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
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)
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)
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