Jottings from a pop culture junkie

Yoko Ono’s work from 1960-1971 on view at the Museum of Modern Art in NY through September 7th is as avant garde today as it was then. What has changed is that her explanations of why the works were created and what they mean are no longer laughable but the reflections of a quite serious artist who was far ahead of the mainstream culture’s ability to fathom her gifts when the works were first presented.

It’s hard to remember that Ono truly was recognized within avant garde circles in the late 1950s and early 1960s — before she met John Lennon, before her (to many of us absurd) reputation as “the dragon lady who broke up The Beatles” took top billing over her art.

I was very young in the early- and mid-’60s but I remember reading about some of the works displayed at MOMA at the time, and the dismissive attitude. Was Ono naïve? Innocent? Was it all merely titillation? “What makes this art?” was often the response, at least in this country.

• A film of a fly on a naked body.

• A “half a room” (the other half, at Lennon’s suggestion, put in bottles).

• An audience invited to cut the clothes she was wearing at Carnegie Recital Hall and keep pieces of the fabric.

• The “bed-in for peace” staged after she married Lennon.

• And, given generous space in the exhibition here, “Grapefruit,” a series of instructions to other artists, typed on postcards, for creating new works — from counting all the words in a book instead of reading them to taping the sound of snow falling and using slices of the tape for wrapping gifts.

The creativity is astonishing. But most striking: Ono’s willful demands that an audience interact with her work in order to complete it. Sometimes the demands are playful, sometimes serious, most often a mix of both, as in the bag people are invited to get into, take off their clothes, put their clothes back on, and come out, or the film of people’s behinds. Ono thinks outside the box — but sometimes literally inside boxes, such as the windows one opens at MOMA to reveal a series of “smile boxes.” I know none of this is to every taste, but I find it hard to imagine anyone not responding to at least some of these works in wonder, let alone admiration for the continuity within the approaches she takes to her art.

The references to other artists with whom Ono worked, shared stages (a whole section of the show is devoted to her own Chambers Street studio loft, which she opened to performances and installations by others), and traveled in similar orbits begs for a venn diagram of her professional relationships. The names keep surfacing: LaMonte Young, in particular, but also John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg (cited as “Bob” here), Isamu Noguchi, Jackson Pollock.

Beyond this show, I have three very personal images of Yoko Ono:

  1. I lived on West 70th in the mid- to late 1970s, and Yoko and John were often out and about the neighborhood. But I particularly remember walking behind them as they strolled westward on West 72nd one evening, John’s arm around Yoko’s shoulder, her head nestled in his chest. No body guards. Just two lovers strolling and so completely as one.
  1. Being invited to the studio in the middle of the night by May Pang when John and Yoko recorded the single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with Phil Spector, and having the privilege of watching the three of them work through the vocals over the choir that had been recorded earlier that night — all while eating blintzes Dave Stein (another friend of May’s and mine) and I picked up for them at Ratner’s.
  1. I have a necktie based on John’s drawing of Yoko, Sean, and John and lots of “balloons” (which definitely resemble sperm) flying. This was several years after John had been murdered. I always used to wear it with a particular black checked shirt. One day I wore the shirt but not the tie and dining at Basta Pasta in Chelsea there was Yoko eating at the next table. I don’t know if I would have had the guts to show her the tie had I been wearing it, but thereafter, if I wore that shirt, I wore the tie, too. (The shirt is long gone, but I still wear the tie.)

Back to MOMA, as my wife Riva said when we left the exhibit, “That was as satisfying as a wonderful meal.”

Footnote: The quality of the Yoko Ono show, which crosses media boundaries to encompass art, sculpture, film, music, performance art, and more, further points up (as if any further proof were needed) how inane the Bjork show at MOMA is.

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