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Spirit of YES: The Art and Life of Yoko Ono

by Alexandra_Munroe on May 11, 2000

 Originally published in YES YOKO ONO. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

Yoko Ono. What comes to mind?

Extremes of opinion have shaped the public’s idea of Yoko Ono since she first emerged in the New York art world in the early 1960s. While her work has often confounded critics, her faith in the power of art to open and uplift the mind has touched millions. As an artist, poet, and composer working alternatively at the fringe and mainstream of culture, she has irked those who resist boundary-crossing. Yet she emerges, over and over, as a forerunner of new art forms that mix and expand different media. Her work as an antiwar activist, like the global ads for peace that she orchestrated with her husband, John Lennon, have offered a kind of public instruction that carries a profoundly positive and transformative message: Imagine.

For decades, people around the world have celebrated her meaning while critics looked on, perplexed.

Why, one wonders—despite recent attempts that focus on her contribution to Fluxus—has the canon of postwar modernism been slow to accept Yoko Ono’s art? Originally, the difficulty of categorizing her work, the ambiguities of her insider/outsider status to contemporary art movements such as Conceptualism, and the unprecedented diversity of her artistic worlds all presented obstacles. As a Japanese woman artist emerging at a time when neither Asians nor women had much place in modernism’s history, Ono had little framework for sustained critical support. And what potential she had to establish her standing was all but destroyed by the torrent of popular press that attended her life with “Beatle John.” Although she was always admired as an “artist’s artist,” few critics have traced her travels among the underground art worlds of New York, Tokyo, and London to recognize the importance of what she had to transmit, and fewer still fathomed the complexity of Ono’s cultural lineage that shaped her seemingly cryptic ideas of art.

Even in the 1990s, as Ono became more and more active in the international exhibition arena, her sheer range of artistic expression and her poetic and intellectual style continued to puzzle the art establishment. The terminology to describe Ono’s mind­transformative art had yet to be found or agreed upon; and the cataloguing, collecting, or display of her mostly ephemeral works remained a challenge most curators found daunting. The modern museum system, wherein artists are categorized by traditional media (e.g. painting) and where performance art, film, and music are too often separated from museum studies altogether, did not apply to Ono’s work—which is by nature beyond and between genres, open, unorthodox, and inventive rather than fixed in any conventional sense. At a time when the art world was ensnared in the politics of multiculturalism and its polemics of difference, Ono’s aspirations for one world, one mind seemed fey and sentimental, too wishful for the divisive world that artists so sensationalized at the end of the millennium.

This is what Lennon meant when he remarked that Yoko was the world’s “most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.”[1]

YES refers to the title of a 1966 work by Yoko Ono (fig. 1.1; no. 7), shown at Indica Gallery, London. Like so much of her art, it is instructional and like so many of her instructions, it offers affirmation. John Lennon got it, on his first meeting with Yoko: when he climbed the ladder to peer at the framed paper on the ceiling, he encountered the tiny word YES. “So it was positive. I felt relieved.”[2]

Ono’s art is directed at transformation, a faith in the mind’s power to realize good through the act of visualization. She uses language—minimal, epigrammatic, poetic—to instruct us to dream, to wish, to imagine, to think YES. Linguistic devices like paradox, antisense, and humor provoke mystery, and mystery in turn provokes us to question the nature of ourselves and the world. Hers is a social art that relies on participants-not just to be appreciated in the abstract, but to be actually made real, completed. In her 1967 work Glass Keys to Open the Skies Ono transforms ordinary keys into a Shinto-like votive object and leaves the mind a box waiting to be unlocked (no. 23). On a different scale, the text of her and Lennon’s 1969 billboard campaign, “War Is Over! / If You Want It,” suggests that the possibility to overcome belligerance lies in our own imagination (no. 39). For Ono, the purpose of art is to push the mind to become the ultimate “fabricator of truth.”[3] These aspects of her art and thought—ephemerality, metaphysics, interactive participation—have guided her prolific production in a range of media over four decades.

Yoko Ono’s strategies reflect the discourse on art and life that has dominated much of twentieth-century avant-garde culture. To break down the boundaries between high art and everyday life has been the object of radical art and thought since Marcel Duchamp took an ordinary porcelain urinal and exhibited it as a Readymade sculpture entitled Fountain in 1917. But unlike so many artists who have framed the discourse in terms of the dichotomy of art and life, who aim to take art off its pedestal to look and behave like everyday things or events, Yoko has maintained that art and life are neither opposing nor synonymous. Her work is not about simulating life, as in many of Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and Chris Burden’s performances. Rather, she aims to assimilate the consciousness of art into the fabric of ordinary living through operations she calls “rituals . . . to rationalize the irrationality in us, humans.”[4]

The origins of Yoko Ono’s art are linked to Fluxus, an avant-garde movement that developed in lower Manhattan during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Ono was central to its early history and remained closely associated with its community of artists and revolutionary aesthetics. The conditions of Fluxus were twofold: everyday existence is the site of art; and dynamic intermedia, rather than static form, is art’s truest medium.[5] Arising from a Duchampian Dadaism, Fluxus opposed the institutionalization and commodification of art, advocating an alternative state of improvisation that is “non-art, anti-art, nature, reality.”[6] The wide-ranging impact of John Cage’s ideas on contemporary aesthetics—that art and the means for its creation lie all around us—further promoted an open environment where borders between music, poetry, performance, and the visual arts no longer existed. To Fluxus founder George Maciunas, rainfall, a flight of a butterfly, and the babble of a crowd are manifestations of “concrete” life that ultimately surpass the “artificial world of abstraction” found in the fine arts.[7] Ono’s instructions for music, paintings, events, objects, and film—many of which were compiled in her influential 1964-71 anthology, Grapefruit—established the primacy of concept, language, and participation that was central to Fluxus as well as to Conceptual Art.

Through Maciunas, who adored Yoko, her Eastern sensibility helped shaped such Flux-ideas as minimalism, poetics, and the investigation of the simple and habitual acts of everyday life and their inherent relation to art. Indeed, Ono’s experiential and intuitive art played a key role in the transmission of Eastern aesthetics to an international avant-garde trained in postwar existential thought. From Düsseldorf to New York, artists of all media looked to the East—Japan especially—for an alternative structure and practice of existence that art could make transparent. Building on a complex intellectual history with roots in such modern thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, and Suzuki Daisetz Teitarō (D. T. Suzuki), the postwar generation repudiated the vestiges of modern Western positivism and embraced an ontology lovingly informed by Daoism and Zen. The reformulation of those philosophical and deeply cultural traditions is one of the greatest—and least examined—forces of modern art. Cage’s influence is legendary, but he was by no means the sole medium or catalyst. Yoko Ono, whose work extends from Buddhist thought as well as from haiku and Noh poetics—with their emphasis on minimalist form and suggestive (conceptual) imagery—was also a powerful embodiment of those non­Western aesthetics that ultimately transformed the course of contemporary art. Her seminal texts “On Insound” and “On Instructure,” which accompanied her 1964 exhibition and concert in Kyoto, reveal her approach to both music and object-making as a practice, an unfinished process of concept transmission. Although her reliance on text is partly Fluxus, her reliance on the spiritual imagination of the reader is wholly Ono (fig. 1.2).

So futuristic so long ago, Yoko Ono has consistently appeared at the cutting edge of historic avant-garde movements. But she ultimately occupies an independent, even aristocratic, status that resists group identification. Although she was a progenitor and abiding member of Fluxus, classification within it alone is too hermetic and limiting: in the end, Ono was more concerned with high poetry and ritual than with Maciunas’s love of “low gags and Vaudeville.” Although she was the first to make concept literally the material of art with her exhibition of Instructions for Paintings in Tokyo in 1962—years ahead of those whose names would become associated with Conceptual Art, like Lawrence Weiner or Joseph Kosuth—she cannot be strictly categorized as a Conceptual artist. Unlike theirs, Ono’s conceptualism is not engaged in a political critique of the institutions of art and their underlying structures of power and ideology. Indeed hers is not a critique at all, but rather an invitation to a magical unlocking of the mind. While the Conceptualists embrace an aesthetics of negation (critique) to arrive at art’s radical dematerialization, Ono arrives at the same intangible, idea-based form of art by embracing an experience of affirmation (imagination). That she fabricated objects of nonart materials, such as Plexiglas, in a reductive form allows us to discuss her work in terms of Minimalist artists like Donald Judd or Robert Morris. But as her objects are imbued with more spirit than phenomenology, more poetry than monumentality, she defies the Minimalist title. Several of her film scripts, such as Rape (no. 45), and song lyrics, such as “Sisters O Sisters,” offer a bold commentary on women that link her work to feminism. Yet her calls for women to “build a new world” are more about mental freedom than critical theory, leaving her status as a feminist artist ambiguous for the hard-liners. And finally, although she has been the object of popular culture since her association with John Lennon, popular culture has never been the object of her art. Even her events that reached mass audiences, such as Bed-In for Peace or the War Is Over! billboard campaigns, were more about using the media as a tool of social transformation than critiquing the media as a tool of commodity culture—what preoccupied Pop artists like Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. We can remain baffled, or we can try to fashion new art and cultural histories that navigate between fringe and rock, avant-gardism and celebrity, Japan and globalism, feminism and heroics.

Yoko Ono has created a world of objects and installations, films and music, instructions and texts, events and performances that continue to engage us on a remarkable level of metaphysical intelligence, formal innovation, and poetic beauty. She offers bits of time, perceptions, epiphanies that provoke an encounter with life’s wit and wonder and make us, hopefully, a little sager and more humane. Guided by the suggestion of her 1966 instruction YES, this project examines the enduring creative force that has generated so legendary a figure in our time.

If consciousness in Zen Buddhism equals “creativity in every moment,” then it is possible to see Ono’s art as an ongoing practice of what she calls fabricating consciousness.[8] As for a true poet, no element of life is beyond her capacity to restructure its truth to serve her own reality. Yoko Ono occupies that fabricated world with steadfast belief, and her art consists often of a simple invitation to participate:



1963 summer



One of Yoko Ono’s most powerful childhood memories dates to the final months of World War II in Japan. The U.S. firebombings of Tokyo in March 1945 that left tens of thousands dead and the city a vast charred ruin had forced Yoko’s mother to evacuate her family to the countryside for safety. Yoko’s father, Ono Yeisuke, had been stationed in Hanoi since 1942 as manager of Japan’s leading wartime bank, and no word from him had been heard for the last year. Gathering her three children together with the last family servant who had not been pressed into military service, Mrs. Ono moved the family to a rural farm village where the threat of air raids was distant. For the next several months leading up to Japan’s surrender, the national economy was devastated, starvation and suicide rampant, and the cities from north to south an accumulating ruin of war. Yoko, taunted by the local children for “smelling like butter” (bata kusai)—a reference to her being Americanized and a city girl—remembers spending the afternoons hiding with her brother Keisuke from the irate and unbalanced world outside. “Lying on our backs, looking up at the sky through an opening in the roof, we exchanged menus in the air and used our powers of visualization to survive.”[9] The imaginary realm and the sky as a calling to vast, pale freedom would later become hallmarks of Ono’s mind-centered art.

By the time Yoko was twelve, when this story occurs, she had spent half of her childhood in America, following her father’s banking business; painfully, her identity was often that of an outsider, isolated by others’ projections of “otherness.” As a child, Yoko used that space of difference to strengthen her independent resolve, and from an early age her teachers, friends, and family remarked on her precocious sense of free will. Ono’s ability to imagine the unthinkable—and do it—would become the very content of her art. But the abiding image of being incomplete and hidden, of loss and absence, and the aspiration toward unity and connectedness that marked her childhood would also become recurring themes in her work.

Yoko Ono was born on February 18, 1933 in Tokyo. Her mother, Isoko, was the granddaughter of Yasuda Zenjirō, one of Japan’s most famous merchant princes.[10] As founder of the Yasuda Bank, Zenjirō built one of the largest zaibatsu, or financial combines, in early modern Japan before he was assassinated by a right-wing ultranationalist in 1921. He was succeeded as head of the Yasuda Bank by Isoko’s father, Zenzaburō. Inducted to the House of Peers in 1915, Zenzaburō retired early from his business career and, enjoying fabulous wealth, turned his attention to the arts. Yoko has described her mother as a quintessential moga, a term in vogue during the Japan’s liberal twenties that conjures a chic and worldly “modern girl.”[11] By 1945, Yasuda ranked as the fourth largest zaibatsu after Mitsui, Mitsubishi, and Sumitomo.

What celebrity the Yasuda clan gained through its formidable financial standing in Japanese society the Ono family matched in genuine nobility and educational pedigree. Yoko’s great-grandfather, Saisho Atsushi, had been a viscount allied with the historic campaign against the Tokugawa shogunate that ushered in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Saisho’s progressive streak marked his daughter Tsuruko (Yoko’s grandmother), who studied English and music at a Protestant college and was converted to Christianity. She married Ono Eijirō, the son of impoverished samurai, who eventually gave up academia for banking, becoming president of the powerful Japan Industrial Bank.[12] His son Yeisuke, who married Yoko’s mother, earned degrees in both economics and mathematics from Tokyo Imperial University. At the time of Yoko’s birth, he was a high-ranking executive at the Yokohama Specie Bank, a semigovernmental foreign-exchange bank that was one of the world’s largest until 1947, when Occupation authorities reorganized it as a commercial bank and renamed it the Bank of Tokyo. Yoko’s half-Buddhist, half-Protestant upbringing would influence her worldview as she matured.

Of all her family attributes on both the Yasuda and Ono sides,[13] Yoko feels the greatest connection to her father’s passion for music. An aspiring pianist who forwent a concert career for banking, Yeisuke did all he could to encourage his eldest child to fulfill his own lost dream. At the prestigious Jiyū Gakuen (School of the Free Spirit), a progressive school for girls, as well as with home tutors, Yoko received rigorous musical training in German lieder singing, Italian opera, and classical piano. “My vocal training was like athletics,” she recalls, “and I would fall asleep at night in terror that my hands were too small to meet my father’s expectations.”[14] Although she would later rebel against the formalism of her early education and reject her father’s will, she regards these years as the foundation of her work as a composer and vocal artist. What Lennon called Yoko’s “revolutionary . . . sixteen-track voice” is grounded in this foundation of classical training.[15]

Ono’s aristocratic heritage may account for her natural ease in moving among all the arts—music, poetry, performance, and painting. Central to elite Japanese culture is the literati, or bunjin, ideal in which the practice of the “three perfections” of painting, poetry, and calligraphy and the “elegant pursuits” of music and the board game go are universally acknowledged as superior ways to refine the soul—life’s loftiest goal. For Japanese literati, amateur delight was traditionally cultivated over professional gain, and spiritual content valued over technical proficiency. To move among and between art forms, seeking the higher self was the ideal. The close reach of that literati model combined with her later exposure to East Asian aesthetics in the context of Cagean thought and American conceptions of Zen may help explain the open range and essential poetics of Ono’s art.

For most of Yoko’s education while in Tokyo between the family’s American sojourns (1933–37, 1941–42), she attended Keimei Gakuin, a Christian academy founded by the Mitsui family for children who had lived abroad, and later Gakushūin, or Peers’ School. Gakushūin was exclusive to members and relatives of the imperial family and Japanese parliament until after the war, when the peerage and titles for all but the emperor and his immediate family were dissolved. When Ono entered in April 1946, her schoolmates included Hirohito’s two sons, including the present emperor, Akihito; and Mishima Yukio, who later rose to international acclaim as a novelist and caused a sensation when he committed ritual seppuku in 1970 to protest Japan’s aberrant Westernization.

In 1952, Ono was accepted as the first female student to enter the philosophy course at Gakushūin University. The euphoria of intellectual freedom that came with the collapse of Japan’s totalitarian rule infused the high schools and universities across the country, as students felt themselves agents of the social and political reconstruction happening in their midst. Ono, who had been relatively sheltered from the ravages of World War II, was now affected by this postwar aftermath and the radical intellectual climate it fostered. While despair at the devastation of fifteen years of war created a postsurrender psyche of exhaustion, remorse, and despondency, an outpouring of relief, optimism, and liberation prevailed. Receptivity to new social, political, and cultural ideas created a spirit of freedom and openness unprecedented in modern Japanese society. As historian John W. Dower has written, “People were acutely conscious of the need to reinvent their own lives.”[16]

As a student at Gakushūin during these heady years, Ono was affected by the dominant intellectual movements of Marxism and existentialism. Hundreds of new left-wing journals appeared that were at the forefront of cultural movements heralding change, denouncing militarists, landlords, zaibatsu, and the emperor-centered bureaucratic system. Pacifism replaced ultranationalism as the country’s ideological faith. Leftists and progressive liberals, who had been active in prewar discourse but were later suppressed, reemerged to embrace the new ideals of democracy, respect for individuality, freedom of speech and religion, and the renunciation of war and the military. Modern selfhood and “autonomous subjectivity” were central to creating a new society where individuals could defend democracy and so prevent tyranny and dictatorship from arising ever again in Japan. Swept up by the fever, Ono was reading prerevolutionary Russian authors like Tolstoy, Gorky, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky, and such modern philosophers as Gide, Malraux, Hegel, and Marx. Eventually, Ono too had to repudiate her past to participate in this postwar revolution—whose ideals surely influenced her leftist and antiwar politics of later years.

Besides Marxism, existentialism was the prevailing philosophy of Japan’s postwar intelligentsia. The central philosophical problem in the writings of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre that were so popular at the time was being—a state revealed by simple reflection on one’s concrete existence in time and space. In the bleak wake of Hiroshima and Auschwitz, belief in the individual’s power to affect the drastic scheme of history was slight. Existence—the basic facts of an individual’s presence and participation in the world – was the sum of random choice, bracketed by vast nothingness on either side of birth and death. To writers like Dazai Osamu and Abe Kōbō who described Japan’s postwar gestalt in such best-selling novels as No Longer Human and The Woman in the Dunes, existentialism provided a structure of both literary style and philosophical truth. Their ideas strongly appealed to the postwar Japanese avant-garde as it rose from the ashes of World War II, and provided the context for Ono as she began to distance herself from her family to articulate her own form of spiritual philosophy and creative activity. “My strength at that time was to separate myself from the Japanese pseudo-sophisticated bourgeoisie. I didn’t want to be one of them. I was fiercely independent from an early age and created myself into an intellectual that gave me a separate position.”[17]

Ono’s choice of philosophy as a major at Gakushūin reveals what would become the artist’s fundamental interest in the nature of reality, existence, and mind. So much of her work, as we shall see, engages these metaphysical questions on an immediate level—provoking, upending, mirroring our received notions so as to incite a new encounter with one’s self and the nature of being. These encounters, which she called “events,” are designed to break through banal reality to recover, in an often deceptively simple act, a moment of emptiness that she calls “wonderment.” In her influential 1966 text, “To the Wesleyan People,” Ono articulates her approach that draws on her early and abiding interest in both modern Western and Eastern metaphysical thought: “After unblocking one’s mind, by dispensing with visual, auditory, and kinetic perceptions, what will come out of us? Would there be anything? I wonder. And my Events are mostly spent in wonderment.”[18]

Ultimately, Yoko became disillusioned with academic philosophy at Gakushūin In late 1952, after two semesters, she moved with her family to Scarsdale, New York, to join her father who had recently assumed the directorship of America’s Bank of Tokyo’s operations. She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence, a prestigious liberal arts college for women in nearby Bronxsville, where she focused on contemporary poetry and composition.

More and more at odds with her parents, whom she saw as artists who had failed to fulfill their talent in order to serve the cause of the “suffocating” Yasuda and Ono legacies, Yoko, either by resolve or impulse or both, determined to break away, to sunder her family’s connection. The avant-garde, a world of ideas and possibilities, offered an escape at least to a conceptual freedom. In 1955, she dropped out of Sarah Lawrence, eloped with a young Japanese pianist and composer, Ichiyanagi Toshi, and moved to Manhattan. “The pressure of becoming a Yasuda/Ono was so tremendous—intellectual, social, academic, and bourgeois pressure. Unless I rebelled against it I wouldn’t have survived.”[19]

New York: Asian Thought and the Avant-Garde

Yoko Ono arrived in New York when a convergence of East Asian aesthetics, poetry, and metaphysics and elements of Euro-American modernism were upending traditional art forms. Reacting against the heroics of Abstract Expressionism and the commercialism of high modernism, the new movements—Neo-Dada, Assemblage, Happenings, and Fluxus—championed anarcho-cultural sensibilities drawn from Dada, Western phenomenology and existentialism, and notions of minimalism, indeterminacy, and everyday realism extracted from Buddhist thought. Loss of faith in “high modernism” and “progressive rationalism” spurred a subversive and philosophical interest in non-Western cultures—especially of China and Japan—to the extent that the 1963 Fluxus Manifesto summoned the vanguard to “Purge the World of ‘Europanism’!”[20] They challenged the staid idealism of bourgeois (Western ) culture and its corollary angst of subjective alienation. But the so-called “anti-art” movements were far from negative. Their affirmative subject was everyday life and its natural, often humorous, relation to art. Theirs was a cry to give art back to a social, rather than merely aesthetic, realm of meaning. Just as earlier manifestations of Dada and anti-art arose in Zurich in response to the cultural and moral blight wrought by World War I, when all that modernist progress had promised went severely wrong, so too the postwar avant-garde, emerging from the holocausts of World War II, renounced the abstractions of high art for the poetry of quotidian existence. Once again, concrete everyday being was the only universal a humanist could place any faith in­ only this time, that universal was cast largely in terms of Asian philosophy and aesthetics. In this milieu, certain Japanese artists abroad, including Ono, were embraced and assimilated as mediums of a non-Western, antirationalist aesthetic.[21]

The exploration of Asian thought in American art was linked to a broad intellectual and cultural movement that sought alternatives to modern Western rationalism and utilitarianism. It also evolved from a desire to seek Jungian affinities among modern and indigenous cultures, to identify some common spirituality. “It’s not simply the realization that boundaries don’t count. but that in the most important issues there are no boundaries,” Fluxus artist Dick Higgins later explained.[22] The aspects of Buddhist thought, especially Zen, that countered modern Western philosophies were its radical empiricism and embrace of spontaneous, unmediated experience.[23]

In America, the roots of this postwar engagement date to the early twentieth century, when the Asian thinkers Okakura Kakuzō (Tenshin), Ananda Coomaraswamy, and D. T. Suzuki first promoted an aesthetics of the East whose genius was—as Okakura wrote in The Book of Tea in 1906—“the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.”[24] The move in modern art, informed by Asian philosophy and championed by Vasily Kandinsky, from representation of the visible to an expression of “the inner spiritual side of nature,” had an impact on American artists like Mark Tobey, John Graham, and Isamu Noguchi. In their articulation of spiritual content, these and other interwar and early postwar artists drew from contemporary writings on Daoism and Buddhism by such figures as Arthur Waley, R. H. Blyth, and Alan Watts. Several, including Tobey and Noguchi, traveled to Japan and China to study firsthand the distilled conceptual power of calligraphy, ink painting, rock gardens, haiku, and the art of tea. By the early 1950s, when D. T. Suzuki’s lectures on Zen at Columbia University were the sensation of the New York art world, Asian art and thought was the preferred paradigm for much of the American avant-garde. The aspiration toward satori-like transcendence, which others found through drug experimentation, became central to the avant­garde imagination. From Happenings to the Beat generation and the San Francisco Renaissance poets, American Zen was ascendent. The Dao, Suzuki often explained, “is no more than one’s everyday experience . . . when you begin to think, you miss the point.”[25]

Suzuki’s disciple John Cage was widely influential through creating and transmitting an alternative modernist aesthetic founded in Asian thought. His legendary 1952 composition of silence, 4 ‘33”, that tacitly turned the surrounding environmental sounds (of an increasingly restless audience) into music, demonstrated his revolutionary axiom, “let sounds be themselves.” His experiments in chance and indeterminacy aspired to “imitate nature in her manner of operation” and reflected his interest in the I Ching, the Chinese book of divination.[26] Ambient, everyday, found sounds – such as those he scored for Water Music-made music of the ephemeral, accidental, and impersonal noises of modern life (fig. 1.5). Cage also dramatically privileged process and audience participation over the composer’s “genius.” These ideas resonated with Ono as she began to score her own work for music, events, and objects. “The essence of Zen that connected with Cage and all of us was a sense of laughter,” Ono remarks. “Laughter is God’s language.”[27]

Ono first met Cage at one of Suzuki’s lectures in the mid-1950s. Her friendship grew through her husband, Ichiyanagi Toshi, who was associated with Cage and would later emerge as one of Japan’s preeminent electronic composers. Ichiyanagi had come to New York on a scholarship for the Juilliard School of Music. A precocious musician, he was trained in classical music but distinguished himself early as a composer of twelve-tone music in the tradition of Arnold Schönberg and Alban Berg. Electronic composition fascinated Ichiyanagi, who knew Edgard Varèse and was an early follower of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Ichiyanagi, an accomplished pianist and score-writer as well, was often commissioned to transcribe scores for an emerging group of avant­garde composers in New York and would occasionally perform in their concerts. By 1959, when Ichiyanagi attended John Cage’s historic class in Experimental Composition at the New School for Social Research, he and Ono were regulars in the Cage circle, which included Morton Feldman, Richard Maxfield, David Tudor, Stefan Wolpe, and Merce Cunningham.

This early Fluxus period in New York saw artists developing a form of notation known as “event scores.” Derived from Cage’s codes of musical compositions, these terse instructions proposed mental and/or physical actions to be carried out by the reader/performer. These event scores were indebted as well to Marcel Duchamp, who in 1957 stated that the creative act could only be completed by the spectator. The early Fluxus scores were characterized by clarity and economy of language; to reinforce their status as art, artists often signed and dated them. They could be performed in the mind as a thought (their visualization being performative), or as a physical performance before an invited audience. The events described basic actions, such as George Brecht’s score, “exit” (fig. 1.6), or could pose the reenactment of certain habits of daily life. Humor was an essential ingredient. Along with Brecht and the composer La Monte Young, Yoko Ono was among the first to experiment with the event score and its conceptual use of language as a form of art.

Ono’s event scores evolved from a range of literary and metaphysical traditions that combined Duchampian poetics and irony with haiku and the Zen koan. Ono’s instruction pieces, with their distilled conflation of image and word, epigrammatic structure, and frequent reference to nature (skies, clouds, water), recall haiku’s “quality of surreality” and “complex of multiple implications.”[28] They convey wit, elegance, and profundity through irrational, often punning phrases intended to jolt the reader/viewer to a higher state of awareness. Contrary to the existentialist notions of nonsense and nothingness that reflect a subjectified, alienated, and pessimistic world of meaning, the Japanese literary and Duchampian views that Ono embraced share an affirmation of being and existence through a metaphysics of the everyday here and now.

The Zen koan offer another correspondence to Ono’s event scores. These brief phrases—some a single character long and others such cryptic statements as “To turn a somersault on a needle’s point” —are used as contemplative tools between master and disciple whose meaning, once grasped, leads to an experience of satori (enlightenment). In Mystics and Zen Masters, a classic American book on Zen well­known to the Fluxus circle, Thomas Merton writes: “The heart of the kōan is reached, its kernel is attained and tasted, when one breaks through into the heart of life as the ground of one’s own consciousness.”[29] His quote of the fourteenth-century master Bassui resonates with Ono’s strategy:

When your questioning goes deeper and deeper you will get no answer until finally you will reach a cul-de-sac, your thinking totally checked. You won’t find anything within that can be called “I” or “Mind.” But who is it that understands all this? Continue to probe more deeply yet and the mind that perceives there is nothing will vanish; you will no longer be aware of questioning but only of emptiness. When awareness of even emptiness disappears, you will realize that there is no Buddha outside Mind and no Mind outside Buddha. Now for the first time you will discover that when you do not hear with your ears you are truly hearing and when you do not see with your eyes you are really seeing Buddhas of the past, present and future. But don’t cling to any of this, just experience it for yourself.

Some Fluxus scores feature banal and absurd elements of modern consumerism. Ono’s work provokes contemplation on a different, even supernatural, level of human existence. One of her earliest scores was composed in 1955 and performed in New York in 1961 and Tokyo in 1962 (fig. 1.7; no. 1):


Light a match and watch till it goes out

1955 autumn

In this and several of Ono’s instruction pieces, she isolates a sensory act of everyday life to bring us in direct encounter with the self—what in Zen terms is “self-being.” She calls events an “additional act,” another dimension of art that provokes awareness of ourselves, our environment, our actions. In her 1966 work, 9 Concert Pieces for John Cage, she scores Breath Piece with the simple instruction, “Breathe” and Sweep Piece with the instruction, “Sweep.”[30] To Yoko, art is not a studio process but the process itself of living. It is experiential, sensual, and intuitive. In a critical definition of how her approach differs from Kaprow’s Happenings, she wrote: “Art is not merely a duplication of life. To assimilate art in life, is different from art duplicating life.”[31]

Unlike Brecht, who sometimes scored music for motor vehicles, train stations, and grocery deliveries, Ono’s scores often suggest a realm of the wonderfully implausible and imaginary. At first glance, their conceptual aspect is less philosophical than wholeheartedly nonsensical in the tradition, say, of Lewis Carroll. Yet Yoko uses humorous nonsense for serious intent. By tossing logic and all it represents away, she prompts us to create and experience a “mind-world.”


Watch the sun until it becomes square.

1962 winter

To Ono, the mind-world is superior to the actual world that defines our “cluttered” lives because it goes “beyond time.” Her more implausible instructions spring the reader/viewer from a state of complacency to a threshold of mental reflection:

The mind is omnipresent, events in life never happen alone and history is forever increasing its volume. At this point, what art can offer (if it can at all – to me it seems) is an absence of complexity, a vacuum through which you are led to a state of complete relaxation of mind. After that you may return to the complexity of life again, it may not be the same, or it may be, or you may never return, but that is your problem.[32]

In Grapefruit (1964), Ono categorized her instruction pieces under sections marked Music, Painting, Event, Poetry, and Object (later editions included Dance and Film). Of these, the pieces for her Instruction Paintings are historically the most significant (nos. 2, 3). In 1960, Ono rented a cold-water loft at 112 Chambers Street and initiated a historic concert series that ran for seven months, through June 1961. Organized with La Monte Young, the “Chambers Street series” featured artists, musicians, dancers, and poets who were at the cutting edge of the new avant-gardism in American art. Together with Reuben Gallery where Kaprow’s Happenings were first staged and the Judson Gallery, Ono’s Chambers Street series is recognized as a historic forum for the development of the kind of radical new strategies and media that would define much of sixties art. The series attracted such legendary figures as Peggy Guggenheim and Marcel Duchamp, as well as George Maciunas, who soon drew many of the artists into his Fluxus collective. Ono presented some of the earliest versions of her pieces at Chambers Street. Later, in July 1961, she exhibited them under the title Instruction Paintings at Maciunas’s AG Gallery on Madison Avenue.[33]

The radical element of Ono’s Instruction Paintings is the concept that painting can be separated into two functions—instruction and realization. Unlike a finished Pollock or Johns, her sumi-ink canvases at AG Gallery required an action or an idea on the part of the viewer for their completion. Visitors were invited to walk on Painting to Be Stepped On, a torn piece of linen lying on the floor, and to drip water on Waterdrop Painting (figs. 6.3–4). Shadow Painting, a blank piece of linen hanging beside a window, was completed when shadows hit its surface in random and fleeting patterns (fig. 1.8). Art News critic Gene R . Swenson offered the following description of Smoke Painting, whose canvas viewers were asked to burn:

Yoko Ono has made a “smoke painting.” It consists of a grimy unstrung canvas with a hole in it. Into the hole she has stuck a burning candle, withdrawing it when the canvas began to smolder and smoke on its own. The painting’s limited life was shortened by one minute for this report, its living presence snuffed out by a damp cloth as soon as the idea became clear.[34]

While Ono would soon renounce the canvas object, leaving the written instruction alone to stand in for “painting,” her choice of sumi ink in these and related works shown at AG Gallery is significant (fig. 1.9). Revealing an abstract, calligraphic use of traditional ink on paper, these work s are far from seductive exercises in Japanism. They relate instead to a move in modern East Asian calligraphy from a breakdown of the written character toward a total gestural abstraction—a metaphysics of the “dynamic movement of life.”[35] Calligraphy’s reductive form, minimal materiality, and essential expressionism appealed to Ono, who, like Korean-born artist Nam June Paik, injected action-based ink works into the Fluxus lexicon (fig 1.10).

The significance of Ono’s AG Gallery show in the history of Fluxus and Conceptual Art has only recently come to light. Along with her now-historic 1961 concerts at the Village Gate and Carnegie Recital Hall (fig. 1.11; no. 52), contemporary critics such as Jill Johnston of the Village Voice were “alternately stupefied and aroused”[36] by Ono’s art. Nothing like it had ever existed before. Ono’s radical strategies were at least five years ahead of the critical discourse on the “dematerialization of the art object” framed by Lucy Lippard, a discourse that defined “work in which the idea is paramount and the material form secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious, and/or ‘dematerialized.’”[37] In fact, Ono’s early work in New York from 1960 until her departure for Tokyo in early 1962 gave realization to an aesthetic of “idea art” that became central to Maciunas’s Fluxus movement, which he officially founded in the summer of 1961 and that opened the way for Conceptual Art practices of the mid-1960s.

Writing in 1966, Ono stated:

“Idea” is what the artist gives, like a stone thrown into the water for ripples to be made. Idea is the air or sun, anybody can use it and fill themselves according to their own size and shape of his body . . . Instruction painting makes it possible to explore the invisible, the world beyond the existing concept of time and space. And then some­times later, the instructions themselves will disappear and be properly forgotten.[38]

Tokyo: “Blue Chaos” and Ono’s Conceptualism

After a decade away, Yoko Ono returned to Japan in March 1962. Ichiyanagi, who had moved back to Tokyo in the fall, had arranged for her exhibition and concert at Sōgetsu Art Center, the center of avant-garde art and performance. Still separated from her family, Ono returned to Japan with her former privileges stripped. The city of wartime ruins she had left as a young college student had emerged, like a phoenix from ashes, as the world’s first megalopolis—a sprawling industrial combine poised to host the summer Olympics of 1964. Politically, the idealism she remembered of her Gakushūin years had been sobered by the hardening cold war in Northeast Asia. Adoration of America as Japan’s liberator and teacher of democracy had turned into mass protest against “Americanization” —encompassing the encroachments of Hollywood, nuclear threat, supermarkets, and prostitutes serving the American forces. Always working out the odds of her Japanese and American identity, Yoko personally found her years back “home” among her most isolated and difficult. But at age twenty-nine, in Tokyo, she saw her unique artistic vision come into full realization.

Ono arrived at an explosive moment in the Japanese avant-garde. Artists clamored to take art out of the art system, mixing genres and experimenting with language, street performance, and sound art to create an alternative expression rooted in the realities of everyday life rather than the conventions of high art. Anti-art collectives were staging events, concerts, and exhibitions that were euphoric in their abandonment of orthodox modernism and its reliance on traditional Western media and studio practices like oil painting.[39] Emerging like Fluxus in the cold aftermath of World War II, where the horrific consequences of modern rationalism were laid bare, the Japanese avant-garde reveled in anarchistic forms of art and performance to subvert, parody, and critique the political establishment. It took aim at Americanization, mass consumerism, and nuclear threat, and found solace in existentialism, absurdism, and the Buddhist void.

With assistance from Ichiyanagi, who was now a star in Tokyo’s experimental music community, Ono’s concerts and exhibitions gained attention among the underground mainstream of Tokyo’s avant-garde. Music improvisationalists Kosugi Takehisa, Yasunao Tone, and Shigeko Kubota of Group Ongaku; experimental media artist Yamaguchi Katsuhiro; Hi Red Center’s Akasegawa Genpei and Nakanishi Natsuyuki; the Butoh dancer Hijikata Tatsumi; and the influential critics Takiguchi Shūzō and Akiyama Kuniharu would all welcome Ono’s activities. She participated in their events, including Hi Red Center’s famous Shelter Plan (fig. 1.12) and Tone’s conceptual jury and exhibition, Tone-Prize Composition, held in October 1964 (fig. 9.3).[40] Her work was reviewed in the leading art journals and discussed by top contemporary art critics like Tōno Yoshiaki. Together with her Fluxus friend, composer Nam June Paik , who was active in Tokyo around the same time, Ono introduced several members of Group Ongaku and Hi Red Center to the Fluxus collective, and so helped generate a critical exchange among the New York, Tokyo, and European avant­gardes all dedicated to forging a post-atomic art that found meaning in the essential irrationality of modern urban life.

Ono staged her first concert and exhibition, Works of Yoko Ono, at Tokyo’s Sōgetsu Art Center in May 1962 (no. 27). The Events and Music sections presented sixteen individual pieces for the stage that featured recorded sounds of everyday noises like telephone rings, contact microphone sounds of people moving around on stage, and repetitive somatic actions like sweeping. Ono had performed some of the works previously in New York, such as Of a Grapefruit in the World of Park and AOSTo David Tudor—an opera of “blue chaos” (ao is Japanese for “blue,” “os” is from “chaos”) composed of a cacophony of recorded and live speeches in different languages. The Sōgetsu concert established Ono as among the most experimental composers and performers of the Fluxus/Cagean vanguard.

Concurrently on view at Sōgetsu were Ono’s Instructions for Paintings (fig. 1.13; no. 3). This project, related to the AG Gallery exhibition, was based on a series of instructions for “paintings to be constructed in your head.” Dismissing the tradition of art as an “original” expression by the hand of the artist, she asked Ichiyanagi to copy the instructions in his fine Japanese script on ordinary sheets of paper. For Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through, the instructions required the viewer to hang a bottle behind a canvas “where the west light comes in. The painting will exist when the bottle creates a shadow on the canvas, or it does not have to exist” (no. 8). The idea that calligraphy made the written language into a visual object, like a painting, may have reinforced the acceptance of Ono’s instructions as objects of art. She then taped these sheets, some twenty-two, to the Sōgetsu gallery wall. With this gesture, Ono quietly overthrew the entire Western tradition of painting and its primacy of illusion and object over pure concept. As art historian Reiko Tomii has written:

Yoko Ono revoked the self-sufficient body of the painting: not only was paint replaced by language, the structural syntax of the medium was also laid bare. Moreover, the role of the viewer was reconfigured as an active agent who completed the artwork either physically by her/his making it, or simply as a mental process.[41]

Although few critics recognized her innovation at the time, Ono’s Instructions for Paintings are a watershed in the history of Conceptual Art. In Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s historic 1968 essay, “The Dematerialization of Art,” the origins of Conceptualism are credited to those artists who had “almost entirely eliminate d the visual-physical element” to forge an “ultra-conceptual or dematerialized art.”[42] Although Ono is not mentioned, she was in fact among the first to do just that.

Instructions for Paintings share several formal elements of what later became canonized as “official” Conceptual Art. The acrylic-on-canvas paintings in New York–based Japanese artist On Kawara’s Today Series (fig. 1.14), a serial accumulation of works that the artist has produced continuously since 1966, are significant for the elimination of all subject matter but the stark image of a stenciled date that corresponds to the day each was made. Like Ono, Kawara replaces visuality with language, creating a work that functions like a sign. Yet where Kawara’s conceptualism lies in his reduction of art to an operation of infinite sameness—the dogged registration of time’s relentless passing and the paradox of eternal time and relative existence—Ono’s pen-on-paper instructions for “paintings to be constructed in your head” make all but the notation for a conceptual art vanish. In a move once again removed from the artist’s hand, Ono made photocopies of the instructions Ichiyanagi had copied out and suggested they stand in for the “art” itself.[43]

Conceptualism, which gained recognition as an international movement in the mid-1960s, developed from a range of “art as idea” and “art as action” practices. Their common impulse was, as critic Benjamin Buchloh has termed it, a “withdrawal of visuality.”[44] Rejecting expressionism and the hallowed aura of objecthood, it favored a philosophical, cognitive process aimed at redefining the role of the object as a carrier of meaning. The proposal inherent in Conceptualism, as championed independently by Henry Flynt (a Fluxus artist who coined the term “concept art” in 1961), Sol LeWitt, and Joseph Kosuth, was to replace the traditional aesthetic experience with devices that reduced art to a linguistic definition or empirical structure. Spoken or written language, mathematics, numbering, documentary photography, and “analytic propositions” all entered the artistic realm. For example, Kosuth’s Meaning from the series Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) presents a photostat of the dictionary definition of “meaning,” making the material reality of the work the object of its pictorial depiction (fig. 1.15). “The absence of reality in art is exactly art’s reality,” Kosuth stated.[45]

In North America, Conceptual artists commonly employed language, nonsense, participation, and minimalism to serve a theoretical end—to critique the art system and the definition of art itself. Yoko Ono used identical means to probe different, more metaphysical issues: the nature of being or, in the words of critic Miyakawa Atsushi, “to posit the mirror as a primary form of the imaginary . . . going beyond genres and categories to include all art and thought.”[46] Where LeWitt and Kosuth presented philosophical discourse as art, often conflating the manifesto, the theoretical proposal, and the artwork into a single interlocking system, Ono’s less-weighty philosophical theorems were structurally more provocative than didactic, more open than tautological. She used language but language itself was not her concern; experience was. While artists like Hans Haacke became increasingly devoted to the statistical collection of factual information and refused any transcendental dimension to their work, Ono sought the opposite: the imaginary was her empirical truth. Her proto-Conceptual work of the early 1960s expresses a growing commitment to art as a “ritual” for experiencing truth that resides only in a “fabricated” or conceptual realm of consciousness. In a remarkable essay published in a Japanese art journal in 1962, she writes:

I cannot stand the fact that everything is the accumulation of “distortion” owing to one’s slanted view. I want the truth. I want to feel the truth by any possible means. I want someone or something to let me feel it. I can [not] trust the . . . manipulation of my consciousness. I know no other way but to present the structure of a drama which assumes fiction as fiction, that is, as fabricated truth.[47]

In October of 1962, Ichiyanagi arranged through Sōgestu Art Center for John Cage and David Tudor to visit Japan and perform several concerts. Ono participated in these programs, appearing in Cage’s premiere performances of Music Walk and Arias for Solo Piano with Fontana Mix. Increasingly, however, Ono felt limited by her associations with her famous husband and “Jesus Christ,” as John Cage was known to his followers. “The whole avant-garde world seemed bourgeois to me,” she reflected. “Who was I beyond Toshi’s wife and John Cage’s friend?”[48] The burden of once again being recognized as an Ono/Yasuda in Japanese society was also debilitating. Exhausted and depressed, she checked into a sanatorium in Tokyo. When she emerged several months later, her affections had shifted to a young American artist, Anthony Cox, whose daughter, Kyoko, she bore in 1963.

During this period, Ono compiled her instructions, scores, and poems for the publication of Grapefruit (no 4). “Grapefruit was like a cure for myself without knowing it,” Yoko reflected. “It was like saying, ‘Please accept me I am mad.’ Those instructions are like that—a real need to do something to act out your madness. As long as you are behaving properly, you don’t realize your madness and you go crazy”[49] But Ono’s relationship to Conceptualism is hardly that of an Outsider artist. Like An Anthology (1963), edited by La Monte Young, Grapefruit is a seminal text in the history of Conceptual Art. As critic David Bourdon has stated,

Grapefruit is one of the monuments of conceptual art of the early 1960s. She has a lyrical, poetic dimension that sets her apart from the other conceptual artists. Her approach to art was only made acceptable when white men like Kosuth and Weiner came in and did virtually the same things as Yoko, but made them respectable and collectible.[50]

Cox strongly believed in Yoko’s art, and over the next four years helped produce and promote her activities in Tokyo, New York, and London. During their remaining time in Japan, Ono staged several events, including an all-night “touch” concert at the Zen temple Nanzenji in Kyoto (no. 29); her premiere performance of Cut Piece (no. 30); an exhibition at the vanguard Naiqua Gallery where she first presented Fly (no. 28); and a farewell concert at Sōgetsu in August 1964 entitled Strip Tease Show.

One of Ono’s last events in Japan was Morning Piece. For this work, she assembled shards from broken milk bottles and tagged each with a random future morning date, like February 3, 1989 (fig. 1.16). In an amusing assault on the commercial art system, a strategy that would become central to formal Conceptualist politics, Yoko organized two events—one at Naiqua Gallery and the second on her Tokyo apartment rooftop—where she proposed to sell her collection of mornings. She composed a sales list and carefully documented her sales, all to luminaries of the Tokyo avant-garde (fig. 1.17). This event, which she restaged in New York the following year, fused a unique combination of elements that marked Ono’s suprasensible, metaphysical conceptualism. Morning Piece functions like a flash of insight, bringing physical awareness of eternal time to the present moment of our existence, through a spontaneous exchange of art on a Tokyo rooftop. Yoko explained:

Event, to me, is not an assimilation of all the other arts as Happening seems to be, but an extrication from the various sensory perceptions. It is not “a get togetherness” as most happenings are, but a dealing with oneself. Also, it has no script as happenings do, though it has something that starts it moving—the closest word for it may be a “wish” or “hope.”[51]

London: Double Fantasy

During Yoko’s two-year stay in Japan, the Fluxus collective had become increasingly active in New York and Europe and was gaining a following among the international vanguard. Ono’s Tokyo activities were known to the Fluxus group, and when she returned to Manhattan in fall 1964, impresarios George Maciunas, Norman Seaman, and Charlotte Moorman were quick to claim her for their Fluxus or Fluxus-like programs of concerts, festivals, and publication projects. Together with Cox, to whom she was now married, Ono presented several events, performances, and her first conceptual films at such legendary venues as the Judson Gallery and Judson Memorial Church, Carnegie Recital Hall, and Cinematheque at East End Theater from early 1965 until her departure for London in September 1966. During this period, the anarchist sensibility of Fluxus imposed by Maciunas became increasingly radical and absurdist as the celebrated “affluent society” erupted in political crises: the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, campus turmoil, racial unrest, and rising protests against the Vietnam War. This milieu, combined with the violent antinuclear turbulence she had witnessed in Japan, stimulated in Ono a deeper commitment to art as an agent of social and political change. From her notorious film No. 4 (Bottoms) (1966; no. 43), which she conceived in part as a “petition for peace,” and throughout her years with John Lennon, with whom she collaborated on numerous public antiwar “happenings,” Ono developed what performance historian Kristine Stiles has called “a utopian social program of love envisioned in the imagination and enacted before the world.”[52] When she pronounced in 1969 that the “message is the medium,” the message she implied was world pacifism realized through feminine thought and culture (Anthology 1).

The site for Ono’s new forms of social art was London. In what proved to be a prophetic trip, she and Cox traveled to London to take part in the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS), an international gathering of artists whose work was linked by violent anti-art tendencies (no. 33). At DIAS, Ono performed Cut Piece (fig. 1.18), a work that has gained iconic stature in the history of performance art for its protofeminist conceptualism. In London, as in Kyoto, Tokyo, and New York, where she had previously presented this work, Ono sat motionless on stage in traditional Japanese feminine position—knees folded beneath her—and invited members of the audience to cut a piece of her clothing away until, nearly forty minutes later, she was left all but naked, her face masklike throughout. In her biographical statement of 1966, Yoko wrote:

People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone.[53]

Like many of her performances, Cut Piece is constructed around the phenomenological content of solitary actions, a concentration on the material of experience. What emerges in Ono’s work through this piece, however, is a new level of psychological unveiling, an intimate and painful sensation of self that the public can encounter, watch, and feel. Cut Piece expresses an anguished interiority while offering a social commentary on the quiet violence that binds individuals and society, the self and gender, alienation and connectedness. The filmmaker Jonas Mekas, a longtime Fluxus friend, later commented that Yoko

was very concentrated, very in herself, focused and intense. There was clearly something in her that had to come out, and in her performances she created explosions and moments of hysteria that were highly calculated and controlled.[54]

Invocations of the human body had for some time established Ono’s language as essentially more sensuous and psychological than that of her Fluxus mates. References to touching, rubbing, hiding, sleeping, dreaming, and screaming sited her imagery in a protofeminist space defined by the terror, and the wish, to connect. She later commented that she wanted her participants to “start to see things beyond the shapes . . . [to] hear the kind of sounds that you hear in silence . . . to feel the environment and tension in people’s vibrations . . . the sound of fear and of darkness . . . [and] of togetherness based on alienation.”[55]

Ono’s concentration on physicality, the concreteness of personal experience, shaped her ideas for film projects as well as her performances. She was part of the general revolt against film conventions that occurred during the 1960s, when independent filmmakers developed alternative aesthetics that directly acknowledged the material properties of film and the artifice of the production process. Cinematic time was also radically reconceptualized, as in Andy Warhol’s Eat of 1963, a forty-minute narrative of Robert Indiana eating a single mushroom. Ono, who produced sixteen films between 1966 and 1982, shares several formal and stylistic issues with the independent film movement but is distinguished for her use of film to record, in real time, the very quality of physical being unattached to action, character, or even a face. Films such as No. 4 (Bottoms) (no. 43) and Fly (fig. 1.19; no. 46) present cropped, single-image compositions of naked human forms, abstracted via cinematography into a realm of uncompromising—if strangely humorous and nonsexual—intimacy.

Fly, which magnifies the movements of houseflies as they traverse the naked body of a recumbent woman, is accompanied by a soundtrack (later issued on Ono’s album of the same name). Yoko’s voice suggests the unconscious, otherworldly life of the woman’s knocked-out state, a life that is oblivious to yet omnipresent in the activities that occupy the flies in search of the sugared water that her flesh has been prepared with for their delectation. Ono’s legendary vocal soundtrack is a continuous rhythm of the organic sounds of elemental womanhood—from the whimpers and groans of rapture to the cries of deep dread. Jonathan Cott wrote in Rolling Stone that Yoko’s voice reminds “you of the screams, wails, laughter, groans, caterwauls of both a primordial, prebirth, premammalian past, as well as the fogged-over, pained immediacy of childhood.” Her music evokes, he continues, “the feeling of being inside one’s own body cavities.”[56]

Yoko met John Lennon at her exhibition at the Indica Gallery in November 1966—while Beatlemania was still in force (fig. 1.20). The gallery, then in Mason’s Yard near St. James’s Piccadilly and housed in the same building as the British underground newspaper International Times, was a center of London’s avant-garde art community. Lennon attended the opening and engaged Yoko, unaware and unimpressed by who he was, in her own game of participation art by asking to follow the instruction for Painting to Hammer a Nail (no. 9). Yoko responded that he could hammer a nail in the painting for five shillings, and John quipped back, “I’ll give you an imaginary five shillings and hammer an imaginary nail in.” John often recounted, “And that’s when we really met. That’s when we locked eyes and she got it and I got it and, as they say in all the interviews we do, the rest is history.”[57]

Yoko’s exhibition at Indica was her most ambitious to date. It included versions or reenactment s of her Instruction Paintings, and featured several objects that were realizations of earlier instruction pieces or new concepts altogether. Whereas her earlier Sōgetsu show of Instructions for Paintings was composed entirely of language, the Indica show with its all­white or transparent installation of fabricated Plexiglas and found or prepared objects presented Ono as a Minimalist sculptor. Works such as Pointedness (no. 12) and Forget It (no. 16) used readymade things—a white sphere and a sewing needle, respectively—attached on Plexiglas pedestals inscribed with their titles and instructions. White Chess Set (no. 25) presented Ono’s first all-white chessboard and men. These objects established the visual form and style of Ono’s objects and installations that she would present at London’s Lisson Gallery in 1967 (fig. 1.21), the Everson Museum in 1971 (fig. 1.22), and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1989 (pl. 59).

Ono’s objects that are recycled and fabricated from everyday, nonart materials, and whose form is radically reductive, share certain formal elements with the Minimalism of sculptors Carl Andre, Mel Bochner, or Robert Morris. But her persistence in juxtaposing an idea against a visual situation to provoke a kind of telepathic poetry of irrational truths defies the strict Minimalist code of phenomenology, where material stands in for content. Her work is more akin to James Lee Byars, an artist loosely associated with Fluxus, who spent many years in Japan. Informed by a Zen poetics, Byars’s work such as The Head of Plato (fig. 1.23), which presents a marble sphere in a glass vitrine, provokes a heightened focus on what is always potentially present if only we can learn to see it: thought. Like Byars’s, Ono’s minimalism does not reduce but rather increases the suggestive powers of her votivelike objects.

John and Yoko were married in March 1969 (fig. 1.24). They had already released a joint album, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (no. 53), which caused a sensation over their nude double portrait on the jacket, and had collaborated as artistic partners in various peace events including Bag Piece at Royal Albert Hall (no. 31). In a gesture credited to Yoko, they exploited the media surrounding their marriage to campaign for peace. It was the height of the Vietnam War and America, Europe, and Japan were rocked by massive student riots. In hotels in Amsterdam and later Montreal, Yoko and John staged a week-long Bed-In for Peace (fig. 1.25) where, dressed in pajamas, they invited the press into their bedroom to discuss their message of non­violent opposition to the establishment—a message that culminated in the song that became the hymn of the peace movement: “All we are saying/ Is give peace a chance.” With this event and their billboard campaign that Christmas, War is Over! (fig. 1.26), the couple became the most popular icons of the international pacifist movement. Representing the union of East and West, she and John promoted their marriage as an act of universal love and racial equality at a time when (Euro-American) cold war polity still fostered suspicion of much of Asia as the “enemy.”

Ono had pronounced at their wedding that she and John “would stage many happenings.” With the Bed-Ins, they subverted the arcane worlds of radical politics and avant-garde performance art to propose for the mass media a private theater of love staged on the nuptial bed. The iconoclasm that had always marked Ono’s crossover strategies in music, poetry, performance, and the visual arts now found another set of boundaries to transgress: the private and public. The numerous films, albums, performances, press conferences, and media appearances that Yoko and John produced together over the next eleven years, until Lennon’s assassination in 1980, made their private physical and mental love the subject of their public art and life. Although John’s marriage to Yoko was harshly criticized by his fans and the public at large, in fact, as Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner understood, “Yoko had liberated John, had freed him to become the person he always wanted to be. In her fearlessness, Yoko gave John the means to become himself.”[58] What they strove to perform through the living art of their coexistence was authentic experience, an austerity of selfhood stripped of artifice including fame, magic, and rock ’n’ roll. In his 1971 song “God” (from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band), Lennon listed the I Ching, Tarot, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, Buddha, Elvis, and the Beatles as all that “I don’t believe in.”

I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that’s reality

Ono’s marriage to Lennon gave new dimension to her deeply philosophical art. She had always been engaged with transformation of consciousness via the medium of language and performance. Hers was a provocative art that reduced time, place, and self to the material feeling of experience, what she called the “world of stickiness.”[59] Ono’s achievement during her years with Lennon was an enlargement of that concept into a social and political message for peace, itself the logical outcome of a kind of meditative state of bodily awareness that her instructions help induce. Her message both connected to and helped construct the cultural history of the international peace movement around the globe from 1969 through the 1970s. Her work exemplifies what the Dadaist poet and critic Takiguchi Shūzō once wrote: “Poetry is not belief. It is not logic. It is action.”[60]


John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980. Yoko’s response to a world of mourners was to call for a silent ten-minute vigil on the following Sunday, December 14. Radio stations around the globe observed the silence while in New York 100,000 people gathered in Central Park outside the Lennons’ Dakota residence and sang “Give Peace a Chance” before falling quiet en masse. Ono issued a statement signed with Sean, their five-year-old son, that was distributed to the worldwide media:

Bless you for your tears and prayers. I saw John smiling in the sky.|
I saw sorrow changing into clarity.
I saw all of us becoming one mind
Thank you.[61]

On the night of Lennon’s death, Ono had finished recording what became widely recognized as her “pop masterpiece,” “Walking on Thin Ice” (fig. 1.27; no. 57). Set to a striking rock rhythm, Yoko’s lyrics describe a tale of a girl walking across a frozen lake as wide as the ocean. Terror at the unknown price of “throwing dice in the air” locks against a raw will to “play the game of life with all our hearts.” Robert Palmer, among the first music critics to seriously promote Ono’s work, wrote of “Thin Ice”: “It begins with a pounding dance track, but the mood and lyric are hardly the stuff of disco dreams. This is a song of uncertainty, bristling with a sense of danger and foreboding that proved uncannily correct.”[62]

Ono’s art had always expressed an aspect of existential despair. From her earliest instruction pieces, spectral images of violence and death recur in her work. Stripped of narrative or literalism, these images are direct evocations of what she calls “white terror” —a peculiar, universal void that haunts all humanity.[63] Her focus on transcience and ephemerality constantly confront us with the other side of existence, trip us into a zone where our local bearings are lost. Ono fearlessly constructs much of her work on the site of this basic condition of life’s desperation. Music, perhaps more than any other art form, offers her the expressive means to mine this realm of life’s primal essence. Both Ono’s lyrics and what critics call her “delirious wail”[64] push listeners beyond the edge to an experience whose only link to normalcy is the need to be saved by a human connection. “If you were drowning you wouldn’t say: ‘I’d like to be helped because I have a moment to live,’” Ono once said. “You’d say, ‘Help!’ but if you were more desperate you’d say, ‘Eioghhh,’ or something like that. And the desperation of life is really life itself, the core of life, what’s really driving us forth.”[65]

Ono released four solo albums between 1981 and 1995, including Season of Glass and Rising, a collection of songs marking the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima’s atomic annihilation and a tribute to her friends who were suffering and dying of AIDS. “Have courage/Have rage/We’re rising” she sang.[66] During this period, Ono’s critical reception gradually began to shift, prompting a long-overdue reappraisal of her musical career that culminated in the 1992 production of Onobox, a multi-CD anthology of her recordings. After she spent two decades in the “strange, rare, invisible prison”[67] of the public’s animosity toward the woman blamed for breaking up the Beatles, Ono’s contribution to progressive music like punk and free jazz, and her creative influence on Lennon, finally came to be appreciated. “Listen to Patti Smith, P. J. Harvey, Courtney Love, and others and you can hear Yoko’s inquisitive howl,” a London critic wrote of Ono’s historic collision of avant-garde and pop.[68] Rock historian Gillian Gaar proclaimed: “To anyone interested in tracing the development of rock ’n’ roll, especially the punk movement of the 70s, listening to Onobox is like discovering a lost chapter in rock history, and one that clearly establishes Ono as a musical pioneer.”[69]

Ono’s recognition as a pioneer of progressive music paralleled a similar reassessment of her role in the history of Fluxus and Conceptualist art and film that began with her exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1989. What had previously been dismissed as her “sentimental and frivolous uses of Conceptual art”[70] were gradually revealed as genuinely radical innovations in idea-based art. Her long neglect was credited to the elusive nature and multimedia experimentation of her work, and to the art world’s latent recognition of Fluxus itself—a movement whose aesthetic politics that so resisted art’s commodification assured its absence from the art market and museum. Ono’s identity as an artist had also long been distorted by her sensational public status. “Romping, storming, and even reclining across the media’s stage of magnified social consciousness, playing the martyr, the lover, the rabble-rouser, the wicked Oriental, the idiot savant, the shaman, expanding her whimsical improvisations in a marathon spectacle until they shattered, Ono left behind a potent legacy that has not been well tended,” Artforum critic Carlo McCormick wrote in an article on the Whitney show:

Her provocative, nonconformist career offers few handles to hold her by, and much of her work, notably the pop-performance events that used mass-media communications as a global canvas for her political activism and for an evolving scenario of “life as art,” seems destined to fall into the cracks between museological and pop-cultural analysis.[71]

A reassessment and appreciation of Yoko Ono’s art, McCormick argued, was long overdue. The Whitney show, together with a survey at The Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum curated by Jon Hendricks the same year, were among the first projects to recover an open, more positive reception for Ono in the international art world.

Taking off from the Everson Museum show of 1971, with all its playful pandemonium, Ono returned to object-making for the Whitney show with a series of austere bronze versions of her earlier AG Gallery and Indica sculptures (pl. 60b). Whereas Ono’s earlier work not only accepted but cultivated a certain amateurism, an irreverant disregard for high-art standards, her Bronze Age posed as “finished” objects ready to serve the late-eighties boom in high­finance art. Nothing could be more deadening to the delicate remnants of her radical past. But Ono’s real subject as she reentered the art world with this unexpected move was time. Inspired by a 1987 visit to Leningrad’s Summer Palace, where sepia photographs of the original imperial rooms hung beside shots of them in ruins after Hitler’s Russian invasion, she realized that she was walking through elaborate spaces that were completely new versions of the past. “It was a story of change and survival,” Ono wrote. “It was a story of all of us.”[72] By embracing bronze, symbol of all that the sixties were not, Ono relinquished her claim as icon of nostalgia and set forth with new material power to reinvent and expand her art.

The 1990s emerged as one of the most productive and creative periods in Ono’s artistic career. As Neo­Conceptualism and art engaged with social issues came to dominate the international arena of contemporary art, Ono’s objects, sculptures, and installations gradually assumed a wider position of influence. Her work, shown across Europe, America, and Japan with increasing activity, expressed affinities with the work of younger artists, making her a favorite of Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, Cornelia Parker, Donald Baechler, and others. Cleaning Piece, a mound of stones that people interact with to create their own piles of sorrows and joys, shares attributes with Felix González-Torres’s Untitled (Lover Boys) (figs. 1.28–29). Both present works composed of readymades—river rocks and wrapped candies—in a form that is all about unfinished process. They invite viewer participation, offering parts of the work as votive gifts to wish for something unknown, upending the roles of artist and public, priestess and faithful. As the piles shift to the point of elimination, change becomes the vehicle and also the content of the works. With González-Torres, who died of AIDS at the age of thirty-nine, the idea of ephemeral art that can travel, be replenished, and take on transcendent humanitarian meaning has a poignant resonance with Ono’s art.

The concept of “unfinished” runs through all of Ono’s work. Her early instructions called for “paintings to be constructed in your head”; her Indica Gallery show was subtitled “Unfinished Paintings and Objects by Yoko Ono”; and the first album she released with John Lennon was called Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. Her recent work too challenges us to see the invisible, to make idea, imagination, and perception the content of art and the practice of life. Today, Ono continues to create with undiminished rigor an art that distills everyday things into pure, up-close experiences of contemplation. In this vacuum of heightened awareness, the unremarkable becomes extraordinary, revealing the power of art. Her long career in producing poetry and scores, films and music, objects and installations is linked by her profound intent to seek and provoke questions, and to engage us in that search. For Yoko Ono, being “unfinished” is a state of grace.

List of Figures

  1. Ceiling Painting (Yes Painting), 1966. Detail
  2. On Insound and On Instructure in program, Contemporary American Avant-Garde Music Concert, Yamaichi Hall, Kyoto, 1962
  3. Ono with her parents in San Francisco, 1935
  4. Ono, ca. 1961
  5. John Cage, Water Music, 1952. Ink on paper, 10 sheets, 11 x 17 in.; colophon sheet 9 ½ x 6 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase, with Funds from an anonymous donor 82.38A–J
  6. George Brecht, Word Event, 1961. Offset on paper
  7. Lighting Piece, 1955. Sōgetsu Art Center, Tokyo, 1962
  8. Shadow Painting (Canvas Version), 1961. Installation view: AG Gallery, New York, 1961
  9. Untitled, ca. 1961. Sumi ink on canvas
  10. La Monte Young, Composition 1960 #10, October 1960. Realized by Nam June Paik as Zen for Head, 1962. Ink and tomato juice on transparent paper. Museum Wiesbaden
  11. Program, Works by Yoko Ono, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, 1961
  12. Ono participating in Hi Red Center’s Shelter Plan, selected frames from Jōnouchi Motoharu, Shelter Plan, video transferred from 16 mm film, 1964. Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
  13. Painting to See the Skies, 1962. Ink on paper. Collection of Gilbert and Lila Silverman, Detroit
  14. On Kawara, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 1979, 1979. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 18 ¼ x 24 3/8 in. (46.4 x 62.5 cm). Museum of Modern Art, Blanchette Rockefeller Fund
  15. Joseph Kosuth, Meaning, ca. 1967. Photostat on paper mounted on wood. Menil Collection, Houston
  16. Morning Piece, 1964. Glass and typescript on paper
  17. “Notice” for Morning Piece, 1964. Ink on paper
  18. Cut Piece, Africa Center, London, 1966
  19. Frame from Fly, film, 1970
  20. Ono with White Chess Set, Indica Gallery, London, 1966
  21. Ono in Half-a-Room, Lisson Gallery, London, 1967
  22. Mind Object II with inscription “not to be appreciated until its broken”
  23. James Lee Byars, The Head of Plato, 1986. White marble sphere, wood, glass vitrine. Neues Museum Weserberg, Bremen
  24. Lennon and Ono, front cover of Wedding Album, 1969. LP
  25. Ono and Lennon, Bed-in for Peace, Amsterdam, 1969
  26. Ono and Lennon, War Is Over!, 1969. Billboard installed in Rome
  27. From Walking on Thin Ice, video, 1981
  28. Cleaning Piece, 1996. Installation view: Lonja del Pescado, Alicante, 1997
  29. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Lover Boys), 1991. Candies, individually wrapped in silver cellophane. Collection Goetz, Munich

Originally published in YES YOKO ONO. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

Alexandra Munroe. “Spirit of YES: The Art and Life of Yoko Ono,” in YES YOKO ONO, pp. 10–37. New York: Japan Society and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000.

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[1] John Lennon quoted in Jonathan Cott, “Yoko Ono and Her Sixteen-Track Voice” in The Ballad of John and Yoko (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982), 115.

[2] Lennon quoted in Jann Wenner, “Lennon Remembers” in The Ballad of John and Yoko, 107.

[3] Ono, “The Word of a Fabricator” (1962, translated by Yoko Ono 1999; Anthology 12).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fluxus artist Dick Higgins coined the term “intermedia” to describe this new site of artistic activity that existed “between the media.” See Higgins, “Statement on Intermedia” (1966) in In the Spirit of Fluxus, exh. cat (1993), 172–73.

[6] George Maciunas, “Neo-Dada in Music, Theater, Poetry, Art” (1962) in Fluxus: Selections from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection, exh. cat. (1988), 26.

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Ono, “The Word of a Fabricator.”

[9] Ono, interview with author, August 1997.

[10] Isoko’s father, Zenzaburō, married Yasuda Teruko, the eldest of Zenjirō’s five children, and adopted the family name. He succeeded his father-in-law as head of the Yasuda Bank for some time before his early retirement For an excellent biographical essay on Ono, see Donald Kirk, “In Tokyo” in The Ballad of John and Yoko, 14–32.

[11] Ono, interview with author, August 1997.

[12] Ono Eijirō taught at Dōshisha University, a leading Protestant institution in Kyoto. He had acquired his doctorate at the University of Michigan with one of the best academic records ever achieved by a foreign student. See Kirk, “In Tokyo.”

[13] Yeisuke’s brother (Yoko’s uncle) went abroad to study in Moscow, where he eloped with an accomplished violinist who remained close to Yoko’s family.

[14] Ono, interview with author, August 1997.

[15] Lennon quoted in Cott, “Sixteen-Track Voice,” 114.

[16] John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: W.W Norton/New Press, 1999), 121.

[17] Ono, interview with author, October 1998.

[18] Ono, “To the Wesleyan People” (1966; Anthology 14).

[19] Ono, interview with author, August 1997.

[20] For a reproduction of George Maciunas’s Manifesto of 1963, see fig. 2.3. The opening lines read: “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual,’ professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art,—PURGE THE WORLD OF ‘EUROPANISM’!” This manifesto was distributed at Festum Fluxorum Fluxus in Düsseldorf at the suggestion of Joseph Beuys.

[21] Other Japanese artists included Fluxus artist Ay-O and Conceptualist artists Shūsaku Arakawa and On Kawara.

[22] Dick Higgins quoted in Ken Friedman’s undated manuscript, “Fluxus & Co.,” 4.

[23] To certain Japanese intellectuals, existentialism corresponded with Zen Buddhism in its emphasis on personal enlightened insight into daily existence. The work of philosopher Nishida Kitarō was especially influential. Arriving at a position close to mysticism, which he termed “pure experience,” Nishida articulated a new concept of basho, the “place” of “absolute Nothingness” wherein the full possibilities and dynamics of the self are revealed. The work of Nishida was central to twentieth-century Zen theology and influenced D. T. Suzuki.

[24] Okakura Kakuzō, The Book of Tea (1906; reprint, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1956), 3.

[25] D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, 212. Zen philosopher Suzuki was a prolific author in both Japanese and English, and was widely translated into European languages as well. His most influential books in the West are Essays in Zen Buddhism (1933–49); Zen Buddhism (1956); and Zen and Japanese Culture (1959). For an excellent study on D. T. Suzuki’s work, see Masao Abe, ed. A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki Remembered (New York: Weatherhill, 1986).

[26] Suzuki lectured at Columbia University from the late 1940s until at least 1957, and his classes were famous among the New York avant-garde. Cage attended from circa 1951 and thereafter considered Suzuki his spiritual mentor. For Cage’s study with Suzuki and involvement with Zen, see David Revill, The Roaring Silence. John Cage: A Life (New York: Arcade, 1992), 107–25.

[27] Ono, interview with author, September 1999.

[28] Takiguchi Shūzō, “Toward Rrose Sélavy” in Maruseru Dushan goroku/Selected Words of Marcel Duchamp: To and From Rrose Sélavy (Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppansha, 1982), 3. Takiguchi was Japan’s foremost critic and translator of Duchamp.

[29] Thomas Merton, Mystics & Zen Masters (New York: Dell, 1961), 236.

[30] See 9 Concert Pieces for John Cage (1966; Anthology 9).

[31] Ono, “To the Wesleyan People.”

[32] Ibid.

[33] For documentation of this show with photographs by George Maciunas, see Hendricks, Paintings and Drawings by Yoko Ono, exh. cat (1993).

[34] Gene R. Swenson, “Review and Previews: New Names This Month,” Art News 60, no. 5 (September 1961): 14.

[35] Groups like the Bokujin-kai, Japan’s dominant avant-garde calligraphy movement in the 1950s and 1960s, worked with European artists such as Henri Michaux, Georges Mathieu, and Pierre Alechinsky as well as with native avant-garde groups like Gutai, to redefine calligraphy as a contemporary, international art. For more on Bokujin-kai and postwar avant-garde calligraphy, see Alexandra Munroe, Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky (New York: Abrams, 1994), 129–32.

[36] Jill Johnston’s review of the Carnegie concert (no. 52) recounted the following: “I was alternately stupefied and aroused, with long stretches of stupor, as one might feel when relaxing into a doze induced by a persistent mumbling of low-toned voices” (“Life and Art,” Village Voice, 7 December 1961, 10).

[37] Lucy R. Lippard, “Escape Attempts” in Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965–1975, exh. cat (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995), 17.

[38] Ono quoted in “Yoko Ono: Instruction Painting” in Yoko at lndica, exh. cat. (1966), n.p.

[39] For anti-art collectives, such as Group Ongaku, Neo-Dada Organizers, Hi Red Center, and Kyūshū-ha, see Munroe, Scream Against the Sky, 154–59 and Reiko Tomii’s “Glossary” in the same volume.

[40] For more on the Tone Prize, see Tomii, “Concerning the Institution of Art: Conceptualism in Japan” in Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s, exh. cat (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999), 20–21.

[41] Ibid., 18.

[42] Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler, “The Dematerialization of Art,” Art lnternational12, no. 2 (February 1968): 32–33.

[43] A related instruction, Painting to Exist Only When It’s Copied or Photographed, reads: “Let People copy or photograph/your/paintings./Destroy the originals.” (1964 spring; published in Grapefruit, 1964).

[44] See Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art, 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (winter 1990): 105–43.

[45] Joseph Kosuth, The Sixth Investigation 1969 Proposition 14 (Cologne: Gerd de Vries, 1971), n.p.

[46] Miyakawa Atsushi, quoted in Arakawa Shūsaku: Miyakawa Atsushi e-ten/The Exhibition of Shūsaku Arakawa: To Atsushi Miyakawa, exh. cat .(Tokyo: Touko Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990), 59.

[47] Ono, “The Word of a Fabricator.”

[48] Ono, interview with author, August 1997.

[49] Ono quoted in Cott, “Sixteen-Track Voice,” 117.

[50] David Bourdon quoted in Paul Taylor, “Yoko Ono’s New Bronze Age at the Whitney,” New York Times, 5 February 1989.

[51] Ono, “To the Wesleyan People.”

[52] Kristine Stiles, “Unbosoming Lennon: The Politics of Yoko Ono’s Experience,” Art Criticism 7, no. 2 (1992): 40. This is an excellent study of Ono’s feminist politics and her related performance and film works, many realized in collaboration with Lennon.

[53] Ono, “Biography/Statement” (1966; Anthology 26).

[54] Jonas Mekas quoted in Kristine McKenna, “Yoko Reconsidered,” Los Angeles Times, 11 April 1993.

[55] Ono quoted in Jerry Hopkins, Yoko Ono (New York: Macmillan 1986), 29.

[56] Colt, “Sixteen-Track Voice,” 123.

[57] Lennon quoted in Ben Fong-Torres, “A Chronology” in The Ballad of John and Yoko, 32.

[58] Wenner, “Remembering John Lennon” in John Lennon: Drawings, Performances, Films, exh. cat. (Stuttgart: Cantz. 1995), 19.

[59] Ono, “The Word of a Fabricator.”

[60] Takiguchi (1931) quoted in Dore Ashton, Isamu Noguchi East and West (New York: Knopf, 1992), 89.

[61] See, for example, “Vigil: Yoko Ono Sends Her Blessings,” Times (London), 17 December 1980.

[62] Robert Palmer, “On Thin Ice: The Music of Yoko Ono” in booklet in Onobox (1992), 74.

[63] White terror” appears in the lyrics of Ono’s song, “Kiss Kiss Kiss” (1980).

[64] Carlo McCormick. “Yoko Ono Solo,” Artforum 27, no. 6 (February 1989): 120.

[65] Palmer, “On Thin Ice,” 46

[66] Ono, “Rising” in Rising, CD ( 1995).

[67] Ono, interview with author, October 1998. She said, “Before meeting John, I was doing two concerts and lectures a month. I was in demand. I was able to express myself all the time. Suddenly, by becoming the wife of a Beatle. what was required of me was to shut up. Or if at all possible, to overdose and die. I took it as a challenge, like how can I create new works in jail? It was like a prison. A strange, rare, invisible prison.”

[68] Nick Hasted, “Starting Over,” Independent, 24 June 1997.

[69] Gillian Gaar, “ONO INA BOX,” The Rocket Magazine (March 1992): 40. Gaar is author of She’s A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll (Seattle: Seal Press, 1992), which features a preface by Ono.

[70] Lawrence Alloway,”Art,” Nation (8 November 197 1): 48 (review of Ono’s solo exhibition at the Everson Museum).

[71] McCormick, “Yoke Ono Solo,” 120

[72] Ono, “Bronze Age” (1988; Anthology 17).

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