Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono's advertisement published in the Village Voice, December 2, 1971.

In December 1971, Yoko Ono famously announced that she was to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The supposed exhibition was, in fact, a conceptual artwork, executed without the participation of the museum itself. This month, though, Ono will open a solo show at MoMA, which will feature her early works on paper, paintings, installations, performances, and audio and instruction pieces. Recently, Ono spoke from her apartment in New York about her unauthorized MoMA exhibition and being asked to realize a show there today, as well as the groundbreaking performances that happened in her loft on Chambers Street in the early 1960s. “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971,” is on view from May 17 to September 7, 2015.

WHAT I DID between 1960 and ’71 seems to have influenced more people than any other periods of my work. But I really don’t know how I survived. Whenever an idea for an artwork came to me, I would act on it. I would get so excited and make the work, and, at the time, it seemed nobody wanted to know. So, I always thought, “OK, on to the next idea.” I’ve gone through life like that; there was never any time to commit suicide or anything.

To drop out of school in 1960 was sort of an unusual thing to do, but for me, college was too much and so I left and went to New York City. It was an exciting time. I already knew a few people in the music world. Many of them had far-out ideas about art; they couldn’t just do a show in an ordinary gallery. Most were composers who didn’t fit in at Carnegie Hall. At the time it seemed there was no good venue to present work. I decided I would get a place and begin doing concerts there. I remember I first had this thought while walking on Broadway, around Ninety-Sixth Street. I noticed the second floor of a building, where you could see everything that was going on—ballet dancers were exercising. So I went up there, and I, perhaps witlessly, asked, “Is this place for rent?” They were very polite about it and said, “No, we’re using it.” Not deterred, I thought there must be a location like that, and finally a friend of mine told me to go downtown and check out the “lofts.” In those days people didn’t really think about lofts as places to live or work—they just thought they were dangerous. But I got a loft and it was really great.

Many people came to see the concerts, probably because there were no other loft concerts going on. Also, I think the fact that John Cage, Peggy Guggenheim, David Tudor, and others came to the very first show, right after a very heavy snow, was important. But every event was very exciting. I eventually did my stuff too, though I didn’t want to be the first one. I also ended up sleeping there. I felt that it was important. I don’t know why. I collected about six orange crates and put them together as my bed. It was right underneath the skylight. It was beautiful.

The incredible thing about this MoMA show is that in ’71 I staged my “first” show at MoMA from December 1st to the 15th. In those days the museum hardly presented women or Asian artists. Nobody thought much about it. I put an advertisement in the Village Voice for my “one woman show” at the museum. I also printed a catalogue titled the Museum of Modern (F)art. And I posted a sign on the museum’s entrance that said I had released flies in the museum, and that everyone was invited to find them throughout the city. What was great was that MoMA came to me recently and said they were interested in “my show” that I did there ’71. They said that wanted to do it now, as a real exhibition. And I thought, well that’s pretty hip, OK.

Again, this was something I had I mostly forgotten about, so I was glad when the curators said that we could transform the idea. People always say to me, “Yoko, you know we’re never going to have world peace, right?” And I think, Yes, we’re going to have it if you believe in it. So even from that point of view I can say, this happened and then forty years later it became a reality. It’s not going to be a reality the next day. But what you’re thinking of, what you’re envisioning now, is going to be a reality—so just be careful.

From the feminist point of view, it was important to me to be open about my experiences. There was a time, about five years ago, when people started to not want to talk about feminism—as if it was a dirty word or something. I think that some people successfully made sure that we became intimidated. But, logically, feminism should go on. It’s not natural to keep women down. For one thing, it’s essential to have women’s energy, and without it, there’s an incredible imbalance in the world. That’s why we have all this illness, violence, and war. It’s really basic, if you just think about it. It doesn’t have to be so complicated; things can be simpler than that.