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Monday, May 22, 2017

Yoko Ono

Art Is All Over, 1970s, Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
(The slogan predates the painting.
It's not too unusual for me to write about a woman artist whose husband is more famous than she is. John Lennon once described Yoko Ono as "the world's most famous unknown artist: everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does." That was roughly fifty years ago but it's still true today. How do you think this famous unknown artist spends her time? Lying in bed for peace? Yowling in recording studios, perhaps? Or maybe she passes her time counting her millions? The fuss over Yoko Ono, of course, lies in her third marriage (John Lennon was her third husband). As some see it, she will forever be blamed for marrying the best Beatle, then not disappearing demurely into the background. However, in a way, she did just that. In public with Lennon, Yoko was ever-present but, somehow, not there; whispering opinions into his ear, rarely speaking out loud, shaping his work while appearing to contribute very little.
Three Mounds and Skyladders, 1999-2008, Yoko Ono.
If this is what art has come to, then it is, indeed,
"all over."
The painting, Art Is All Over (top) says it, all and actually makes a dual statement as profound today as when an artist's commune first coined it probably sometime during the 1960s. Yoko Ono's art is not easy to understand or like. In seeing it, many would heartily agree that "art is all over" (as in having come to an end). Her Three Mounds and Skyladders (above) might elicit such a response. Taking an opposite tact, the more liberal- minded would proclaim that "art is all over" (the world) as affirmed by Ono's touchingly human sculpture group Endangered Species (below), which suggests that art may not have ended but human existence might well be in danger of doing so. Regardless of interpretation, given her international standing and name recognition either could easily apply to the art of Yoko Ono.
Endangered Species, Yoko Ono.
Virtually all of Yoko Ono's work is open to interpretation, and she wouldn't have it any other way. The hammering of nails could be heard during the early weeks of Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949–78 at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Visitors were following the instructions on a placard next to a 1961 Yoko Ono work—consisting of a hammer, a trough of nails, and a white wooden panel—entitled Painting to Hammer a Nail. The placard read: "Visitors are invited to pound a nail into this painting" (below). Six weeks after the show opened, the artwork could barely be seen in the center of a maze of chewing-gum wrappers, business cards, fliers, plastic bags, receipts, and stray bits of paper that had been nailed on and around the work. The museum contacted Ono, who reportedly endorsed the spontaneous activity on the condition that the material be returned to her as part of the work at the exhibition’s end. However, a few days later, Amanda Mae, a museum security guard and local artist, was so distraught by the way in which the museum had allowed the public to obstruct the artwork, she began removing the extraneous material with the intention of organizing it and restoring the work as closely as possible to the state it was in when the exhibition began. After half an hour, her “performance,” which she called Yoko Ono Excavation Survey (YES) was halted by SAM’s curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. A day later, she was fired. An art critic noted that “...altering a work of art hanging on the wall of a museum is okay thing to do.”
Painting to Hammer a Nail, 1961, Yoko Ono.
(The chair in the foreground is there to
indicate the scale of the work.)
Yoko Ono issued a statement: “First the piece became covered with many things and lost its shape. I thought it was hilarious, and loved it! Then a woman decided that was not good, and tried to put the work back to its original shape. Then the museum decided that the woman should not have done that and fired her. Things keep happening, very much like life itself, with the original instructions being the genesis of it all. Life is beyond criticism, much less mine.”
Having been reduced to begging for food following the war,
Yoko Ono has since become one of the world's greatest
benefactors of children's charities.
Ono was born in 1933, in Tokyo. Her father was a banker who had once been a classical pianist (a circumstance likely only in Japan). He saw to it that Yoko, his eldest daughter began piano lessons at the age of four. Later, she was enrolled in one of the most prestigious schools in Tokyo. Yoko and her family remained in Tokyo through the great fire-bombing of March 9, 1945, sheltered in a special bunker in the Azabu district of Tokyo, far from the heavy bombing. After the war, Ono (twelve at the time), and her family were forced to beg for food while carting their belongings in a wheelbarrow. Meanwhile, Ono's father was in French Indonesian concentration camp.

Take a Piece of Sky, Yoko Ono. One of the hallmarks
of the artist's work are invitations to participate in
the creative process.
In the years that followed, as conditions in Japan improved rapidly under American occupation, Yoko was able to re-enroll in the miraculously undamaged school she had attended before. After graduation in 1951, she became the first woman ever to be accepted into the philosophy program of Gakushuin University. However, she left the school after only two semesters, determined to become an artist. Reunited, Ono and her family moved to Scarsdale, New York, where she attended nearby Sarah Lawrence College. Although her parents' disapproved, Ono loved meeting artists, poets, and others of the bohemian lifestyle to which she aspired. Art galleries and "happenings" in the city whetted her desire to display her own work publicly.

Anthony Cox, Kyoko,
and Yoko Ono.
Yoko Ono married twice during the period from 1956 to 1969. Both marriages failed though Ono and her second husband had a daughter to-gether named Kyoko. After her divorce from her second husband, film pro-ducer Anthony Cox, there was a two-year custody battle which ended when Cox took their eight-year-old daughter and simply disappeared. Ono and John Lennon searched for Kyoko for years with no success. It wasn't until 1998 that mother and daughter were reunited.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono,
1980, Annie Leibovitz
There are at least two, and perhaps several more, stories as to how Yoko Ono and John Lennon first met in London in 1966. Keep in mind, both were married at the time. They corresponded for nearly two years before dating. They were wed in 1969. From that point on, until Lennon's murder in 1980, the story of Yoko Ono is so familiar as to become the stuff of which legends are made. So overwhelmed and intertwined with the iconic John Lennon, Yoko Ono has largely lost her own identity as an artist. The final photo of the two of them together (right), taken by artist-photographer Annie Leibovitz, just hours before Lennon was gunned down, captures this intermingling far better than words. Even after his death, and despite her best efforts to redefine herself as an artist, songwriter, musician, poet, and philanthropist, the shadow of her third husband has continued to shade and color her own art persona--a woman of boundless creative energy, spunk, goodness, and panache.

Yoko Ono today at the age of eighty-one.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon self-portrait,
by John Lennon



  1. This isn't the Annie Leibovitz photo, a recreation with other people if you look at the faces.

    1. Bryan--

      Thanks for the tip. I checked it out and you are right. I've replaced the fake with an authentic image.--Jim