In October 2000, right around what would have been John Lennon’s 60th birthday, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened one of its most extensive exhibits ever, in honor of Lennon’s life and (mostly non-Beatles) work. Amidst the expected artifacts — handwritten lyrics, grammar-school report cards, the white baby grand from the “Imagine” video — sat one that was horrifying: a bag from New York’s St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital containing the clothes Lennon was wearing on the night Mark David Chapman shot him outside the Dakota. Coupled with Lennon’s glasses, caked in 20-year-old blood, this corner of the exhibit was intended as an emotional climax. Even at 13 years old, the weight of these artifacts impressed upon me a jaded anger: How could someone have violently ripped Lennon from this world when all he wanted was to make it a peaceful place?
Nearby, as what I now suppose was meant to be a soothing salve, stood one of two peace-themed works that Yoko Ono contributed to the exhibit. Telephone Peace was simply a white rotary phone mounted on a wall. Museum staff said she’d call from time to time, usually in the afternoons. Suddenly I was gripped with anxiety: If she called, how could I choose just one thing to ask her about John? But in the 14 years since I visited the exhibit, I’ve returned to Telephone Peace from time to time, with each reconsideration marked by a different reaction. Even in the context of a Lennon-centric celebration, I’ve come to think that it would have been wrong to ask this prolific, forward-thinking artist about her husband, even if she never seems offended by these kinds of queries. To be Yoko requires thick skin.
People have long wondered what John Lennon would have been like had he never met Yoko Ono, but no one ever asks what her art career would have looked like had she not married him and consigned herself to being remembered as the woman who broke up The Beatles. By the looks of Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, her first (official) exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that opened this week, her career in performance and conceptual art would have remained fascinating and, above all, influential. But the controversy that accompanied her relationship with one of the most famous men in the world, I would argue, worked against her art’s participatory call to action.
Though some admirers outside the downtown avant-garde scene might not have found Ono without her egalitarian partnership with Lennon, her living art encourages its participants not to focus on what the work says about its creator; rather, they’re supposed to discover what it teaches them about themselves. Ono’s fame makes this task even more different than it naturally is. And like any artist whose fame is laced with controversy, anyone who engages with her work comes into it with a strong opinion of its creator. But unlike Marina Abramović, who is both loved and loathed for performance art not terribly dissimilar to Ono’s, her work — with the exception of her misunderstood screams on Plastic Ono Band records — is not what makes Ono a divisive figure. Even her perceived role in The Beatles’ break-up does not encompass the full scope of what makes Ono a divisive figure.
Together, John and Yoko pulled off ridiculous stunts of art and activism. They posed nude on the cover of Two Virgins and released the experimental record just three days after the finalization of John’s divorce from his first wife, Cynthia. They turned their 1969 honeymoon into multiple Bed-Ins for Peace and held court for weeks, during which time they were met with reactions that ranged from mild skepticism to cartoonist Al Capp’s racist and misogynistic belligerence (footage of which appears in the MoMA exhibit). Above all, however, Ono was a Japanese immigrant who lived through the atrocities of one American war (WWII) and asked the country to end another. Certainly, her encouragement of peace wasn’t out of step with popular musicians of the era, but her mere existence was subversive.
All this is really a shame when you consider that Ono’s art is intended for everyone. The premise that everyday experiences constitute art is central to her philosophy. She’s associated with the neo-Dada Fluxus movement, whose founder George Maciunas described it in a manifesto as adhering to the belief “that anything can substitute [for] art and anyone can do it.” In one of her most inspired works, Morning Piece, Ono affixed future dates and times to shards of glass, which she sold on roofs and in parks throughout Tokyo in 1964. All she promised was that you could see the morning sky through them. Whatever else people saw through the glass was their business. In what is arguably her most famous work, 1964-65’s Cut Piece, Ono perched on stage in her best suit, placed a pair of scissors in front of her, and invited audiences to do whatever they pleased to her. The purpose laid in what people cut away from Ono, and how the audience perceived this groupthink.
As New York Magazine’s Lindsay Zoladz recently suggested in her brilliant essay on the Yoko Myth, millennials may be the first generation to embrace Ono without the requisite stigmatization. But with all due respect to Ono’s work and its proto-crowdsourcing qualities, I’m not convinced that the MoMA exhibition of her early works is equipped to be the catalyst for such a reconsideration. How does a formal institution present the work of an artist who so often asks her audience to take the completion of each piece into their own hands? In the context of a traditional exhibit intended for thousands of viewers over the course of four months, it would be nearly impossible.
MoMA’s attempts at audience participation felt like a tepid afterthought, not to mention a bit awkward in a setting filled with what felt like more security then usual. There is a recreation of Ono’s white chess set that you can play at certain times of day. A small room with instructions painted on the wall, encouraging strangers to “touch each other,” only led to visitors looking around awkwardly and then leaving. A take on Bag Piece — a work Ono first performed in 1964 by instructing two people to get inside the bag, remove their clothes, then get dressed again before coming out of the bag — is set up in one corner of the gallery; participants are free to do what they choose within the provided bag. Maybe the discomfort of undressing under a thin layer of black cloth while MoMA security guards stand mere feet away is the intended new twist in this incarnation of Bag Piece, but considering that the work was so challenging — even shocking — at the time of its initial performance, I was underwhelmed by MoMA’s reimagining. (It’s not as flawed in execution as the museum’s Bjork exhibit, but hey, topping that disaster would be a feat in itself.)
Instead of seeing Yoko Ono’s MoMA exhibition as the culmination of your reconsideration of this fascinating artist, see it as a jumping-off point — a brief aggregation of her seminal work and a decent way to spend a couple of hours. Then go out and buy Ono’s 1964 “book of instruction and drawings,” Grapefruit, and get weird with strangers outside the walls of the hallowed institution that Ono herself once mocked.