PRINT February 1989


IF PART OF OUR somewhat dated model of heroic greatness in the arts seems to be the neglect and misunderstanding of our artists in their day, then let’s get a head start on the (perhaps) inevitable—a long-overdue reassessment and appreciation of the work of Yoko Ono. Much of the neglect of Ono is a subdivision of the lack of interest that has obscured many of the important artists who, like her, were part of the Fluxus movement, which, in the ’60s, brought together a number of diverse talents in an inspired proliferation of events, publications, and other activities under the umbrella of an elusive sensibility. Considering the remarkable multimedia experimentation and antiestablishment spirit of Fluxus, as well as its rebellious resistance to institutionalization, the art market’s long exclusion of the movement (and the recent signs of renewed interest in it, or coopting embrace of it) should not be all that surprising.

It’s also true, of course, that tastes change, and even were Ono and Fluxus less radical, their obscurity in the ’70s and ’80s would still be in the nature of our cultural process, in which the fluctuations of fashion’s always fickle finger are accentuated by the blinding lights and deafening darks of the modern media. What is more complex and disturbing is the level of actual resistance toward Ono and her art. The source of this is obvious, even if its implications are not: Ono’s creativity and strength have been in turn trivialized, resented, and distrusted because of her marriage to John Lennon. Their extremely public relationship, and all the things it tells us about the media, cultural politics, and the attitudes of the mass audience (which includes our own selves), make our ambivalence toward Ono a provocative topic, but one, I think, that can be neglected, at least for a while, in giving her work the consideration it has been denied.

Ono’s art is gracefully situated between the physical and the psychic, in that dimensionless realm where reality and its appearances are opaque but insubstantial, like holographic images—constructions as elusive as the memory and desire that condition our vision of them. So contemplative and abstract are her ideas that they dissipate when picked up. Her work is an intimate sort of expression, and needs an atmosphere of quiet and patient involvement to be heard. Ono has proven able to use the mass media and big business as the materials and the means of her self-expression, but her art originates in the small-scale, personal milieu of New York’s avant-garde performance scene in the early ’60s. Its primary concerns—and in this respect, paradoxically, it shows a deep social involvement—are with ideas, emotions, and relationships that are, in a sense, outside time: in personal terms, with the primal essence of the self, and more generally, with a transcendent humanitarianism.

What’s striking, and still alive, in Ono’s old work is her commitment of determination and faith. Ono asserts that art is made out of need, responding to the necessities of life lived personally and politically at the same time. In this need, desire and inspiration act as one: the process is neither linear nor hierarchical but indivisible and organic. Wish and act, object and effect, are all one and the same. In her belief that anyone can be an artist, that a frame of mind rather than a genius is the mark of creativity, Ono perhaps went farther in denying the basic values of the status quo than most other radical voices of the ’60s. And her commitment to the wave of antimaterialist sentiment that temporarily swept the Western imagination in the late ’50s and ’60s was also more in tune with the metaphysical fabric, the transcendent energies, of the intangible and the invisible than much of the period’s conceptual art, which, for all its assaults on the primacy of the object and on materialist values, was usually based on a concrete, substantive, logical framework.

Ono’s attacks on the art object—her Painting to be stepped on, 1961, a canvas laid on the floor, for example—were not so different in intent from such other contemporaneous acts as Arman’s smashing of violins or Nam June Paik’s arson of a piano. Her greatest assault on physicality, however, was the way her ideas resisted materialization. Much of Ono’s oeuvre is in the nonmedium of “instruction pieces”—simple directions, many of them collected in her book Grapefruit, that ask the participant to perform an activity (“Think of a piece you lost, / look for it in your closet”) or to think something (“Put one memory into one-half of your head/Shut it off and forget it./Let the other half of the brain long for it”). Some of her works in this mode might start as a tangible object but end up as a mental one: in Part Piece, 1961/71, a canvas is cut up in- to jigsawlike fragments for the viewer to reassemble, with the haphazardness of memory, in the mind. Other pieces were considerations of the transitoriness of reality. An apple slowly rots away to become a seed that can be planted; a piece may work with the evaporation of water, or with smoke and shadows. And in vending machines selling evocative one-word cards such as “sky” (Sky Machine, 1966) and “air” (Air Machine, 1971), or in perceptual games such as Pointedness, 1964, in which a sphere stands on a pedestal marked with the text “This sphere will be a sharp point when it gets to the far corner of the room in your mind,” Ono’s emphasis was the idea, the imagination or perception. She challenged us to see the invisible.

The effect Ono sought in her experiential idea-art was change, change in both social reality and in esthetics, change growing out of a change in inner awareness. Her articulation of her dissatisfaction stands outside the usual mode of critique that conditions most politically committed art. Ono’s work focuses in sharply on reality, isolating the most mundane, everyday detail from the complications and extraneous distractions of its context and distilling it into a pure, simple, up-close object of contemplation. Knowing and caring rather than reflexively reacting, Ono asks only that we do the same, and that we remain content in the act of seeking, of asking questions and not answering them.

At a time when art has once again become transfixed by its own elitist company, withdrawing its field of participation inside lines of affluence, power, institutional inbreeding, and educational privilege, Ono’s democratization of culture seems as alien now as it does necessary. Ono not only accepts but courts in her work a certain amateurishness, an antiprofessionalism, an irreverent disregard for high-art standards. Her art implicitly criticizes the mystique and the fetish that our culture makes of creativity, and the urgency and directness that self-expression can convey when unfettered by codified refinements. The approach to which her artworks and home-movie-for-everyone films direct us is: Do it yourself.

Ono’s minimalist reduction of complexity is far more than merely a stylistic streamlining. It is an attempt to divest herself, her art, and her audience of all their costumes. Exposing her subjects without their ordinary accretions of artifice, she confronts them as they confront us: as raw, naked, vulnerable, honest truths. Nakedness here is not a strategy but a metaphor for self-awareness. By moving lone, iconic, everyday objects to stage center, Ono detaches the banal from the inertia of civilization’s consciousless frenzy. She makes it perform solo, with neither props nor backdrop. Minimalist tension becomes timeless void.

Basic in attitude, Ono’s work is far less so in its effects. Its simplicity is an essential ingredient of its subtle and seductive charm. The modesty, even mediocrity of its appearance is disarming and deceptive, getting under the skin of the viewer’s expectations, lacing perception with some crafty gambit or bit of fancy that tempts in the imagination. An addictive irritant, the work may be a riddle, a puzzle, a labyrinth, or a slow-motion crawl through a memory of a dream of a nowhere so monotonous that you lose your way in it, and must endure its hysteria of the absurd. The individual and the universal blur together in a panic of déjà vu. The work is a lure, a psychic hook, to get us to focus our attention on the eye of tedium, the pivot for frustration’s vertigo whirlpool. In a vacuum of heightened perceptions, the unremarkable becomes extraordinary, swinging along an axis of desire like a hypnotist’s watch, whose spell is fascination.

We find this over and over again in Ono’s art, always differently achieved but always tightening the same vise. The films, for example, endlessly repeat like yet dissimilar imagery—the shots of people’s buttocks in Film No. 4 Bottoms, 1966, say, or the slow pans up pairs of naked legs in Up Your Legs Forever, 1970. The movies mesmerize with tenaciously meted-out redundancy at the same time that they create undulating interference patterns out of the organic forms of human beings. This torque between variety and similarity without end induces a queasy uncertainty in our cognitive perceptions, or reveals one there; much as Op art, at about the same time, was shredding the psychological texture of vision. Many of the underground filmmakers working contemporaneously with Ono also rejected the linear tradition of narrative progression in the movies; what Ono did with that liberation was play with time, make it move so indistinctly, so slowly (as in the slow-motion Smile Film, 1968, which extends that simple facial gesture across an hour and across the threshold of our attention span), that it almost appears to stop, or even to retrace its orbit. In this illusion—ennui impersonating obsession, or the straight line a circle—the closed temporal space of the movie opens up into a multiple psychological construct. As often as a feeling of imprisoned restlessness and claustrophobia overtakes the viewer, so does another sort of emotional response, a euphoric sensation of undisturbed peace, of ascension into a state in which the dimensions of time and corporeal form either vanish or lose their meaning in abstraction.

Even the most idiosyncratic and autobiographical of Ono’s artworks must engage its audience to be conceptually consummated. The ideas and feelings that these pieces embody are inextricable from action and experience on the part of the viewer, and their effectiveness and intensity are enhanced or diminished according to the viewer’s own participation. In Painting to Shake Hands, 1962, Ono stood behind a blank canvas with a wrist-size hole in it through which her hand welcomed her visitors. Painting to Hammer a Nail, 1961, was a canvas for the viewer to pincushion with hammer and nails supplied. These works propose a democracy and a transitoriness to things that is quite Buddhist in character. Communal vessels for our collective subconscious, they don’t so much communicate the detail of personal experience as they provide introspective access to the remote places in the mind and body where nest the trauma, wonder, terror, and hope, the phantasms of destiny and desperation, that we all share. The Zen philosophy in Ono’s riddles of the senses accepts and respects such deep emotional response as an attribute of reality. Ideals of social change are implicit in her work, but never at the expense of abandoning the point of the personal from which she began. Furthermore, her work does not fail in its social principles, as so many believe. The change it calls for cannot be measured by any progress along some single path of ever fortifying virtue and ever feebler vice. Her art demands—or, better, her art is—a group participation. It is a journey in circles, a transformation that returns us to ourselves.

Look at Ono’s Fluxus multiple Box of Smile, 1971, a small steel curio box lined inside with a mirror at the bottom. The smile it gives us is, of course, our own, multiplied in its reflective surfaces: we open it, get the joke, and smile, making the title’s promise come true. The piece is a wickedly funny trap, not so much a container as a doorway leading into the viewer’s inner space. Its contents are only there when we look for them, but once we know the secret, our imagination of the interior makes the piece still a box of smile even when it is shut. A curiosity? More a fantasy or a dream, and, when we finally face it, a wish. Caught in the folly of a peeping tom in solitary, we travel the entire journey there and back in the moment we open the box and perceive its interior—a short and abrupt path to revelation. Ono’s art often resides in the brief instant between expectation and comprehension. The distance between the eye and the box as one holds it in one’s hand is a distance that stretches the mind once around her “approximately infinite universe.”

If we brush off from Ono’s work the web spun around it during the ballad of John and Yoko, a Byzantine network of sensitive, tangled personal involvements that lasts in the common memory because of the bitter ideological and social splits that once came enmeshed in it, an emotional ambivalence appears that is as volatile as all the upheavals in their long conceptual crusade. It is also as divided. Ono’s art emerged during an explosive, contradictory social period in the West; later, when the culture’s anarchic spirit vanished, her early inspiration vanished with it. In the media madness of the ’70s, in that decade’s suspended sense of belief, Ono twisted the already stretched nerves and imaginations left from the ’60s into a psychotic theater of confrontation. What was ridiculous and funny in Fluxus became tragic and terrifying in Ono’s work with the Plastic Ono Band; her brutal screams pierced through the ’60s’ overinflated dream, letting the misery leak out. Pleading for nothing more than to give peace a chance, she turned her wishes and kisses into metaphors of torture, into an imagination of hunger. Even now, many seem not to have forgiven her. But her shrill, penetrating vibrato later entered new wave music, as a haunting inflection, and her poetry of despair helped launch punk. At the same time, Ono’s sound, an extension of conceptualist body art, explored the same kind of psychologically evocative distortions as did the work of Meredith Monk.

Yoko’s participational urgency had always been difficult, as alienating as it was involving. In the ’70s it moved toward something like voodoo ritual, the liturgy of a witch or a shaman. By the time desire was reduced to anthems like “Cold Turkey,” 1970, Ono’s anger was choking on its own frustration, and her words were spat out in broken-down lurches. Erupting in a delirious wail, her voice, drenched in the cold electric sweat of Lennon’s guitar, shivered and clawed at an image of peace that was little more than a shredded pillow. In the swamp of drivel spreading out of the music that once was fab, her performances, as much as and apart from Lennon’s own articulations of his disillusionment, skewered the sickly harmonies of ’60s togetherness and hand-holding. They turned the songs of the great sing-along into the regressive howls of primal-scream therapy. (Far more gently, the kind of catharsis Ono enacted in her music was also urged in some of her earlier objects, such as Mend Piece, 1966, in which she presented an audience with a broken teacup, then directed them to glue it back together.)

Romping, storming, and even reclining across the media’s stage of magnified social consciousness, playing the martyr, the lover, the rabble-rouser, the wicked Oriental, the idiot savant, the shaman, expanding her whimsical improvisations in a marathon spectacle until they shattered, Ono left behind a potent legacy that has not been well tended. Her provocative, nonconformist career offers few handles to hold her by, and much of her work, notably the pop performance events that used mass-media communications as a global canvas for her political activism and for an evolving scenario of “life as art,” seems destined to fall into the cracks between museological and pop-cultural analysis. An inventive and influential pioneer of the genre of the conceptually obtuse press conference, she was the performer of such extreme gestures as The Bed In, 1969, in which an incensed and titillated public was invited to converse with her and with John as they lay in bed together; but the genesis of events like this has been all but entirely lost as the strategies of the ’60s Happenings have been put to sleep. Similarly neglected is Ono’s advertising art, such as her art-magazine ad for a fictitious “Is Real Gallery,” 1965, or the billboard project she undertook with Lennon in 1969. By the time Yoko and John became private citizens, when she ceased making art and other prankish endeavors, turning instead to the management of her ex-Beatle husband’s fortune (a task that some have suggested was its own conceptual life-as-art experiment), she had reached a point of being strung out on her own dead-serious jokes. Her work needed the involvement of an audience, but more and more, that audience suffocated or disrupted her best designs.

So much of our cultural debate, of whatever degree of sophistication, depends on polarized absolutes: we take positions from which to argue and to assess, and deviate from them only reluctantly. But when we try to pigeonhole Ono’s politics, her ideological references slip away. Under critical dissection, the anatomy of her work evaporates. Left empty-handed in its grasp of Ono, her public has compensated by substituting cruder, more manageable representations of her. It has eased its hostile discomfort toward the spiritually and philosophically charged void that her work reveals by assuring itself that there is literally nothing there. Perhaps no more at ease, perhaps just as stymied by the ambiguity, multiplicity, and radical transmutations of Ono’s esthetic intention, we now find ourselves returning to the objects and spirit of her chaotic development with an overview of its personal and social history: the show of her ’60s work that opens this month at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Yet the show’s mood is not one of proximity but of a carefully measured retreat. A still small yet growing interest in the art has brought it out of the dustbins of obscurity; but Ono, forever the enigmatic free spirit, has once again eluded the chains of majority opinion and media manipulation, and is not about to let herself be spoken for or articulated by the conventions of institutionalized wisdom.

Inactive as an artist since the mid ’70s, Ono now escorts her work back into the harsh glare of a media spotlight that desensitizes, overexposes, and consumes whatever litters its path. She has faced the scrutiny of an unsympathetic gallery before, particularly during the Plastic Ono years. Unedited, unrehearsed, and unprotected, acting intuitively, ignoring all the cues that the directors, politicos, and other assorted hip movers of the proverbial rolling stone were eager to provide, Ono repeatedly went out on a high wire without a net. So many times did she fail miserably, so many times did she make a fool of herself, that she brought a new vigor to the art of risk. The chances and challenges she took exposed a rawness in her; they were a letting of blood, an exorcism of private demons. As such, they had a profound influence upon the stylistic and emotional developments that followed in the late ’70s and early ’80s. When her performances were beautiful they were beautiful; but when they were ugly or didn’t work, when she outraged, bored, irritated, or simply eluded understanding, then her art became something more, something so off, so idiosyncratic, manic, and unlike all else, that it became impossible to forget.

The distance we now have from Ono’s art is not the usual historical filter that time provides. Her work has not revealed itself in time, but has hidden itself in time’s shadows. Wedged between us and the immediacy this art once had is a treacherous space filled with subjective layers of interference, with colliding incompatibilities of transformation. That even her simplest work has kept its tension, that age has made her art resonate deeper uncertainty, must be attributed to the fact that a primary force in her work has always been time. Her art has never taken it for granted or let it slip away. The ’60s pieces she will exhibit will not be the same as they were then, and they will be different in more than our perception: Ono has made changes in them that mark time in a way likely to earn her yet another round of unpopularity and general mistrust. Time, however, is a distance that she will not let us cross as if it weren’t there.

It is no easy passage of years across which Ono and her work must travel to reach the Whitney in 1989. Beyond the doubts engendered by her years of artistic inactivity are the chasms of philosophical opposition between her ’60s antiart and the museum’s trendy showrooms for the disposable history of a market-wise consensus. The esthetic politics of Fluxus advocated an immaterial art that resisted commodification, an ephemeral art that defied the weighty permanence of the institutional object, an inexpensive, playful, accessible art that rejected the wealth, seriousness, and elitism of the art world. How then can Yoko pull her modest, delicate remnants of the intangible out of their radical past and place them on the museum pedestal? She has opted to confront directly the schism between her old ideological base and the present concerns of high-finance art through an act so obscenely marketable that it actually offends the vulgar hypocrisy of commercial discretion by its leap into the insensitivities of moneyed taste: she has destroyed the delicacy and poetry of her ’60s work by casting it in bronze. The more you hate the gesture, the less you can deny that it is so like her. The art world has finally thrown a reception in her honor, and she is giving it art more clumsy, more unflatteringly rich-looking, and more embalmed than any of the sometimes unappetizing social circles to which it aspires.

These works are so annoying, so inane, and so disappointing that they’re everything I love about her art. When I asked Ono about them she told me that a friend of hers had once suggested she do a bronze cast of her all-white chess set (Play It By Trust, 1966). That misunderstanding of her art made her so furious that she cried—which made her realize how powerful an idea it was. She also told me about a visit she made to Leningrad in 1987, and how on the walls of a palace there she saw photographs of the original rooms beside photographs of them in ruins after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, so that the ornate spaces she was walking through were completely new versions of the past. She said that she had had to come to terms artistically with the present, said she didn’t want to be an old hippie, to cling to a vanished history. Then she talked about commodities, about the ’80s being a new Bronze Age.

For a while, she made me wish she were still angry, but the more she spoke, the more Fluxus/Zen her remakes began to seem. I began to wonder whether what her work had undergone was just another transformation within the eternal, whether she’d chosen her new medium not to appropriate a monumental status but to reflect, as always, a passing moment, now bronze. And that wondering was OK. As long as we leave room for doubt, we leave ourselves the space to move in Ono’s art. It’s when we try to figure her out that we’re back to the same old misunderstandings. As she explained her art, I had to wonder who’s the bigger fool—the one who takes her rap at face value or the one who cannot fathom or believe her sincerity.

Ono’s art has always been there to heal her when the world has been generous with its hate. So when she said that her castings were helping her to petrify her work, freeing her up to start fresh, I was glad that I’d been working in this bronze tomb, so that when Yoko transforms herself again, maybe I’ll be carrying less baggage, and it’ll be easier to catch up with her.

Carlo McCormick lives in New York and writes regularly for Artforum. He is associate editor of The Paper.

“Yoko Ono” can be seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from February 8 until April 16, 1989.