Yoko Ono is best-known to many people as John Lennon’s wife and musical collaborator in the 1970s and his widow following his death in 1980. However, a new exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art may change that: it surveys the first decade of Ono’s prolific career as a multimedia artist and performer, including over 100 works that she created between 1960 and 1971.
When she and Lennon met in 1966, Ono was already established as an important figure in the Conceptual Art movement. Her art was deeply non-traditional in its approach. She didn’t make conventional paintings or sculptures; instead, she focused on the ideas behind art, and on changing people’s understanding of what art could be and how it could be shared.
For example, one work of 1961, “Painting to see the skies,” was simply a card printed with instructions for the viewer: “Drill two holes into a canvas. Hang it where you can see the sky.” Ono’s message was simple yet revolutionary: we are all artists, and the world around us is art if we can just find new and different ways to view it.
Here are seven key themes of Ono’s artistic philosophy, illustrated by works from “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971.”
Everyday objects as art
“Apple” is the first piece in the MoMA exhibition, standing just inside the entrance to the show. Its title tells you everything you need to know: it’s a green apple sitting on a Plexiglas base. By showing us this fruit in a museum, instead of a supermarket or a kitchen, Ono motivates us to look at it more closely than we ever have before. Like everything else in nature (including ourselves), the apple will change from day to day, ripening and decaying throughout the exhibition.
Ono was inspired to create “Half-A-Room” when her second husband Anthony Cox left her in the late 1960s. Thinking about the ways that intimate relationships and shared lives can be split apart, she filled a room-like space with objects cut in half (a chair, a bookcase, a framed picture on the wall, etc.) and painted white. It’s a piece about loss and surrender.
In one of her most influential performance pieces, Ono sat on a stage with a pair of scissors and invited audience members to cut her clothing off. One by one, individuals approached her and snipped off bits of her garments until she was left bare. Ono later said that the work was meant to express courage and calm in the face of the sexual objectification and victimization that women often experience.
Many of Ono’s artworks require visitors to interact with them. “Sky Machine” looks similar to a postage-stamp machine, but when its levers are pressed it dispenses small paper cards bearing the word “sky” in the Ono’s handwriting. Ono has always been fascinated by the sky, since it can be seen by everyone but can never be owned by anyone. About this work, she said, “I would like to see a sky vending machine on every corner of the street instead of the coke machine. We need more skies than coke.”
After Ono and Lennon married in 1969, they joined forces for several works and events protesting the Vietnam War. “WAR IS OVER!” resembled an advertising campaign, with posters and billboards placed in cities around the world—-but instead of selling products, it encouraged viewers to imagine peace and to reflect on their own beliefs about the war.
In 1971 Ono advertised an unofficial “one woman show” of her art at the Museum of Modern Art. However, there was nothing to see, except a signboard telling visitors that Ono had released a bottle of flies on the Museum’s grounds. The public was invited to track the flies across the city—a seemingly impossible task. This event was Ono’s commentary on bringing art beyond the walls of the museum establishment. It also showed her optimism and sense of fun. As she recently said on Twitter, “Smile to the future and it will smile back to us.”