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Yoko Ono Photo

Yoko Ono

Japanese-American Conceptual and Performance Artist, and Musician

Born: February 18, 1933 - Tokyo, Japan
"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."
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Yoko Ono Signature
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Yoko Ono Signature
"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."
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Yoko Ono Signature
"I see life as the playground of our lives."
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Yoko Ono Signature
"You may think I'm small, but I have a universe inside my mind."
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Yoko Ono Signature
"Art is my life and my life is art."
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Yoko Ono Signature
"Smile in the mirror. Do that every morning and you'll start to see a big difference in your life."
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Yoko Ono Signature

Summary of Yoko Ono

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.


  • 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.

Biography of Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono at an unveiling of a plaque in memory of John Lennon (2010)

Yoko Ono had a long career and was integral to many directions in art. She was always an active creator, known for saying "I thought art was a verb, rather than a noun."

Progression of Art


Painting to Hammer a Nail

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

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

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)



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

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

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)

Wish Tree

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

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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Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein

"Yoko Ono Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 25 Mar 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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