YES YOKO ONO, the first American retrospective of the work of pioneering artist Yoko Ono, will be on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from June 22 through September 8, 2002, in the exhibition’s only West Coast presentation. In her prolific 40-year career, Ono has embraced a wide range of media, defying traditional boundaries and creating new forms of artistic expression. The exhibition features approximately 150 works from the 1960s to the present, with a focus on her early period, and includes objects and installations; language works, such as instruction pieces and scores; film and video; music; and performance art. YES YOKO ONO was organized by Japan Society, New York, and curated by its gallery director, Alexandra Munroe, in consultation with Fluxus scholar Jon Hendricks. Overseeing the San Francisco presentation are Janet Bishop, SFMOMA curator of painting and sculpture, and Clara Kim, SFMOMA curatorial associate. The exhibition was awarded the 2000–2001 International Association of Art Critics/USA Award for Best Museum Show Originating in New York City.
YES YOKO ONO offers the first comprehensive reevaluation of Ono’s work, exploring her position within the postwar international avant-garde and her critical and influential role in originating forms of cutting-edge art, music, film and performance. The exhibition examines her early and central role in Fluxus, an avant-garde movement that developed in New York in the early 1960s; her important contributions to Conceptual art in New York, London and Tokyo; her concerts; experimental films; vocal recordings; public art, including works made with John Lennon; and recent works, including interactive installations and site-specific art. Avant-garde figures such as John Cage, George Maciunas, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Andy Warhol and Ornette Coleman collaborated with Ono, and their resulting works are also represented. Accompanying the exhibition is the catalogue YES YOKO ONO, the first major art publication surveying Ono’s artistic career, co-published by Japan Society and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. The catalogue features an essay by former SFMOMA director David A. Ross and includes a CD of new musical works by Yoko Ono.
Notes Janet Bishop, “Yoko Ono’s extraordinary body of work is distinguished by conceptual rigor, a very exacting aesthetic and sense of humor. She also has a particular ability to make forms that span genres from low to high, underground to pop. This presentation of her work has special resonance in San Francisco—a city that prides itself as a center of progressive thinking and the peace movement, both of which are central concerns within Ono’s work.”
The exhibition title, YES YOKO ONO, refers to the interactive installation known as Ceiling Painting, an important work shown at Ono’s historic 1966 Indica Gallery show in London. The viewer is invited to climb a white ladder, at the top of which a magnifying glass, attached by a chain, hangs from a frame on the ceiling. The viewer uses the reading glass to discover a block-letter “instruction” beneath the framed sheet of glass—it says “Y E S.” It was through this work that Ono met her future husband and longtime collaborator, John Lennon. (Note: Due to the fragile nature of its materials, the installation is no longer interactive.)
Born in Tokyo in 1933 into a prominent banking family, part of Japan’s social and intellectual elite, Ono received rigorous training in classical music, German lieder and Italian opera. She attended an exclusive school where her schoolmates included Japan’s present emperor, Akihito, and Yukio Mishima, the world-renowned novelist who committed ritual seppuku, or suicide by disembowelment, to protest Japan’s Westernization. Ono, raised partly in America, witnessed Japan’s devastation in World War II, and by the time she entered Gakushuin University in 1952 as its first female philosophy student, she was swept up by the intellectual climate of the postwar Japanese avant-garde. This movement was characterized by a spirit of rebellion against all orthodoxy, a yearning for individual self-expression, and a desire for spiritual freedom in a landscape reduced to absolute nothingness by the ravages of warfare.
Disillusioned with academic philosophy, Ono left Japan to join her family in New York. Attending Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, she soon gravitated to the vibrant art community of lower Manhattan. At the time, non-Western cultures, especially those of China and Japan, were inspiring new forms of artistic expression. Ono was welcomed as a representative of that Eastern sensibility that found beauty and art in everyday existence and chance events, and favored artistic expression and thought through interactive participation.
A loose association of these artists was eventually formed under the name of Fluxus. The group experimented with mixing poetry, music and the visual arts through a wide spectrum of activities including concerts and exhibitions. As a member of Fluxus, Ono presented work and launched a career that would take her back to Japan, where she became an active member of the Tokyo avant-garde, back to New York, and then to London, where the 1966 Indica Gallery show took place.
In the decades since that seminal show, Ono has continued to expand the boundaries of her art in diverse media. After her marriage to John Lennon in l969, she collaborated with him on a number of projects in music, creating a bridge between avant-garde and rock in releases such as Unfinished Music for Two Virgins (1968), Wedding Album (1969) and Double Fantasy (1980). Their happenings, Bed-Ins for Peace and the billboard campaign, War Is Over! If You Want It, were landmark projects created to promote world peace, a continuing theme in their work together.
During the 1980s, influenced by the rampant materialism of the decade, Ono revisited some of her 1960s objects, transforming works that were originally light and transparent into bronze, symbolizing a shift from what she calls “the sixties sky” to the new “age of commodity and solidity.” In the 1990s Ono’s prolific output of interactive installations, site-specific works, Internet projects, concerts and recordings were widely represented in numerous venues across Europe, America, Japan and Australia.
YES YOKO ONO is divided into five chronological and thematic sections:
GRAPEFRUIT: The Early Instructions
This opening section includes conceptual paintings, works on paper and printed matter produced from roughly 1960 through the publication of Ono’s celebrated 1964 anthology, Grapefruit. Ono’s early work with the Fluxus movement in New York is featured, as well as her interaction with the Tokyo avant-garde during her residence there from 1962 to 1964. Central to this section is the series Instructions for Painting, a provocative set of written directions for “paintings to be constructed in your head.” The works in the series are among the first examples of pure language standing in for the material of art. Using ephemera, humor and viewer participation, this series was crucial in the development of Ono’s art and significant in establishing the Fluxus and Conceptual art movements internationally.
HALF-A-WIND: Early Objects
Ono’s early objects are assembled here as a group. They include works made of “found” materials—chairs, boxes— often juxtaposed with a linguistic element in a way that combines wit, whimsy and paradox. This section also features all the remaining elements of Ono’s Half-a-Room installation from her Half-a-Wind show at London’s Lisson Gallery in 1967. Documentary photographs and publications trace Ono’s subversive relationship with the official art establishment and its notions of art as commodity.
FLY: Events, Performances & Films
Enlarged documentary photographs and a video display are used to present images of Ono’s early concert and performance work from 1961, when she presented “Of a Grapefruit in the World of Park” at Carnegie Recital Hall with performers including David Tudor, Richard Maxfield and Yvonne Rainer. Original sound recordings present Ono’s extraordinary use of vocal techniques—what Lennon called her 16-track voice—acclaimed by such diverse musicians as Ornette Coleman, David Bowie, Cindy Lauper and the B52s. This section also features continuous projections of Ono’s 1966–1970 experimental films, including Film No. 4 (Bottoms), Film No. 5 (Smile) and Fly.
WAR IS OVER!: The Peace Movement & Other Collaborations with John Lennon
Ono’s belief in the ability of the mind to alter reality through a change in perception translated into a form of antiwar activism entailing organized acts of “wishing.” During the height of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, much of her work with John Lennon used media to effect mass mind power towards the visualization of world peace. This section includes documentary photographs and films of Ono and Lennon’s numerous happenings and media campaigns that became legendary events in the international peace movement.
PLAY IT BY TRUST: Recent Work
In 1988 Ono began a series in which she cast some of her 1960s objects in bronze. The transformation of works originally light transparent and ephemeral into solid bronze reflects a fundamental shift in her cultural sensibilities, from the ethereal to the material. This section includes some early works juxtaposed with the later bronzes. It also includes Cleaning Piece and Wish Tree, both interactive installations that invite audience participation.
YES YOKO ONO is organized by Japan Society, New York. The exhibition is made possible in part by major support from NTT DoCoMo, Inc. Assistance from Apple Computer, Inc.; EMI Recorded Music, EMI Records Ltd. and Capitol Records, Inc.; EMI Music Publishing; and Signatures Network, Inc. is gratefully acknowledged. Generous support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation; The David Geffen Foundation; and Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg, has also made this exhibition possible. The tour of YES YOKO ONO is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC, a federal agency.
SFMOMA’s presentation is sponsored by Banana Republic. Additional sponsors: , SF Gate and KFOG Radio. Hotel sponsor: The W San Francisco.