In 1971, Yoko Ono announced a solo exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art—a one-woman show that she mockingly titled Museum Of Modern (F)art. However, when visitors arrived at the Museum there was barely any evidence of Ono's work. Outside of the Museum's entrance, a man wore a sandwich board affirming that Ono had released a horde of flies and that the public was invited to follow their flight within the Museum and across the city. What's evident now is that Yoko Ono was way ahead of her time.
Fast forward over 40 years later and the Museum of Modern Art proudly announces 82-year-old Yoko Ono's One Woman Show, an exhibition whose title is inspired by that of her original unauthorized exhibit at the museum. The show brings together approximately 125 of her early objects, works on paper, installations, performances, audio recordings, and films, alongside rarely seen archival materials. This is the first exhibition at MoMA dedicated exclusively to the artist’s work. Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971 is organized by Christophe Cherix, The Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints; and Klaus Biesenbach, Chief Curator at Large, MoMA, and Director, MoMA PS1; with Francesca Wilmott, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints.
I had the opportunity to preview the exhibition and attend an informative press conference surrounding it before it's official opening. As someone who honestly did not pay much attention to Ono's work before or during her marriage to John Lennon, I have to say I was in great surprise of her artistic capabilities and the ways in which her mind functions to develop works through a variety of mediums and creative pursuits. Walking through the exhibition, which is curated in chronological order, I felt somewhat proud of Ono. A woman who was brilliant and legendary in her own right, was clearly overshadowed by the art her famous husband produced, finally had the spotlight on her at age 82. This is not to say that Lennon did not have a strong influence in her work, because he did and vice versa, but Ono's creativity ultimately wasn't all related to her relationship with Lennon and this exhibition makes that more clear.
The first section of the exhibition focuses on Ono's Chamber Street Loft Series (December 1960- June 1961). At that time Ono had rented out a loft, located on the top floor of a building at 112 Chambers Street in Downtown Manhattan. Originally intended to be used as a studio, it also became a space to present new music and ideas, unlike any other venue in the area at the time. She transformed the dull aesthetic of the grey walled and low ceiling space by creating make-shift furniture out of discarded crates and borrowing a friend's baby grand piano. In those six months, Yoko Ono and composer, La Monte Young produced numerous events that featured artists, dancers, musicians, and composers. Several works combined music, performance, and visual art blurring the distinctions between the mediums, something Ono continued on to do throughout her artistic career. These events were successful in their reach. On most nights, there were as many as 200 guests, including famous figures in the art world such as Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim, Jasper Johns, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg. The rarely seen programs and archival photographs from the events at the Chambers Street Loft are on display in Yoko Ono's One Woman Show.
After the end of her Chambers Street Loft series and her first solo show at AG Gallery in Manhattan's Upper East Side (July 1961), Ono continued to extend her reach as an artist and her creativity in a variety of mediums and concepts. She flew back to Japan in 1962, where she produced a variety of interactive works now on display at her One Woman Show. Pieces include a poem rightfully titled, Touch Poem #5, which encourages viewers to touch a hairy book of Ono's poems.
In another gallery, performance facilitators are in the galleries during select hours to aid visitors in performing Ono's iconic Bag Piece (1964), which consists of visitors entering into a cloth bag, becoming completely enveloped. This work premiered for the first time in Kyoto in the summer of 1964, at the same concert in which she premiered Cut Piece. Also on view in the exhibition are photographs taken by George Maciunas of Ono's performance of Bag Piece in the Perpetual Fluxfest in new York in June 1965.
Assembled in the following gallery, which seems to be the focal point of the exhibit, are several works inspired by the sky, including To See the Sky (2015), a new work created by Ono specifically for the MoMA exhibition. The sky is a central and recurring subject in Ono's work. Her fascination with it dates back to her childhood memories of being displaced from Tokyo during World War II and finding safety in the countryside.
"That's when I fell in love with the sky," remembers Ono. "Even when everything was falling apart around me, the sky was always there for me...I can never give up on life as long as the sky is there."
Continuing through the exhibition, it's clear that as an artist, Ono's work relies heavily on viewer participation or imagination to complete her artworks. This becomes evident in pieces from her 1966 solo exhibition in at Indica Gallery in London, some of which are on display in the MoMA exhibition. Add Color Painting (1961/1966) and Painting to Hammer a Nail (1961/1966) require a viewer's intervention, whereas Apple (1966)(seen at the exhibition's entrance) comprises of a solitary fruit, devoid f the artist's hand beyond its placement on a Plexiglas pedestal affixed with a brass plaque. The night before the show opened, John Lennon stopped by the gallery. Moved by Ono and her artistic concepts, he was the first person to sign the exhibition guest book, including his middle name, Winston, and his home address. In the years that followed, Ono worked in close collaboration with Lennon, producing films, initiating global peace campaigns, and launching the Plastic Ono Band.
The Museum of Modern Art doesn't fail to mention the musical efforts of Ono. The exhibition includes an audio room dedicated to the music that Ono produced with the Plastic Ono Band. Around 1968, Ono decided to create a band "that would never exist...that didn't have a set number of members...that could accommodate anyone who wanted to play with it." The name of the band was inspired by a piece John Lennon created in response to Ono's idea - a small three-dimensional work composed primarily of transparent plastic objects. Although conceptually Plastic Ono Band had no members, in practice it had a flexible lineup. For a performance at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival in 1969, the band consisted of Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, and Alan White. The band continued releasing records through the mid-1970s. In 2009, Ono revived Plastic Ono Band with her son, Sean Lennon.
Overall the exhibition left me feeling quite a bit. I was immensely impressed by Yoko Ono's artistic capability and the concepts derived from it for works such as Touch Poem #5, Apple and Cut Piece. I loved her push on utilizing imagination, which as adults I think we often neglect, and her pursuit of so many different mediums such as film, writing, photography, music and sculpture. Along with the use of various mediums, I also appreciated Ono's ability to fuse them. She was for so many years, as this MoMA exhibition brings to light, a brilliant and often overlooked artist.
The exhibition is on view at the Museum of Modern Art from May 17–September 7, 2015. Don't miss it!