New York

Yoko Ono

Japan Society

Yoko Ono entered mainstream consciousness in the late ’60s and was quickly branded an interloper. Never mind that by the time she met John Lennon in 1966 (at the opening of her solo show at the India Gallery in London), she had already caught the attention of John Cage and Ornette Coleman with her music; performed at Fluxus concerts and loft events organized with La Monte Young; and created a significant body of sculpture, mail art, and performance works, some of which had been staged at Carnegie Hall. For masses of pop-music fans mourning the demise of the Beatles, Ono was simply a troublemaker, “that woman” who ultimately broke up the Fab Four.

In hindsight, of course, it was the other way around: The Beatles ably wrecked Ono’s art career. Ono continued to make art and music after hooking up with Lennon (whom she married in 1969), but it is as if she traded in her art-world credibility for celebrity. Despite her struggle to be taken seriously as a female Conceptualist (and an Asian woman artist at that), Ono’s subsequent identity was tied to Lennon’s; she was a rock wife, not an artist. And this is reflected in the fact that, unbelievably, after a forty-year career, this is Ono’s first large-scale American retrospective.

Comprising more than 150 works, “YES Yoko Ono” tracks Ono’s career from early paintings, printed matter, and “instruction works” to events, performances, and films to collaborations with Lennon and recent works. The show’s title comes from Ceiling Painting (YES Painting), 1966, the piece that first intrigued Lennon; it features a ladder that viewers climb and a magnifying glass that reveals the tiny word “YES” inscribed on a canvas installed on the ceiling.

But the most interesting work here isn’t object-based. Films like No. 4 (Bottoms), 1966, in which the camera follows with Warhol-esque scrutiny the anonymous, nude buttocks of New York artists, and Fly, 1970, with its buzzing sound track and tiny creatures lost in the field of a woman’s body, demonstrate Ono’s Conceptualist-as-absurdist sensibility. Perhaps the most important inclusion is a film documenting Ono’s best-known action work, Cut Piece, 1964, which was performed in Japan, London, and New York. In the version shown here, filmed by the Maysles brothers at Carnegie Hall in 1965, Ono sits on the stage, staring ahead as people approach one by one, pick up the pair of silver scissors next to her, and cut off her clothing, piece by piece. It’s really quite gruesome—more like a rape than an art performance. As the work nears its end, Ono sits on stage, barely clad. A young man playfully snips her bra straps; she clasps her hands to her breasts, biting her lip, and the film is over.

Installed at the end of the performance and film section of the show, Cut Piece served as a kind of grand finale to the fertile portion of Ono’s art career. In the ’70s she was busy with other things—making music, riding the John-and-Yoko roller coaster, battling for custody of her daughter (with second husband Anthony Cox), fighting deportation, raising a son, and, finally, coping with Lennon’s December 1980 murder. But turning a corner into the last section of the show, one saw an Ono reengaged with art. The last works in the show were diminutive drawings: abstractions in ink on paper from 1995-99. Compared with the bold statements of her early oeuvre, this series seems quiet and safe. But it served, perhaps, as a fitting coda, a retreat for an artist whose own incredible life for many years overwhelmed her art.

Martha Schwendener