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Artists Yoko Ono Art Works
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Yoko Ono

Japanese-American Conceptual and Performance Artist, and Musician

Movements and Styles: Happenings, Fluxus, Performance Art, Conceptual Art

Born: February 18, 1933 - Tokyo, Japan

Yoko Ono Timeline

Important Art by Yoko Ono

The below artworks are the most important by Yoko Ono - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Painting to Hammer a Nail (1961)
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Painting to Hammer a Nail (1961)

Artwork description & Analysis: Ono's most well-known works of the early 1960s are her "instructional pieces," so-called because the viewer is given instructions to follow. Following these instructions is an active part of making the work. This work consists of a canvas on a wood panel. Connected to the canvas is a hammer hanging from a chain. Nearby is a chair, with a jar of nails on it. Directions for the work ask the viewer to hammer a nail into the panel, and wrap a strand of his or her hair around it. Exhibited in 1966 in a gallery in London, the work was considered finished when the surface was completely covered in nails. Relinquishing her status as the author and empowering the public to complete the work was an incredibly radical concept for the time.

The idea that the work of art would be completed by the audience did, however, have antecedents in music. This is essentially an equivalent to John Cage's experimental "Four minutes, thirty-three seconds" (1952), in which the ambient noises in the room (furnished by the audience) throughout that brief period of time are considered the work. An early instance of Ono's brilliance as an innovator, this demonstrates her capacity to fuse musical concepts with new ideas that pushed the boundaries of visual art.

Canvas, Hammer, Chain, Nails - Seattle Art Museum

Bag Piece (1964)
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Bag Piece (1964)

Artwork description & Analysis: More open-ended and audience focused than earlier "instructional pieces", Bag Piece instructed two individuals to enter a large black bag (an environment of complete darkness) and remove their clothes. After a few minutes, they were to put their clothes back on and exit. It was up to them to decide what to do while inside the bag. In this work, Ono's aim was to create a situation that diminished the power of race, gender, class, and other traditional distinctions. While for the two individuals inside the bag, these distinctions were diminished by blindness and vulnerability, observers on the outside were also unable to draw conclusions based on these traditional categories. The figures could be anyone. The work was inaugurated in Tokyo at the Sogetsu Art Center by Ono and Anthony Cox, her husband at the time.

Two audience members, and a black bag (Performance)

Cut Piece (1964)
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Cut Piece (1964)

Artwork description & Analysis: A landmark work, and one of the artist's best-known, Cut Piece was presented at the Sogetsu Art Center, the same Tokyo venue that had hosted her Bag Piece. Ono wore one of her best suits and knelt on the stage holding a pair of scissors. She invited audience members to cut pieces of her clothing off using the scissors. The artist remained still and silent until she was down to only her underwear. The process of witnessing clothes cut from the body elicited a range of responses from the audience. Themes of materialism, gender, class, and cultural identity were central to the work.

According to Ono, her original intention was to harness the Buddhist mentality (Buddha, born a wealthy prince, achieved enlightenment by giving up everything and sitting under a tree for seven years), with a feminist subtext: women too often need to give up everything. This performance was a demonstration of that reality. Ono's Cut Piece was the first performance piece to address the potential for sexual violence in public spectacle. It is also among the first examples of Performance Art.

Body, Clothes, and Scissors (Performance piece)

Grapefruit (1964)
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Grapefruit (1964)

Artwork description & Analysis: Both an artwork and a book, Grapefruit demonstrates the versatility of Ono's practice, and reminds us that, like many Conceptual artists, she found her way into visual art through writing. A series of instructions for living, Grapefruit contains over 150 written pieces divided into five sections: Music, Painting, Event, Poetry, and Object. Each piece is an instruction that can be completed in the reader's imagination or as an action. Cloud Piece reads as follows: "Imagine the clouds dripping. /Dig a hole in your garden to/ put them in." Ono had already performed some of the instructions for the public, such as "Leave a piece of canvas or finished painting on the floor or in the street." Grapefruit hands the whole process over to the audience.

First published in 1964 in Tokyo by Wunternaum Press, Grapefruit was tiny (5 2/5 in. by 5 2/5 in. by 1 3/10 inches), and referenced many of her artist friends such as La Monte Young. The book was republished by Simon & Schuster soon after with revisions and additions that made it more commercial, including a foreword written by John Lennon. Heavily informed by Zen Buddhism and Dada, the Western and Eastern traditions with which Ono was familiar, the book is regarded as a milestone of conceptual art.

Print book, Wunternaum Press

Play It By Trust aka White Chess Set (1966)
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Play It By Trust aka White Chess Set (1966)

Artwork description & Analysis: Ono's work of the mid 1960s veered toward minimalism. This piece, an all-white chessboard, exemplifies that trend in her work, while maintaining a connection with Ono's earlier instructional pieces inspired by Zen Buddhism and Dada (chess was Duchamp's favorite game). The work comes with the following instructions: "Play it for as long as you can remember/ who is your opponent and/ who is your own self." The question of how to move forward when one's opponent is indistinguishable from one's self is, of course, the central problem. Western audiences of the 1960s were beginning to take an interest in Eastern philosophies (Buddhism in particular) that believe that conflict resolution hinges on the understanding that everything is connected, and that we are all one. This piece was first presented at the Indica Gallery in London, and it demonstrated Ono's strong anti-war sentiments. She wanted players to see beyond black and white, explaining that "The problem is not how to become different or unique, but how to share an experience, how to be the same almost, how to communicate."

Painted Bronze - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Ceiling Painting/ YES Painting (1966)
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Ceiling Painting/ YES Painting (1966)

Artwork description & Analysis: Like Ono's other pieces it is instructional. A white stepladder at the center of the room leads up to a framed glass panel. A magnifying glass hangs from a chain beside it. When one uses the magnifying glass to look at the framed glass panel, one sees the word "YES", written on a tiny piece of paper.

Ono describes the work as representing pain and the journey towards hope and affirmation, which can be difficult to attain and exists up high like some sort of cathedral. This piece also reflects her personal philosophy. The positivity in this particular work was what brought her together with her future husband, John Lennon, who was so delighted by this upbeat piece that he asked to be introduced to the artist, who (rather remarkably) didn't know who he was.

Text on paper, glass, metal frame, metal chain, magnifying glass, painted ladder (Performance)

Wish Tree (1996)
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Wish Tree (1996)

Artwork description & Analysis: Since the 1990s, Yoko Ono's Wish Tree has appeared in an array of contexts and countries around the world. Ono asks audience members to write down wishes on cards, and hang them on a tree. The museum staff then gathers the wishes and returns them to Ono, who buries them at the base of her Imagine Peace Tower in Rijkavik, Iceland. Wish Tree is evidence that despite the interdisciplinary and experimental nature of her work, Ono's approach as a conceptual artist has remained remarkably consistent. Like other major works by Ono, Wish Tree relies on audience participation. Ono provides the idea, circumstance, and materials, and then steps aside to let the work take shape. The premise is egalitarian and the execution simple, but the symbolism is complex, elegant, and even devotional. According to the artist, a childhood memory of writing wishes on small pieces of paper she hung from flowering branches in a temple garden served as the inspiration for this work. The ceremonial display and subsequent burial of wishes from all over the world disseminates Ono's universal message of peace.

Mixed Media (tree, paper tags, string) - Traveling exhibition

Voice Piece for Soprano (1961)
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Voice Piece for Soprano (1961)

Artwork description & Analysis: Typical of Ono's anti-authoritarian stance toward institutions, this interactive work, composed in 1961, instructs participants to break a cardinal rule of museum etiquette. Ono, a trained vocalist, composed Voice Piece for Soprano in 1961. It consists of an empty room with text on one side that reads "Scream against the wind/against the wall/against the sky." At the other end is a microphone and loudspeakers. In 2010, it was installed in the massive atrium of the Museum of Modern Art (where noise travels everywhere, even without a microphone) and instantly became one of the most popular and controversial works on view at the museum. Against the artist's wishes, the museum ultimately turned the volume down, in response to complaints from staff that the blood-curdling screams were intolerable. Inspired partly by the work of John Cage, one of Ono's mentors, this brilliantly transgressive work liberates us from one of our most fundamental inhibitions, by inviting passionate chaos into the art world.

- Performed in the Atrium of MoMA, July 2010



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Yoko Ono Photo

Related Art and Artists

Theater Piece No. 1 (1952)
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Theater Piece No. 1 (1952)

Movement: Neo-Dada

Artist: John Cage

Artwork description & Analysis: Cage's Theater Piece No. 1, also known as simply "The Event," was a seminal performance for the evolution of Neo-Dada, paving the way for the movement's signature collaborations and multimedia basis. Conceived by Cage, the piece involved several simultaneous, unscripted performance components including a poetry reading, music, dance, photographic slide projections, film, and four panels of Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (1951) suspended from the ceiling in the shape of a cross. While Cage set certain guidelines for which medium each performer used, he let each individual artist determine the specifics of their role within the performance, emphasizing the function of chance in determining the course of the event. The aspects were all integral to the development of the Neo-Dada aesthetic as well as later performance art, and were encapsulated within this one work in which many of the key artists within the Neo-Dada movement played integral roles.

Multimedia performance event - Performed at Black Mountain College

Spring Banquet/ Cannibal Feast (1959)
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Spring Banquet/ Cannibal Feast (1959)

Artist: Meret Oppenheim

Artwork description & Analysis: On opening day of the 1959 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (EROS) in Paris, Oppenheim exhibited a compelling and horrifying tableau. It featured a live woman (later replaced by a mannequin) garnished with fish, fruit and nuts. Oppenheim set the table with cutlery, inviting the spectator to a cannibal feast. The idea for the public exhibition originated in a private event. The artist held a "fertility feast" in Bern earlier that year and invited three couples to feast on fruits, nuts and shellfish, presented on the body of a naked female model. The artist, then in mid-career, saw it as a lavish celebration of life, love and mortality. Hearing of it, André Breton, her life-long supporter, begged her to restage it for his forthcoming exhibition on the theme of eroticism and voyeurism. This shift in context and theme significantly altered the work's reception. Breton called it Cannibal Feast, renaming it in a manner that emphasized the violence of the act. Understandably, spectators were shocked and horrified, and Oppenheim even admitted that this version strayed far from her original intention "Instead of a simple spring festival, it was yet another woman taken for male pleasure." Today it continues to be re-enacted, less controversially, but always with the intent to provoke a mixture of pleasure and discomfort.

The House with the Ocean View (2002)
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The House with the Ocean View (2002)

Artist: Marina Abramović

Artwork description & Analysis: In The House with the Ocean View, Abramović spent twelve days in the Sean Kelly Gallery without eating, writing or speaking. Contained within three 'rooms' built six feet off the ground, Abramović slept, drank water, urinated, showered and gazed at the viewers wearing a differently colored outfit each day. She could walk between the three rooms, but the ladders leading to the floor had rungs made of butcher knives. Set to the sound of a metronome, Abramović ritualized the activities of daily life, focusing on the self and simplicity while eliminating all aspects of narrative and dialogue. She saw this piece as an act of purification - not just for herself, but also for any viewer who entered the space. This piece was a shift from the masochism of her earlier works to performances that focus more on ideas of presence and shared energy, although there is still the element of danger present in the butcher knife ladder. In addition, it was an extension of the challenging durational works that have long been a significant aspect of Abramović's career.

Sink, bed, chair with mineral pillow, table, toilet, shower, pants and shirts in different colors, white towels, metal bucket, metronome, bar of natural soap, bottle of rose water, bottle of pure almond oil, ladder of wood and butcher knives

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Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein
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