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Artists Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono

Japanese-American Conceptual and Performance Artist, and Musician

Movements: Happenings, Fluxus, Performance Art, Conceptual Art

Born: February 18, 1933 - Tokyo, Japan

Quotes

"I thought art was a verb, rather than a noun."
Yoko Ono
"We're all water from different rivers,
That's why it's so easy to meet,

We're all water in this vast, vast ocean,
Someday we'll evaporate together."
Yoko Ono
"I see life as the playground of our lives."
Yoko Ono
"You may think I'm small, but I have a universe inside my mind."
Yoko Ono
"Art is my life and my life is art."
Yoko Ono
"Smile in the mirror. Do that every morning and you'll start to see a big difference in your life."
Yoko Ono

"What I'm trying to do is make something happen by throwing a pebble into the water and creating ripples...I don't want to control the ripples."

Synopsis

Well before her famous partnership with John Lennon, Yoko Ono was the "High Priestess of the Happening" and a pioneer in performance art. Drawing from an array of sources from Zen Buddhism to Dada, her pieces were some of the movement's earliest and most daring. With unprecedented radicalism, she rejected the idea that an artwork must be a material object. Many of her works consist merely of instructions. In Cloud Piece (1963) for example, she instructs us to imagine digging a hole in the garden, and putting clouds into it. Ono faced the considerable challenge of remaining visible as an artist, not just a rock star's wife. For brief periods, the media's intrusive presence stopped her from working altogether. Remarkably, however, she persisted in sustaining a career that was well-established before Lennon's arrival on the scene, and which deserves to be admired in its own right.

Key Ideas

Ono's fundamental contribution to the formation of Conceptual Art was involving the audience into the completion of the work. It is designed so that anyone can make it - a crucial dimension of its meaning.
Ono was one of the strongest feminist voices to emerge from the art world in the 60s. Her Cut Piece (1964), a first for feminist art performance, invited audience members to take turns cutting off her clothes using a pair of scissors. It also brought the audience into close contact with the artist, which was a new concept and crossed traditional boundaries.
A path-breaking force in eliminating boundaries among the arts, in the early 1960s, Ono opened her home to dancers, composers, and artists and encouraged them to work together. The building of interdisciplinary community is another great area of achievement in her career, and a fundamental aspect of her practice.
A pioneer in music as well as art, Ono was trained as a classical pianist. She was also steeped in Japanese Imperial music (Gagaku). Her familiarity with both traditions captivated experimental Western musicians La Monte Young and John Cage (Cage's 4'33'' is essentially a translation of the famous Zen koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"). She in turn was influenced by them.
Experiences, events, and performances form the backbone of her artistic practice. In this respect she is the quintessential conceptual artist. Her work is designed to redirect our attention to ideas, instead of appearances.
Though her name has been unfairly associated with a woman who negatively affects a man's professional performance (Beatles fans often blame her for their breakup), Ono helped John become much more conceptual. She assisted him in moving away from the mainstream that the Beatles had previously inhabited, and encouraged him to develop an independent voice as a composer and musician.

Most Important Art

Cut Piece (1964)
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.
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Biography

Early Years

Yoko Ono Biography

Yoko Ono was the eldest of three children, born to Isoko and Eisuke Ono, conservative Japanese aristocrats. Yoko's mother was a painter. Her father wanted to be a concert pianist, but had given up his dream career to be a banker, and sought to live vicariously through his talented daughter Yoko, sending her to music school at the age of four. She later moved on to one of Japan's most exclusive schools, Gakushuin. Ono had a strained relationship with her mother, who resented her own children, feeling that they were a drain on her enjoyment of upper class life in Tokyo. She later told Ono never to marry and never to have children. Ono's childhood was isolated. Despite being wealthy, she was neglected by her parents, who were too busy to show affection. As a child, she rang for the maid simply in order to see someone. Her creativity and musicality provided the comfort she very much needed.

In 1945 American planes bombed Tokyo, forcing Ono and her family to flee into the countryside. They had to forage for food traveling from farm to farm with their few belongings. Ono and her family were reduced to skin and bone; farmers who resented the population fleeing from cities threw stones at them. Ono remembers being drawn to the beauty of the sky during those times. The next year her school reopened and she continued her studies, graduating in 1951. She was the first woman to be accepted into the philosophy program at Gakushuin University. After two semesters, however, she left to join her family, who had moved to Scarsdale, New York. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and was drawn to the radical politics of the small liberal arts college, where she met artists and poets. She had planned to be a writer, but her writings didn't fit the Western academic mold embraced by her professors at Sarah Lawrence, although she continued utilizing her musical talents.

She discovered the work of New York avant-garde composer John Cage and befriended him and others such as La Monte Young. Here Ono found her niche. Cage, Young, and other early members of this avant-garde movement were heavily inspired by the elite cultural traditions of Japan, and Ono's background was a distinct advantage as opposed to a drawback, as it had been in literary circles. Ono began dating Toschi Ichiyanagi, a Juilliard student who shared her passion for avant-garde intercultural music, and wrote her first composition, Secret Piece, in 1955. Against her parents' wishes Ono left college and married Ichiyanagi. The two moved to Manhattan, where she began to pursue her life as an artist.

Mature Period

Yoko Ono Photo

During the sixties, Ono gravitated toward the circles of artists participating in "happenings," and held events at her own loft at 112 Chambers Street in New York City. Fluxus artists, avant-garde musicians, and other performers gathered there on a regular basis. Ono became the informal curator of the downtown arts scene in this space, and was known as a one-woman powerhouse. Named the "High Priestess of the Happening" Ono was considered a lightning rod for culture, always at the cutting edge of emerging trends in visual art and performance. La Monte Young, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were among the artists she hosted in her loft at 112 Chambers Street. Evening events typically drew as many as 200 people.

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Yoko Ono Biography Continues

During this time Ono supported herself as a secretary and a teacher of traditional Japanese arts. In 1961 she had her first solo show. She divorced her first husband and wed American jazz musician, film producer, and art promoter Tony Cox, and a year later the two had a daughter named Kyoko. Ono had established herself in the underground art scene by the mid-sixties. She performed musical pieces and was a reluctant part of the Fluxus art group, she was a seminal figure at its inception but didn't want to remain associated with it as she valued her independence as an artist. She published her legendary book of performance poetry called Grapefruit (1964) and began making films. After performing her now-famous Cut Piece, she was invited to hold an exhibition at the Indica Gallery in London. As she was preparing the exhibit, John Lennon came in to view the exhibit. He admired her artworks and was especially taken with YES (1966), a small affirmative painting at the top of a ladder, which he appreciated for its positivity. He also enjoyed Hammer A Nail (1966) and although the exhibition hadn't yet opened asked if he could hammer in a nail, when Ono said no the gallery owner took her aside and explained that Lennon was a millionaire and might buy the piece. Ono hadn't heard of the Beatles. She agreed that John could hammer in a nail for five shillings. Lennon replied that in exchange for an imaginary five shillings he'd hammer in an imaginary nail.

Drawn together by their love of words and music, they began to collaborate on performance and film. By 1969 Ono had divorced Cox and married Lennon. Cox won custody of Kyoko and bitterly resisted Ono's visitation rights. In 1971 he fled with Kyoko to Los Angeles and joined a cult. Despite an official investigation, Ono and Lennon were unable to trace the whereabouts of him or the child. They finally resurfaced in 1986. By then Kyoko was 22, and she and Ono have since remained somewhat estranged. An open letter from Ono to her daughter, the year that she was found, gives us some insight into this tumultuous period in her life, as well as the strength of her character: "Dear Kyoko, All these years there has not been one day I have not missed you. You are always in my heart. However, I will not make any attempt to find you now as I wish to respect your privacy. I wish you all the best in the world. If you ever wish to get in touch with me, know that I love you deeply and would be very happy to hear from you. But you should not feel guilty if you choose not to reach me. You have my respect, love and support forever. Love, Mommy"

This ongoing personal drama and her relationship with one of the most famous people in the world put a strain on Ono's career in the 1970s and 80s. Her avant-garde friends thought she was getting too mainstream. Ono's personal practice waned as her work ethic needed focus and with John at her side her attention became split. The high-profile relationship was hard for Ono as she and John were not liked very much by the public, and many thought Ono was taking Lennon away from his famous band. Girls were also jealous of her. Ono felt she needed space from it and she and Lennon took some time apart physically, but remained close talking every day. A year later she and Lennon got back together and she became pregnant. At the age of 42, Ono was afraid of miscarrying again, since she had lost several pregnancies already. Therefore, she spent most of that time in bed. John would push her around the house in a wheelchair so they could share meals. In 1975 their son Sean was born. Lennon took care of the baby while Ono ran the business side of their shared record label, Lenono (a contraction of their two names). In 1980, an unthinkable tragedy occurred: her husband was shot and killed outside of their home in New York.

Late Period

A rush of media attention followed Lennon's death, but Ono went into seclusion. Over the course of the 1980s she gradually reemerged as an artist and public figure, returning to musical, written, and visual pieces from previous years. Ono never remarried, but kept her late husband's legacy alive, creating the LennonOno Grant for Peace in 2002 and inaugurating a structure in 2007 called the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland. She has continued to pursue her career as an experimental composer and has released three solo albums, touring, and composing two off-broadway musicals. Now in her eighties, Ono continues to work for peace, and sees things with ardent optimism, claiming we will see peace on earth in the year 2050. She spreads the message through her work and life that the future is now. Her album, titled "Yes, I'm a Witch" (an arch nod to her public image), released in 2007 in collaboration with music giants such as DJ Spooky, Cat Power, and the Flaming Lips, topped the charts with numerous dance hits and collaborations, and reflects Ono's indomitable spirit.


Legacy

Yoko Ono Portrait

Ono's performances and instructional paintings of the early 1960s changed forever the relationship between artist and audience. Bed-In and Bagism, pieces staged in 1969 with Lennon, are direct antecedents for subsequent works that turned private life into public spectacle, most famously Tracy Emin's My Bed (1998) and her involvement in the peace movement encouraged future generations of artists to use visual art as a political platform. Her mutually influential partnership with John Lennon is well-traversed territory, but it is worth remembering that in leading us through the process of imagining a different, better world, Lennon's famous solo song "Imagine" is essentially a reprise of Yoko's instructional pieces. Ono's innovative, iconoclastic presence in the art world extended far beyond this partnership, furthering the dialogue on materialism and cultural consumerism in a way that has inspired Rirkrit Tiravanija, Suzanne Lacy, and other artists involved in social practice. Finally, in calling attention to the vulnerability and resilience of the female body, Ono gave future female performance artists, among them Valie Export, Hannah Wilke and Marina Abramovic, permission to take even greater risks.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Yoko Ono
Interactive chart with Yoko Ono's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Meret Oppenheim
Walter de Maria
George Maciunas
George Brecht
Marcel Duchamp

Friends

John Cage
Jackson Mac Low

Movements

Happenings
Dada
Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono
Years Worked: 1956 - present

Artists

Marina Abramović
Charlotte Moorman

Friends

Andy Warhol
Keith Haring
Peggy Guggenheim

Movements

Fluxus
Conceptual Art
Performance Art
Feminist Art

Useful Resources on Yoko Ono

Books
Websites
Articles
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies

By Nell Beram

Reaching Out with No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono

By Lisa Carver

Yoko Ono: Between the Sky and My Head

By Thomas Kellein

More Interesting Books about Yoko Ono
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel

Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel
Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein
Available from:
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Dada
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
TheArtStory: Dada
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory: Conceptual Art
La Monte Young
La Monte Young
La Monte Young
La Monte Young is an American musical composer and a pioneer of the mediums known as drone music and musical minimalism, wherein compositions are characterized by highly complex and unusual instrumentation, and are often several hours in length. Young is also often associated with John Cage and other Fluxus artists. His best known piece is The Well Tuned Piano (1964), a sprawling and minimalist work of themed improvisation performed on a single piano.
La Monte Young
John Cage
John Cage
John Cage
John Cage was an American composer and conceptual artist who incorporated chance, silence, and environmental effects into his performances. An important art theorist, he influenced choreographers, musicians, and the Fluxus artists of the 1970s.
TheArtStory: John Cage
Fluxus
Fluxus
Fluxus
Fluxus was an international network of artists of the 1960s who worked in fields ranging from music to performance to the visual arts. Taking their name from the Latin 'to flow,' Fluxus artists adopted an often anarchic and satirical approach to conventional forms of art, and their ideas paved the way for Conceptual art.
TheArtStory: Fluxus
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
TheArtStory: Marcel Duchamp
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim, the neice of Solomon R. Guggenheim, was a collector, patron, and eclectic personality deeply connected to modern art. She gave important exhibitions to many Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist artists at her Art of This Century gallery in New York in the 1940s.
TheArtStory: Peggy Guggenheim
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
TheArtStory: Jasper Johns
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
TheArtStory: Robert Rauschenberg
Marina Abramović
Marina Abramović
Marina Abramović
Marina Abramović's is one of the key artists in the performance art movement. Her work often involves putting herself in grave danger and performing lengthy, harmful routines that result in her being cut or burnt, or enduring some privation.
TheArtStory: Marina Abramović
Happenings
Happenings
Happenings
The term "happening" was coined by artist Allan Kaprow in 1957 to decribe a series of multi-media artworks on display in a single locale. In general, a happening is an art event, often staged or pre-scripted, that requires active participation from an audience to come to full fruition. This relatively new form of artistic media could be called participatory.
TheArtStory: Happenings
Performance Art
Performance Art
Performance Art
Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.
TheArtStory: Performance Art
Meret Oppenheim
Meret Oppenheim
Meret Oppenheim
Meret Oppenheim was a Swiss artist best-known for her work in Surrealism. A decade into the start of this movement, Oppenheim was invited to join the surrealist exhibition, "Salon des Surindependants" by Hans Arp and Alberto Giacometti, who were impressed by her work after visiting her studio. After this first appearance, Oppenheim had many solo exhibitions throughout and after her career, in Europe and in the United States. The artist's most famous work is the surrealist sculpture, Object (Le Dejeuner en fourrure), which consists of a teacup covered in fur.
TheArtStory: Meret Oppenheim
Walter de Maria
Walter de Maria
Walter de Maria
Walter de Maria is an American sculptor, composer, and multi-media artist. His works have been characterized as Minimalist, Installation, Land art, Neo-Dada, and Conceptualist. De Maria's best known work is The Lightning Field (1977), consisting of 400 lightning rods situated on a field in New Mexico.
TheArtStory: Walter de Maria
George Maciunas
George Maciunas
George Maciunas
George Maciunas was a Lithuanian-born American artist. He was a founding member of Fluxus, an international community of artists, architects, composers, and designers. He is most famous for organizing and performing happenings and for assembling a series of highly influential artists' multiples.
George Maciunas
George Brecht
George Brecht
George Brecht
George Brecht was an American conceptual artist and avant-garde composer as well as a professional chemist, who worked as a consultant for companies including Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, and Mobil Oil. He was a key member of, and influence on, Fluxus.
George Brecht
Jackson Mac Low
Jackson Mac Low
Jackson Mac Low
Jackson Mac Low was an experimental American composer, poet, playwright and performance artist. Working in the tradition of John Cage, Mac Low's work incorporated elements of chance, in which the eventual outcome of any piece would change each time. Arguably his greatest contribution was a form of non-intentional composition he dubbed 'diastic,' a new form of abstract poetry.
Jackson Mac Low
Charlotte Moorman
Charlotte Moorman
Charlotte Moorman
Charlotte Moorman was an American cellist and performance artist with ties to the Fluxus movement. She is arguably best known for her semi-nude cello performances, which earned her the nickname "the topless cellist," and for founding New York's annual Avant Garde Festival, which discontinued in 1980.
Charlotte Moorman
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
TheArtStory: Andy Warhol
Keith Haring
Keith Haring
Keith Haring
Keith Haring was a crucial part of the 1980s New York City art, performance and street scenes, creating graffiti-inspired works and drawings, often in public places such as the subway.
TheArtStory: Keith Haring
Feminist Art
Feminist Art
Feminist Art
Feminist art emerged in the 1960s and '70s to explore questions of sex, power, the body, and the ways in which gender categories structure how we see and understand the world. Developing at the same time as many new media strategies, feminist art frequently involves text, installation, and performance elements.
TheArtStory: Feminist Art
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