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Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, Museum of Modern Art

  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
 

ART IN 35 SECONDS

YOKO ONO: ONE WOMAN SHOW, 1960-1971
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
May 17 – Sept 7, 2015 

By ROBERT C. MORGAN, AUG. 2015

            Fluxus artist Yoko Ono once tried to install and perform an ad hoc exhibition at MoMA in 1971, but it never happened. Even her solo exhibition that same year at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, very few people knew Yoko Ono was an artist. The Fluxus movement, extant in the early 1960s, with which she was affiliated, was an attempt to transform art into a kind of intimate, usually spontaneous performance. But the meaning of this concept eluded the press. From their perspective, Ono was John Lennon’s lover and anti-War activist. Her background as an artist was rarely discussed, other than in ephemeral terms. But she was a performer.  This was tenaciously confirmed in a jointly organized work with her husband, John Lennon, in a work titled Bed-In, where the couple elected to stay in bed for several days as a protest against America’s Vietnam War. The year was 1969.  Above they bed was a placard that exclaimed WAR IS OVER. The concept was to announce that peace and love offered a better and more fulfilling alternative to happiness than mindless violence and economically manufactured warfare. Such forms of art, which intervene on politics (including ecology and women’s issues), are forever bound to controversy. For many who observed Bed-In, this was only the beginning.  

            Even so, Yoko Ono’s career as an artist began much earlier when she attended Sarah Lawrence College. It was here in the late 1950s she wrote A Grapefruit in the World of Park (which would eventually become a performance). Her developing interest in experimental literature and performance art during this period was a crucial step along the way. In New York in the early 60s, she quickly became involved with artists who were connected to the burgeoning of Fluxus, including its legendary founder, George Maciunas, who encouraged Yoko to pursue experimental music. Other hybrid associates, involved in art, literature, and music, were the composer and musician, Toshi Ichiyanagi (who in 1956 became Yoko’s first husband), the Minimalist composer Le Monte Young, and, indirectly, the short performance scripts of the artist George Brecht. This eventually led to meetings with the avant-garde composer John Cage that proved highly influential. Through Fluxus, the culmination of these diverse areas of expression was in performance, which might include events with a relatively short duration, such as biting an apple or putting a smile in a box, or observing the sky. Occasionally, there were longer works, such as the well-known Cut Piece (1965), where the artist sat on stage waiting for members of the audience to come and cut away a section of her dress until the fabric virtually disappeared. Encouraged by John Lennon, Yoko’s interest in experimental music continued to flourish. For her vocal performances, the artist would ululate loudly at repeated intervals for sometimes more than an hour.  These “scream” performances were eventually collected in a two-record album, Approximately Infinite Universe (1972). 

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

            When the artist conceived Yoko One: One Woman Show, 1960-1971 as an intervention at MoMA, designated by her as “The Museum of Modern (F)Art,” in 1971, Fluxus was still holding forth. Given its open-endedness as a type of performance art, American critics found it difficult to categorize. Instead of painting and sculpture in the traditional sense, there were events and objects in small editions that could be sent through the mail. Often the performances were not intended for audiences, as noted by the Happenings artist Allan Kaprow in his essay (1976), “Non-Theatrical Performance.” Clearly Yoko was aware of the fact that she was outside of traditional art intended for a New York market.

Her ideas and forms – indeed, her intrigue as a persona – lay elsewhere. So the question turns toward content.  What kind of affect is present in her work?  What is she intent on evoking in her audiences?

            Here I would like to introduce an Enlightenment proposition outside the Zen Buddhist concept of purposeful detachment that seems to run concurrently throughout her work. I sense in Yoko’s work a deeply embedded, paradoxical unity that could be stated in the following way:  What does it mean when her art spurs a thought that turns to feeling?  Or conversely, when does a feeling suddenly emerge as thought?  

            The elusive title of this review may serve to guide the way.

During a very intense moment in the artist’s career from 1964 -1966, she performed her Bag Piece and, a year later, Cut Piece.

The following year she composed her important 9 Concert Pieces for John Cage (now in the Collection of Northwestern University Library).  This same year (1966) she made a lesser-known short film, titled Eyeblink. The film is a close-up view of the artist’s left eye. We observe her eye for 35 seconds and there is a blink. After the blink the film concludes.  

            The passage from feeling to thought seems appropriate in watching this film. The viewer knows she or he is looking at a human eye. It is difficult to do this without some degree of emotion. When the eye blinks, we may recognize a unit of language, a very short instant, but still a desire to communicate.

            The duration is very short, consistent with other performance works by Ono. Yet the film is perfect is its elegance and emotional transcription. A painting by Vermeer is beautiful but does not move. Eyeblink by Ono moves and is also beautiful. But the movement is an instant one, nearly invisible, implying a human identity caught within time. To catch this feeling at the outset of a century overcome with data-based surveillance takes us back to the origin of art as a unit of language, a reel of communication, where art retains the power to signify our hidden resource to come alive. WM

 Yoko Ono (Japanese, born 1933) Grapefruit. 1964. Artist’s book, offset, 5 7/16 x 5 7/16 x 1 1/4″ (13.8 x 13.8 x 3.2 cm) (overall, closed). Publisher: Wunternaum Press (the artist), Tokyo. Edition: 500. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.  The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008. © Yoko Ono 2014

Yoko Ono (Japanese, born 1933), Half-A-Room. 1967. Various objects cut in half, most painted white. Installation dimensions variable.
Private collection. © Yoko Ono 2014


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
 

 

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an internationally renowned art critic, curator, artist, writer, art historian, poet, and lecturer. He holds an MFA in Sculpture from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1975), and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history from the School of Education, New York University (1978). Dr. Morgan lives in New York, where he lectures at the School of Visual Arts and is Adjunct Professor in the graduate fine arts department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He is Professor Emeritus in Art History from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Photo: Babak Mehrbany Irany

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