Before the fame: Yoko Ono’s early years at MoMA in New York

MoMA’s retrospective “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971” fulfills a prophecy and cements the artist’s status as a pioneering figure in the art world. 

Art Radar correspondent Ellen Pearlman walks through the exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, reflecting on the conceptual, sonic and text-based works of Yoko Ono’s formative years and how these works reveal her importance as an artist in her own right.  

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

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

The most striking thing about Yoko Ono’s retrospective “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971″, which is showing until 7 September 2015 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is its surprising and obvious lack of colour. The retrospective, with more than 100 pieces of her early work, is mostly black, white, silver, transparent or created from plain air, sky and clouds. There is an occasional (actual) green Granny apple on a transparent Plexiglass pedestal, or a black, white and red poster, but it is not until the garish hippie years of her marriage to John Lennon that colour is seen bursting forth.

When John Lennon – Ono’s third husband – was shot and killed in 1980, Ono withdrew into deep mourning, consuming only chocolate and mushrooms for three months. After seeing this show, her choice of subtle, plain monotones made sense. Her palate is spare – her language is conceptual, sonic and text based. There is an emphasis on both Fluxus inspired conceptual art, subtle Japanese traditional influences like brush paint and calligraphy, Zen influences, and black and white cinematography.

"Works by Yoko Ono", poster, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, 24 November 1961. Photograph by George Maciunas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © 2014 George Maciunas

“Works by Yoko Ono”, poster, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, 24 November 1961. Photograph by George Maciunas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © 2014 George Maciunas

Fulfilling a prophecy

The show is organised at MoMA by Christophe Cherix, Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints, Klaus Biesenbach Chief Curator at Large and Director of MoMA PS1, with Drawings and Prints Curatorial Assistant Francesca Wilmott. It draws upon works from the 2008 Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift to the Museum. It is not the only exhibition about Ono to surface in the past few years. First there was “Yes: Yoko Ono” in 2000 at the Japan Society in New York, then “To the Light” in 2012 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Most recently “Yoko Ono: Half-A-Wind Show, A Retrospective”, was staged in 2013 at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany.

This current show at MoMA has special resonance, fulfilling the (at the time) false prophecy Ono made in 1971 of her fictional one-woman show, “The Museum of Modern [F]art”. Back then she ran an advert in the Village Voice and The New York Times about this made up show at MoMA. The advert had a photo of her outside the Museum holding a large letter ‘F’, which aligned with the word ‘Art’ to spell ‘FART’. However, the only show that actually materialised was a man wearing a sandwich board standing outside the Museum. Bewildered museum goers were told Ono had sprinkled a bunch of flies with Ma Griffe perfume and let them loose somewhere inside the sculpture garden. They had dispersed and could be anywhere in the city. Ono was so serious she even printed a 112-page catalogue that cost one US dollar.

“The Museum of Modern [F]Art” show, decades in the making, is now real.

Yoko Ono, 'Museum of Modern [F]art', 1971, exhibition catalogue, offset, 30 x 30 x 1 cm, The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York. © Yoko Ono 2014.

Yoko Ono, ‘Museum of Modern [F]art’, 1971, exhibition catalogue, offset, 30 x 30 x 1 cm,
The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York. © Yoko Ono 2014

Ono’s early years: from privilege to war

Yoko Ono (b. 1933) lived in Japan until she was 18 years old. Her father was a Western-trained concert pianist turned banker, and her mother played the samisen, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument. She attended the progressive Jiyu Gakuen (House of Tomorrow) Girl’s School Minamisawa in Tokyo, located on a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired campus. Despite her privileged aristocratic-tinged background, fertile imagination and exclusive education, the family was not inured to the devastation of World War II. When Yoko was only two years old she, her mother and two siblings took shelter from B29 American bombers attacking Tokyo; 83,000 people died in that attack, sections of the city were in flames and her father was presumed missing in Hanoi, Vietnam. The family fled to the countryside where they wandered from farm to farm hauling a wheelbarrow, looking for food.

When Ono was 18 the family moved to Scarsdale, New York. Though she had begun studying at Gakushuin University in Japan, she wound up at the elite and expensive Sara Lawrence College majoring in musical composition and poetry, but soon dropped out. In 1956 she met Toshi Ichiyanagi, a young Julliard student from a lower class Japanese background than hers. Knowing her parents would disapprove of their union, they eloped.

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

Hanging out with the Fluxus pioneers

Ichiyangi and Ono had met John Cage at D.T. Suzuki’s legendary classes on Buddhism at Columbia University, and subsequently heard David Tutor play a Cage composition at a recital. Ichiyangi enrolled in Cage’s course in experimental musical composition at The New School, and Ono audited. That historic class became the nexus for the fledgling Fluxus movement, a movement MoMA ignored for decades, but has finally embraced. Though Ono was not officially a Fluxus artist, she affiliated with many who were.

From December 1960 to June 1961 Ono, with composer La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield, presented an invitation-only series at her dilapidated 112 Chambers Street loft, entitled “THE PURPOSE OF THIS SERIES IS NOT FOR ENTERTAINMENT”. The fifth floor walk-up, which she rented for USD50.50 a month, showed dance pieces by Simone Forti with sets by Robert Morris, concerts by Terry Jennings, Henry Flynt, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Philip Coner, Joseph Byrd, Jackson Mac Low, Richard Maxfield, La Monte Young, Dennis Lindberg and poet Diane Wakoski, among others. Guests included Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst, Marcel and Teeny Duchamp, and John Cage and David Tudor. Chairs were made from orange crates that doubled as tables and even served as a bed.

Yoko Ono, 'Painting to Be Stepped On', 1960/1961, installation view, "Paintings & Drawings by Yoko Ono", AG Gallery, New York, 17-30 July 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, ‘Painting to Be Stepped On’, 1960/1961, installation view, “Paintings & Drawings by Yoko Ono”, AG Gallery, New York, 17-30 July 1961. Photograph by George Maciunas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © 2014 George Maciunas

(“Instruction”) Paintings

Fluxus artist and impresario George Maciunas first met Ono at one of those concerts. He sponsored her first show “(“Instruction”) paintings” from 17 to 30 July 1961 at his AG Gallery at 925 Madison Avenue. The instructions were more or less in line with basic Fluxus ‘Event Scores’ or sets of staged instructions. She showed Smoke Painting and Painting in Three Stanzas, all on upstretched and unframed canvas. Smoke Painting was a piece of raw canvas with a hole in it. Ono had put a burning candle into the hole, pulling it out when the canvas started to incinerate. She blotted out the fire with a damp cloth. The text that accompanies it said: “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 is gone.” The other pieces, all on unstretched canvas, were just as simple. Another canvas was cut into a round shape that caught and absorbed drips of water from a glass bottle suspended at an angle above.

Maciunas had specifically asked Ono to make sumi ink paintings to capitalise upon her ‘exotic’ Japanese identity. He thought these types of works could be more easily sold, and in fact he was right. Two of her more traditional works sold. Her experimental works did not. Her show also happened to be Maciuna’s final at AG Gallery. The electricity had already been cut off and viewers could only see it during the daytime. Still, John Cage, Isamu Noguchi and Beate Gordon, who would become Director of Performing Arts at both the Japan and Asia Society, dropped by.

'Bag Piece' (1964) performed by Yoko Ono in "Perpetual Fluxfest", Cinematheque, New York, 27 June 1965. Photograph by George Maciunas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © 2014 George Maciunas

‘Bag Piece’ (1964) performed by Yoko Ono in “Perpetual Fluxfest”, Cinematheque, New York, 27 June 1965. Photograph by George Maciunas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © 2014 George Maciunas

Sacrifice and suffering

Ono and Ichiyangi grew apart, and in 1961 he moved back to Japan. The following year, both he and Ono participated at the First Concert Exhibition at Tokyo’s Sogetsu Art Center. She made a series of instructions for paintings to be made “in your head”. Ichiyanagi also set up a concert for John Cage and David Tudor at Sogetsu. Ono appeared in performances of Music Walk and Arias for Solo Piano with Fontana Mix, laying across the event piano in a black dress, her hair dangling over the edge. But inside she felt that she was nothing but Ichiyangi’s wife and Cage’s friend, nothing more than a pleasant accoutrement. Personal pressures mounted and she checked into a sanatorium. The following year she married Anthony Cox, who had helped her leave the hospital, gave birth to their daughter Kyoko, and began a whole new set of endeavours.

In 1964 Ono showcased both Cut Piece (Cutting Event) and Bag Piece at the Contemporary American Avant-Garde Music Concert: Insound and Instructure at Yamaichi Hall in Kyoto and both pieces are included in the current MoMA show. Returning to New York, she performed Cut Piece at Carnegie Recital Hall. She was dressed in the best piece of clothing she possessed, a suit, even though she was very poor at the time. She wanted to offer the audience something of value and she sat impassively while they cut swatches of her clothes off her body. It was a willing sacrifice on her behalf, though the audience did not really understand it. Instead, they thought it was a striptease, even though its real basis was in Zen. Her inspiration was actually the Buddha and how he let go of everything, even his family. She also used the piece to highlight female suffering.

Installation view of "Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971", The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 17 May - 7 September 2015. Photo: Thomas Griesel. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971”, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 17 May – 7 September 2015. Photo: Thomas Griesel. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art

A prophecy and a pioneer 

Beginning in 1966, Ono embarked on making a flurry of black and white films like Bottoms (1966) and Fly (1970). The John and Yoko show did not begin until after they met in November 1966 during her show at the Indica Gallery in London. She had a ladder installed to climb up to her Ceiling Painting. At the top of the ladder was a small telescope and when Lennon looked through it he saw the word “Yes”. The ladder is included in the current exhibition at MoMA, but now no one can climb it, rendering it an inaccessible icon.

“Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971″ at MoMA centres on the years leading up to her “Museum of Modern [F]Art” (1960-71). Ono was emotionally fragile, poor, and throttling between three marriages and one birth. Yet, it was also her most fertile artistic period and the one that has carved her legacy in the art world. The rest of the world thinks of her as Beatle John Lennon’s widow. This show proves she was anything but.

Ellen Pearlman

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Related Topics: Japanese artists, American artists, Fluxus, conceptual art, museum shows, events in New York

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