BY RENEE KAPLAN
Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles, she brainwashed John and she fought with Paul. In Beatles mythology, she has been the bad witch, looming over the end of the world’s greatest band with her taciturn expression. Public opinion has tended to evoke her only as the controlling force who ruined it for everyone. First her celebrity marriage and then the world’s unyielding resentment have obscured her career as an avant-garde artist, a career which began in the late 1950s, many years before she met John Lennon.
The first American retrospective of Yoko Ono’s work, organized by the Japan Society in New York, has just opened at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center. It is a quiet, redeeming shock. The exhibit traces 40 years of creation that is full of a genuineness and humor that the public has never attributed to Ono. It is called “Yes Yoko Ono,” but could be renamed “A Fresh Start With Yoko Ono.” It is optimistic and quirky — and likeable.
The retrospective presents works from the 1960s to the present, with a focus on Ono’s early period, which was her most interesting. She was born in Japan, but by 1960, in her late 20s, she was living in a cold-water loft in downtown Manhattan, an emerging figure in the avant-garde art scene. John Cage, a major figure in the movement, visited her loft. So did Marcel Duchamp.
Much of Ono’s early work has a Duchampian cheekiness, a sort of false simplicity and deadpan humor. The exhibit is organized chronologically and thematically, and includes objects and installations, textual works and scores, film and video, and performance art. The first period, called “Grapefruit,” the name of a self-published 1964 anthology of her early works, includes an installation called “The Blue Room Event,” originally created in 1966 and recreated here. It is a small, oblong room painted stark white, with short sentences written in neat, black script on the walls. The sentences are seemingly nonsensical statements, like “This room is bright blue,” and “Stay until the room is blue.” The handwritten commands have both an innocence and playful absurdity, as though viewers could imagine the room blue and in any case inviting them to play along.
The textual works from the “Grape-fruit” anthology are also shown here. These are works of art that Ono called “instructions,” and they are quite literally sheets of paper with written instructions as to how to create paintings. They were originally shown in a Tokyo gallery. Ono had her then-husband, a Japanese composer, write the instructions in Japanese, in black ink on plain paper, and they are shown here with attached translations. For example, “Painting To Be Constructed in Your Head,” from 1961:
Look through a phone book from beginning to end thoroughly.List all the combinations of figures you remember right after that.
The “instructions” works, which are all unrealized until the participation of the viewer, represented one of Ono’s crucial beliefs about art and art-making. For her, art was a work in progress rather than an object or painting, it was a process of concept transmission from artist to viewer — it was above all an idea, whatever took place in the viewer’s imagination.
In the 1964 work “Pointedness,” a tall plexiglass column with a plexiglass shelf at the top holds a clear crystal ball. Engraved on the front of the column are the following instructions: “This sphere will be a sharp point when it gets to the far corners of the room in your mind.” The objects themselves are light and translucent, conveying a gossamer ephemerality to everyday shapes. And the text reads like a whimsical suggestion, an idea of what to do in your head with the images of the objects before you, which are suddenly nothing but the pretty building blocks of a more creative internal experiment.
But there was also radical element to Ono’s art, and the retrospective shows some of her most famous works, which were also her most provocative. Perhaps her most well-known performance work is “Cut Piece,” from 1965, in which she sits silently on a stage staring impassively ahead of her, while members of the audience take turns cutting off pieces of her clothes until she is left holding up the clipped straps of her bra. It is erotic and disturbing, screaming out silently, a sort of pre-feminist protest against violation. Another of her experimental films (and her most famous), “Film No. 4 (Bottoms),” is more sensational and provocative — and just plain sexual. It is a film of strung-together close-up shots of 365 different bottoms (hairy and less hairy) and was banned in Britain when it first came out in 1966. Accompanied by the recording of the participants’ conversations and of Ono being interviewed by the British press, it is, strangely, butt after butt, enthralling.
That year was also the year Yoko Ono met John Lennon. In 1969 they got married, and her life changed forever. Suddenly her marriage became the subject of her performance, and her personal life became an art “happening.” Celebrity was her new conceptual medium in the famous 1969 “Bed-In For Peace,” in which she and Lennon opened up their honeymoon in Amsterdam and Montreal hotel rooms to the media, inviting the cameras to film them in bed, in joyful, passive resistance to the Vietnam war. In retrospect, Ono has been criticized for exploiting the Beatles’ celebrity; in this retrospective, the event seems as whimsically and optimistically contrived as much of the rest of her work from the 1960’s.
Optimism is in fact what unifies much of Ono’s art throughout the forty years shown, and what especially animates this exhibit. Her works ride on the hope and expectation of inspiring others. They are quirkily-phrased invitations to take part, to imagine, often to laugh. The retrospective creates a yearning for Ono’s spirit of the 1960’s, for the light-heartedness and playful irony that she evoked. It is an especially timely and painful nostalgia now, when, in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the hopeful notion of “Glass Keys to Open the Sky” — the title of one of Ono’s translucent works — seems quite tragically absurd.