Don’t get me wrong; he was great. Really, really great. One of the best. But she didn’t need him. Yoko Ono was a respected, successful artist long before she met John Lennon. Of course, when they got together, their whole lives became an artistic collaboration, a two-person performance piece on the global stage. It was a challenge to which, against almost unbelievable adversity, she admirably rose. Like almost everyone, I only became aware of her through her marriage. Unlike a lot of people, I never thought that she was a Dragon Lady, a Svengali, a charlatan, an evil witch – that was racist, sexist, vitriolic character assassination, or that she broke up the Beatles – they didn’t need any help with that. I was a young teenager when I started learning about her work, and it was unlike anything I’d encountered prior. She was my introduction to conceptual art before I even knew the term. Her all-white chess set turned not only what I knew about art, but also the way I thought about it, upside-down.
In July 2002, I saw Yes, a traveling retrospective of Ono’s work which came to the SFMOMA. Artistically, she casts as wide a net as anyone in the twentieth century or beyond; her oeuvre includes written instructions, paintings, objects, installations, performances/events, advertising media, films, music – all of which were represented in the exhibition. About twenty-five years after first reading about and seeing photos of them, I finally got to experience White Chess Set and Eternal Time, another piece which jolted my perception when I was thirteen or fourteen. It consists of a clock with neither an hour nor a minute hand, but a stethoscope with which to listen to the continuous beat of a second hand. The kinds of questions these koan-like objects raise – How is chess played when one can’t distinguish between one’s own men and those of the opponent? and What does a clock measure if it doesn’t tell the time? – are at the heart of much of Ono’s work. She invites a questioning of the status quo, a collective meditation on the concepts of possibility, of visualization, of transformation.
Born in Japan and raised both there and in the United States, Ono drew inspiration from Eastern tradition and brought it to the Buddhism-enamoured Western avant-garde. Her poetic sensibility gives her pieces a beauty not generally associated with conceptual art, which she more or less invented with her Instruction Paintings, a series of “imaginary pieces” to be constructed in the reader’s mind:
PAINTING FOR THE WIND Cut a hole in a bag filled with seeds of any kind and place the bag where there is wind. 1961 Summer
Ono’s work has always embodied an activist spirit, a (N)utopian optimism which I find admirable and inspirational, if not personally attainable; it has no trace of the irony or cynicism present in much contemporary art. The hopeful nature which has imbued her work since the early 1960s, although not unusual in the counterculture of that decade, is now anomalous to the point of being revolutionary. Like Robert Rauschenberg and Patti Smith, two other of my artistic icons, Ono has the belief that art can be a moral force for good and has the capability to instigate real and positive change in both individual and wide-ranging ways. Don’t you know that you can count me in.
“A dream you dream alone is only a dream – a dream you dream together is reality.” – Yoko Ono
“Yoko’s work is very dangerous. If one is not careful it could get one thinking and may cause one to form an opinion. A subversive notion if there ever was one.” – David Bowie