Few artists find their legacies obscured by their status as global media celebrities. Yoko Ono is among them. Long before she became a Beatle’s wife, she was a pioneering conceptual artist with an international reputation. This exhilarating retrospective reveals a multifaceted creative personality whose minimalist elegance, maddening naïveté, and coolly philosophical approach to existential anguish remain surprisingly consistent.
Born in 1933 to a prominent Japanese banking family, Ono studied philosophy and poetry in New York and Tokyo. In 1955, she eloped with her first husband, composer Ichiyanagi Toshi, to a cold-water loft on Chambers Street, where they hosted avant-garde musical events. Her earliest works include a set of Cageian instructions for performances that meld haiku, Duchampian poetics, and absurdist theater. As a Fluxus member, her “sales” of future mornings parodied art’s commodification while poetically reflecting time’s evanescence. Her 1966 London installation of ordinary things cut in half and painted white suggested a Zen koan or ghostly presences.
Her films mined the landscape of the body with giddy subversion or primordial majesty. In Fly, a housefly crawls over a woman’s bare flesh to Ono’s keening soundtrack. For Cut Piece, a wrenching performance, Ono sat impassively on her knees as audience members sliced off pieces of her clothing, evoking the painful nakedness of the self before society.
After her 1969 marriage to John Lennon, the couple harnessed their notoriety to political activism, but the media glare must also have been wearing. Ono’s works seem increasingly diffuse, perhaps because the selection here omits recent, large-scale installations. If you’d like to know more, wait beside Telephone Piece—a phone with the instructions “When the telephone rings, pick it up and talk to Yoko Ono.” The guards say she calls in and takes questions.