New York

Yoko Ono

André Emmerich/Deitch Projects

This summer Macintosh got around to John and Yoko in its “Think Different” campaign, choosing a classic image from the “Bed-In for Peace” honeymoon back in 1969. Ghandi, Buzz Aldren, Einstein, and Ali preceded the peaceniks on billboards and in magazines, but it always seemed to be in the cards that the two would join this genius gang sooner than later.

John for one seems overqualified to represent a computer company casting itself as übercreative. Where his life’s work was concerned, notorious was never in question and innovation was in constant overdrive. “Right now the Beatles are more popular than Jesus Christ.” That’s pure John Lennon. But then there’s Yoko. Her work has never exactly suffered from hubris. The parched literalism underpinning her earliest efforts found reception within the yawning indulgence that was the Fluxus movement, the sputtering bulb in the otherwise dazzling marquee that blinks: THE ART OF THE SIXTIES. She joined George Maciunas in a few Fluxus concerts after capturing his attention with works like her 1961 Smoke Painting—in which viewers were invited to burn a canvas with cigarettes until it was reduced to soot.

After Beatles fans swamped Yoko’s opening at the Everson Museum in 1971, the couple seemed to retreat from the art world. Yoko gathered herself under the mantle of John’s rock ‘n’ roll legend and labored to jump-start a cross-disciplinary identity other artistic celebrities of greater capacities (William S. Burroughs, Julian Schnabel) have tried to establish but failed. Everything between John and Yoko—like the early forays in “sound art”—was said to have been collaborative. “We haven’t been apart for more than one hour in two years,” John once observed. “Everything we do is together, and that’s what gives us our strength.” But of course collaborations are never exactly as advertised.

Yoko has recently provided us with simultaneous exhibitions at the André Emmerich Gallery and Deitch Projects. “En Trance,” at Emmerich, was an assembly of work, much of it from the mid-’60s, including the 1966 Ceiling Painting (Yes), which requires the viewer to climb a ladder in order to see through a magnifying glass that the word “Yes” has been written on the canvas. Supposedly this prophetic and celebrated example was the first John saw by his bride to be. Without John, the question of how well Yoko endures as a solo artist depends on whether it is possible to see her as a stand-alone, free of her self-imposed artistic dependency. As “En Trance” and the Macintosh campaign swiftly impart, it is difficult to get to Yoko without John getting into the picture—not because she fails as an unregimented individual but because from every appearance she and he did not conceive of their practice as anything other than a single voice.

In her Deitch installation, Ex It, 1997–98, Yoko neatly arranged 100 rough and inelegant wood coffins of the variety Americans would associate with Europe, the sort with the little window that permits one last glimpse of a life given way to death before shoveled dirt falls down from above. Young and blossoming fruit trees were placed in each coffin so that they grow up and through the petite window. A sound track of chirping birds wafted through the starkly spotlighted room. From time to time one of the bantam leaves expired and drifted down to the dank floor.

Ex It is life as a continuation,” Yoko wrote in the artist’s statement. “It is one of my latest works to date.” Well, she certainly missed nothing in her description. The entire installation resonated with the simplex spirit of her work prior to John’s death. I think of the literalist strain found in Smoke Painting or in Cut Piece, 1964, in which audience members were invited to scissor off her clothes as she sat passive beneath blazing lights. With Ex It Yoko has made “resurrection” categorical: Death begets New Life brimming with the promise of Renewal, or, as she prefers, Continuation.

Thinking about Ex It brings to mind Yoko’s cover photograph for her 1981 album Season of Glass. It is a ghastly image of despair in the aftermath of John’s assassination that carries away as much as it can from the moralizing ethos of a seventeenth-century Dutch still life. Against a backdrop of Central Park, a view from the couple’s home in the Dakota, John’s bloodstained spectacles sit next to a glass of water that is unmistakably half-empty. Of course, it would be difficult to miss that this is Yoko’s point-blank portrait of the couple. John is present through the grisly relic of his cold-blooded murder; she is now half-diminished and colorless. But even in death, they remain inseparable, as John becomes Yoko’s creative ghost-limb. On the back of the album, a flowering geranium has replaced John’s spectacles, and the water glass appears filled but still achromatic. The literalism that makes death so vivid in the photographs is unmistakably reiterated in Ex It.

Yoko’s art, her music and poetry, sits right on the surface. Indeed, her work has proved to be nothing if not uncomplicated. Where Ex It is concerned, her despair over John and her faith recuperated out of tragedy appear recklessly self-conscious. While touching as autobiography, this sort of thing is perhaps less valuable when we measure its reach into contemporary culture. Where there is sympathy for this kind of work, we find that it has been allowed to pass as an expression of “sincerity and insight” magnified by the lore associated with cult figures like John Lennon. Imagine that Jackie had chosen to become an artist rather than a book editor and the extreme attention her work would have occasioned.

Taken side by side, “En Trance” and Ex It stem from the life story of a woman who was more than married to a cultural icon. To be sure, the indelible link between John and Yoko advances her art considerably. But nevertheless her work is naive. And it is as naive as it is guileless, and as guileless as it is sentimental about an earlier and simpler time, a time when a “Bed-In” could mean something. “The idealism of the Sixties still exists, the spirit is still with us,” Yoko has recently said. Whatever fascination circulates around her work must grow largely from a fetish for the nostalgia of John and Yoko—a way of honoring the dead, and sustaining their collaboration through our only mortal link to John.

Ronald Jones is an artist represented in New York by Metro Pictures and Sonnabend Gallery.