U.S., the daughter of a banking executive. Both her parents, as Ono tells it, were frustrated artists. In 1952, she moved with her family from Tokyo to Scarsdale, N.Y., and enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied poetry and composition. After three years, she dropped out and eloped with pianist and composer Toshi Ichiyanagi.

Ono was happy, she says, to cut herself loose from the stultifying expectations of her parents. The couple took up residence in Manhattan, where they encountered John Cage and his experiments in using chance operations to create art, and where Ono, working part-time jobs to support herself, began devising art pieces to express herself.

In the winter of 1960-61, she and composer La Monte Young coordinated a series of concerts and happenings in her Chambers Street loft. One visitor was George Maciunas, an uptown gallery owner who would shelter and give shape to the loose art movement known as Fluxus--a "fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gag, children's games and Duchamp," according to a 1965 manifesto. Maciunas would give Ono her first gallery show--in which she showed her "instructions" and other works on paper--and he included Ono in the Fluxus fold.

However, she was aware of not having full membership in the club.

"One, most of them were guys," Ono recalls. "There were some token female artists--and especially [as] an Asian female artist--they would love to have an ornament around, you know. But then when it came to the point that suddenly she's speaking, she has her own mind! That was kind of annoying to them, I suppose." She gives a small laugh.

During this period she was creating word-based pieces. The early "instructions," written as terse poetry, were later published in a volume called "Grapefruit" (1964). One example: "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 or painting is gone."

Later word-based works were sometimes just one line written on a floorboard--"This is the ceiling"--or on the wall--"This room slowly evaporates everyday." The idea was to provide, as Ono says, "a somersault of the mind."

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