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).
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
Robert C. Morgan is an artist, scholar, poet, teacher, and author. Considered an authority on early Conceptual Art, Dr. Morgan has lectured widely, written literally hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published several books, and curated numerous exhibitions. In 1992, he was appointed as the first critic-in-residence at Art Omi International Artists Residency, where in 2016, he was honored as Critic Emeritus. In 1999, he was awarded the first ARCALE prize in International Art Criticism in Salamanca (Spain), and the same year served on the UNESCO jury at the 48th Biennale di Venezia. In 2002, he gave the keynote speech in the House of Commons, London on the occasion of Shane Cullen’s exhibition celebrating the acceptance of “The Agreement” by the UK. In 2003, Dr. Morgan was appointed Professor Emeritus in art history at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and, in 2005, became a Senior Fulbright Scholar in the Republic of Korea. In 2011, he was inducted into the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Salzburg; and, in 2016, the Department of Special Collections at the Hesburgh Library, University of Notre Dame, purchased The Robert C, Morgan Collection of Conceptual Art. Much of his work since the late 1990s has focused on art outside the West in the Middle East and East Asia where his books have been translated and published into Farsi (Tehran: Cheshmeh, 2010), Korean (Seoul: JRM, 2007), and Chinese (Beijing: Hebei, 2013). Dr. Morgan has worked extensively in China with contemporary ink artists and has authored many catalogs and monographs on Chinese artists. In addition to his scholarly, he continues a parallel involvement as an artist and abstract painter (since 1970) with a major survey exhibition at Proyectos Monclova in Mexico City (March 23 – April 29, 2017). His work has appeared in numerous exhibitions and is included in several important collections.
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