To See the Sky: Yoko Ono’s Art of the 1960s

On the occasion of a major exhibition celebrating Yoko Ono’s groundbreaking early work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, take a closer look at her art and ideas.
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Yoko Ono Photo

Painting to See in the Dark (Version 1). 1961.Installation view with the artist, Paintings & Drawings by Yoko Ono, AG Gallery, New York, July 17–30, 1961. Photograph by George Maciunas.The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © 2014 George Maciunas

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.

John Lennon Photo Gallery: 'Lennon was the first to break the Beatles' all-for-one sensibility, and also the rule that no wives or girlfriends would attend recording sessions, as he brought Yoko into the studio.He was also the first member to quit the group, which he did in September 1969.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon were married on March 20, 1969. After they married, the couple joined forces to create several works and events protesting the Vietnam War. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)

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.”

Yoko Ono Photo

Apple. 1966. Plexiglas pedestal, brass plaque, apple, 45 × 6 11/16 × 6 15/16′′ (114.3 × 17 × 17.6 cm). Private collection.© Yoko Ono 2014

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.

Yoko Ono Photo

Half-A-Room. 1967.Various objects cut in half, most painted white. Installation dimensions variable. Private collection.© Yoko Ono 2014

Autobiographical meaning

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.

Yoko Ono Photo

Cut Piece (1964) performed by Yoko Ono in New Works of Yoko Ono, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, March 21, 1965.Photograph by Minoru Niizuma.© Minoru Niizuma. Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive, New York

Female identity

 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.

Yoko Ono Photo

Sky Machine. 1961/1966.Stainless steel dispenser, metal pedestal, and handwritten cards. Dispenser: 51 3/16 x 16 1/8 x 16 1/8′′ (130 x 41 x 41 cm); card (each): 1 x 1 3/4′′ (2.5 x 4.5 cm).The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © Yoko Ono 2015

Viewer participation

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.”

Yoko Ono Photo

Yoko Ono and John Lennon.WAR IS OVER! if you want it. 1969.Offset, 29 15/16 x 20” (76 x 50.8 cm).The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © Yoko Ono 2014

Peace activism

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.

Yoko Ono Photo

Museum of Modern [F]art. 1971.Exhibition catalogue, offset, 11 13/16 x 11 13/16 x 3/8′′ (30 x 30 x 1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York.© Yoko Ono 2014

Subversive humor

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.”

“Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971” will be open at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from May 17 through September 7, 2015.