Yoko Ono’s Art of Defiance

Before she met John Lennon, she was a significant figure in avant-garde circles and had created a masterpiece of conceptual art. Did celebrity deprive her of her due as an artist?

Louis Menand in The New Yorker: On March 9, 1945, an armada of more than three hundred B-29s flew fifteen hundred miles across the Pacific to attack Tokyo from the air. The planes carried incendiary bombs to be dropped at low altitudes. Beginning shortly after midnight, sixteen hundred and sixty-five tons of bombs fell on the city.

Most of the buildings in Tokyo were constructed of wood, paper, and bamboo, and parts of the city were incinerated in a matter of hours. The planes targeted workers’ homes in the downtown area, with the goal of crippling Japan’s arms industry. It is estimated that a million people were left homeless and that as many as a hundred thousand were killed—more than had died in the notorious firebombing of Dresden, a month earlier, and more than would die in Nagasaki, five months later. Crewmen in the last planes in the formation said that they could smell burning flesh as they flew over Tokyo at five thousand feet. That night, Yoko Ono was in bed with a fever. While her mother and her little brother, Keisuke, spent the night in a bomb shelter under the garden of their house, she stayed in her room. She could see the city burning from her window. She had just turned twelve and had led a protected and privileged life. She was too innocent to be frightened.

The Ono family was wealthy. They had some thirty servants, and they lived in the Azabu district, near the Imperial Palace, away from the bombing. The fires did not reach them. But Ono’s mother, worried that there would be more attacks (there were), decided to evacuate to a farming village well outside the city. In the countryside, the family found itself in a situation faced by many Japanese: they were desperate for food. The children traded their possessions to get something to eat, and sometimes they went hungry. Ono later said that she and Keisuke would lie on their backs looking at the sky through an opening in the roof of the house where they lived. She would ask him what kind of dinner he wanted, and then tell him to imagine it in his mind. This seemed to make him happier. She later called it “maybe my first piece of art.”

Like any artist, Ono wanted recognition, but she was never driven by a desire for wealth and fame. Whether she sought them or not, though, she has both. Her art is exhibited around the world: last year at the Serpentine, in London (“Yoko Ono: I Love You Earth”); this year at the Vancouver Art Gallery (“Growing Freedom”) and the Kunsthaus in Zurich (“Yoko Ono: This Room Moves at the Same Speed as the Clouds”). She began managing the family finances after she and her husband John Lennon moved to New York, in 1971, and she is said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars today.

There is no question that museums and galleries mount these shows and people go to see them because Ono was once married to a Beatle. On a weekday not long ago, I saw the Vancouver show, which occupied the whole ground floor of the museum, and there was a steady stream of visitors. None of the artists and composers Ono was associated with in the years before she married Lennon enjoys that kind of exposure today.

Ono may have leveraged her celebrity—but so what? She never compromised her art. The public perception of her as a woman devoted to the memory of her dead husband has made her an icon among the kind of people who once regarded her as a Beatles-busting succubus. Yet the much smaller group of people who know about her as an artist, a musician, and an activist appreciate her integrity. No matter what you think of the strength of the art, you can admire the strength of the person who made it.

The most recent Ono biography is “Yoko Ono: An Artful Life,” by Donald Brackett, a Canadian art and music critic. He didn’t talk to Ono, and there’s not much in the way of new reporting in his book. The result feels somewhat under-researched. He dates the great Tokyo air raid to 1944, for example, and he gives the impression that Ono spent the night in the bunker with her family. Still, he is an enthusiastic writer, sympathetic to his subject (not so much to Lennon), and alive to the attractions of an unusual person and an unusual life.

Ono has talked about her parents as being emotionally distant. Her mother was a Yasuda, a member of the family that founded the Yasuda Bank, later Fuji Bank, and that owned one of the four largest financial conglomerates in Japan. Ono’s father worked at the Yokohama Specie Bank, which became the Bank of Tokyo after the war, and was frequently posted to foreign branches. He was in San Francisco when Yoko was born; she did not lay eyes on him until she was three. When Tokyo was firebombed in 1945, he was in Hanoi.

Ono received an exceptional education. Beginning when she was very young, she was tutored in Christianity (her father was a Christian; there were not many in Japan), Buddhism, and piano. She attended a school known for its music instruction; she was once asked to render everyday sounds and noises, such as birdsongs, in musical notation. After the war, she attended an exclusive prep school; two of the emperor’s sons were her schoolmates. And when she graduated she was admitted to Gakushuin University as its first female student in philosophy.

She left after two semesters. She said the university made her feel “like a domesticated animal being fed information.” This proved to be a lifelong allergy to anything organized or institutional. “I don’t believe in collectivism in art nor in having one direction in anything,” she later wrote. A classmate offered a different perspective: “She never felt happy unless she was treated like a queen.”

Ono may also have dropped out because her parents had moved to Scarsdale when her father’s bank posted him to the New York City branch. Ono soon joined them, and, in 1953, entered Sarah Lawrence, in Bronxville, less than half an hour away. Sarah Lawrence was an all-women’s college at that time and highly progressive, with no requirements and no grades. Ono took classes in music and the arts, but she seems not to have fitted in. A teacher remembered her as “tightly put together and intent on doing well. The other students were more relaxed. She wasn’t relaxed, ever.”

As non-prescriptive as it was, Sarah Lawrence triggered her allergy. It was “like an establishment I had to argue with and I couldn’t cope with it,” she complained. She now decided that she needed to get away from her family. “The pressure of becoming a Yasuda / Ono was so tremendous,” she said later. “Unless I rebelled against it, I wouldn’t have survived.” Somewhere (stories differ) she met Toshi Ichiyanagi, a student at Juilliard, and in 1956 she dropped out of college, got married (her parents weren’t thrilled), and moved to Manhattan. She began supporting herself with odd jobs. She lived in the city for most of the next ten years.

One of Yoko Ono artworks. Insert by despardes.com

Not long before leaving Sarah Lawrence, Ono published in a campus newspaper a short story called “Of a Grapefruit in the World of Park.” It’s about some young people trying to decide what to do with a grapefruit left over from a picnic. The allegory is a little mysterious, but it’s clear what the grapefruit represents. The grapefruit is a hybrid, and so is Yoko Ono.

It’s easy to feel that there is an amateurish, “anyone can do this” quality to her art and her music. The critic Lester Bangs once complained that Ono “couldn’t carry a tune in a briefcase.” But the look is deliberate. It’s not that she wasn’t well trained. She learned composition and harmony when she was little, and she could write and read music, which none of the Beatles could do. At Sarah Lawrence, she spent time in the music library listening to twelve-tone composers like Arnold Schoenberg.

She grew up bilingual and was trained in two cultural traditions. She went to secondary school and college in Japan in a period of what has been called “horizontal Westernization,” when artistic and intellectual life was rapidly liberalized as the nation tried to exorcise its militarist and ultranationalist past. Ono and her friends read German, French, and Russian literature in Japanese translation, and the young philosophers they knew were obsessed with existentialism. She also knew Japanese culture. One of the ways she supported herself in New York was by teaching Japanese folk songs and calligraphy. She knew waka and Kabuki. She was therefore ideally prepared to enter the New York avant-garde of the nineteen-fifties, because that world was already hybrid. Its inspirations were a French artist, Marcel Duchamp, and an Eastern religion, Zen Buddhism.

The personification of those enthusiasms was the composer John Cage—a student of Schoenberg, a devotee of Eastern thought, and an idolater of Duchamp. Ono got to know Cage through her husband, who took an evening class that Cage taught at the New School. Although Ono didn’t take the class, artists who would be part of her circle did, the best known of whom was Allan Kaprow, the creator of the Happening.

Cage didn’t expect his students to imitate his own work. He said that one of the most important things he learned from teaching the class was something Ichiyanagi had said to him in response to a suggestion: “I am not you.” But he encouraged experimentation.

And the students duly experimented. A representative piece for the class is “Candle-Piece for Radios,” by George Brecht. Radios are placed around a room in the ratio of one and a half radios per performer. At each radio is a stack of cards with instructions printed on them, such as “volume up,” “volume down,” and “R” or “L,” denoting the direction the radio dial is to be turned. Each performer is given a lit birthday candle, and, on a signal, begins going through the decks, card by card, using any available radio. The piece ends when the last candle goes out.

This is how Happenings work. They are not “anything goes” performances; most Happenings (there are some exceptions) have a script, called an “event score.” Each participant follows specific instructions about what actions to perform and when.

In 1960, Ono found a loft at 112 Chambers Street and rented it for fifty dollars and fifty cents a month. It was a fourth-floor walkup, without heat or electricity, and the windows were so coated with grime that little light got in, though there was a skylight. The furnishings consisted mostly of orange crates and a piano. Ono turned this into a combination living and performance space. Together with La Monte Young, a composer and musician (he was a developer of the drone sound used by the Velvet Underground on some of their songs), she organized a series of concerts and performances. From December, 1960, to June, 1961, eleven artists and musicians performed in the loft, usually for two nights each. Ono said that these concerts were sometimes attended by two hundred people. Cage came, and so did Duchamp. Suddenly, she was at the center of the downtown arts scene.

At some sessions, Ono herself “performed” art works. One consisted of mounting a piece of paper on the wall, opening the refrigerator and taking out food, such as Jell-O, and throwing it against the paper. At the end, she set the paper on fire. (Cage had advised her to treat the paper with fire retardant first so that the building would not burn down.) The art work consumes itself.

The New York art world of 1960, even in its most radical downtown incarnation, was male-dominated. Of the eleven artists who headlined events in the Chambers Street series, only one was a woman. To Ono’s annoyance, Young was credited as the organizer and director of the series. She was identified as the woman whose loft it was.

She was even more annoyed when she learned that a man who had attended some of the concerts was planning to mount a copycat series in his uptown art gallery. The gallery, on Madison Avenue, was called the AG Gallery, and the man was George Maciunas.

Maciunas came to the United States from Lithuania in 1948, when he was a teen-ager, and spent eleven years studying art history. Then, around 1960, he set out to reinvent art by taking it off its pedestal. Duchamp and Cage were his great influences. (Maciunas is the subject of a compelling and entertaining documentary that resurrects the New York art underground of the nineteen-sixties, called “George: The Story of George Maciunas and Fluxus,” directed by Jeffrey Perkins.)

Ono was mollified when Maciunas offered her a show. He never had money. This did not prevent him from renting property, having a telephone, or anything else. He just didn’t pay his bills. By the time Ono’s show was mounted, in July, 1961, the gallery could be visited only in daylight hours, because the electricity had been turned off. Her show “Paintings and Drawings by Yoko Ono” was the gallery’s last.

Ono was present to guide visitors through the show, explaining how the pieces were supposed to work, because some of the art required the viewer’s participation—for example, “Painting to Be Stepped On,” a piece of canvas on the floor. That work, like a lot of Duchamp’s, might seem gimmicky. But, like Duchamp’s, there is something there to be unpacked. “Painting to Be Stepped On” resonates in two traditions. It alludes to the widely known photographs, published in the late nineteen-forties in Life and elsewhere, of Jackson Pollock making his drip paintings by moving around on a canvas spread on the floor. Those photographs, representing painting as performance, inspired artists (including Kaprow) for decades.

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