One recent afternoon, I was sitting in a room in Yoko Ono’s apartment in the Dakota building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, waiting for her to arrive. The apartment was dark, but this room was entirely white—white carpets, white walls, white table, white orchids on the table, and John Lennon’s white grand piano, the top closed and covered with various awards (not white). I was sitting on a long white couch. Hanging on the walls were a not-insignificant number of Surrealist icons, and by the window overlooking Central Park was a miniature sculpture of a cat. The cat was black.
Ono came into the room as if she had suddenly sprouted out of the floor and took me into her kitchen. She didn’t have shoes, and she moved quickly and silently. She wore black, and her black hair was cropped short. She had on a pair of black sunglasses that, during the time I was with her, she never removed. Compared to the white room, I can only describe the kitchen as surprisingly suburban.
Ono is 82 and her upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Christophe Cherix, focuses on her work during the years 1960 to 1971. The exhibition should serve as a final validation for her contributions to the avant-garde during that time, an acceptance into the canon that has, if not exactly eluded her, then at least been overshadowed by her marriage to Lennon.
The early experimental artist and critic Ken Friedman anointed Ono, in a 1972 article for Art and Artists, a member of “the historical founding circle” of Conceptual art. But months before the MoMA show opened, in the wake of a Biesenbach-curated exhibition of the musician Björk, perhaps the worst-reviewed show in the museum’s recent history, critics were already lumping Ono into the pile of evidence of MoMA’s celebrity worship. Ignoring Ono’s role in the history of contemporary art is naive, but it’s also rather typical. Controversy followed her even before she met Lennon, whose fame brought Ono to an unprepared mass audience.
This is not Ono’s first show at MoMA, though it would be fair to say that the first one never happened. It was called “The Museum of Modern [F]art,” and mostly consisted of an ad Ono took out in the Village Voice and The New York Times, announcing a one-woman show at MoMA, running December 1 to 15, 1971. She produced a catalogue for the exhibition that depicts her standing in MoMA’s sculpture garden with an enormous glass jar of flies, which she released into the city and hired a photographer to document as they moved across New York. She told me the idea to use flies in her work, which she did throughout the second half of the ’60s, came to her from a British cartoon. “A guy with roving eyes looking at this woman with these huge breasts,” she said, “you know, like this”—she made a kind of bulging gesture with her hands—“but she had a fly on her shirt, and so you didn’t know if he was looking at the fly or the big boobs.”
Of her MoMA show in 1971, Ono said, “But of course there were no flies, and no jar. It was just in your mind.”
The entire thing was staged to look like it might have happened, though none of it ever did. Instead, visitors to the museum were greeted by a sign describing the release of the flies into the city and a handwritten note posted to the museum’s ticket counter that said, “This Is Not Here.” (The phrase recurs in Ono’s work from this period and dates back to a 1961 gallery show, according to an essay by Emily Wasserman in Artforum from January 1972; Ono taped a piece of paper with the phrase written on it to an ugly filing cabinet that was too heavy to move.) Ono also made a film in which a young man stood outside MoMA and asked people leaving the museum what they thought of Ono’s one-woman show—to which a number of them replied that they saw it, and they hated it.
“You see,” she said in her kitchen, “all of us artists, we were trying to find a place to present our work.” In 1971, she said, “We just had a little strange feeling about something so established as the Museum of Modern Art.” And so she did a show in concept only—at a time when MoMA exhibited virtually no women, no Asian artists, and few living artists. At this point in our interview, she somewhat inevitably brought up world peace. “There was a conceptual show,” she said, “and then there’s a reality that came from it a long time later”—referring to the current, real-life exhibition at MoMA. “And likewise,” she continued, “I think that we’re all thinking of having world peace, and I’m sure that’s going to happen, in reality. What I was doing in my work was not just showing how great I am as an artist or something. I was showing how you can deal with life. If you think about it conceptually, it can happen later.”
If Ono’s original one-woman show at MoMA was little more than a fantasy, and there were few if any contemporaneous mentions that the show even existed, it was at least in the spirit of the museum’s leadership at the time. John Hightower, then the museum’s director, referred publicly to MoMA as a “club” and encouraged artists to challenge the institution. He also said that pulling a Thanksgiving turkey from the oven “could be a great artistic experience.” This is all according to a New York Times article announcing Hightower’s resignation, at the insistence of the museum’s board, just a few weeks after Ono’s conceptual intrusion, though it’s unclear if he even knew that her encroachment had occurred.
Around this time, however, Ono had her first legitimate museum show, which opened in October 1971, and was also called “This Is Not Here.” She had already had a long and legendary artistic career by that point. In 1966, she caused some international controversy with Film No. 4, a sustained shot of the naked rear ends of the more prominent figures of swinging London’s counterculture—Ono described the piece in 1967 as “an aimless petition signed by people with their anuses.” (“They didn’t like her in London because she photographed all those bare bottoms,” one Richard Starkey said in a 1969 interview.) The following year, she had one of the first solo shows at London’s Lisson Gallery, which had opened three months before and would eventually grow into one of the world’s most prestigious purveyors of contemporary art. Nicholas Logsdail, who founded Lisson at the age of 22, may or may not have been featured in Film No. 4. He can’t actually remember. (“That’s just the kind of era it was,” he told me by phone from London.)
But in 1971, Ono was still best known for being John Lennon’s wife. “This Is Not Here,” which was held at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, listed Lennon as a “guest artist” in publicity materials, and the exhibition’s opening coincided with his 31st birthday. The press accused James Harithas, then the Everson’s director, of “publicity-seeking” for organizing a show around Ono’s work. An editorial in the Syracuse Post-Standard said whatever popularity the exhibition might bring the museum would come “at a tremendous loss of good taste and of respect in the art world.”
The show, however, was simply a carefully constructed survey of Ono’s career to that point, and MoMA’s current show contains many of the same works. There were various selections from the instruction pieces that Ono had compiled into a self-published book called Grapefruit in 1964, which she sold out of her apartment for $7 a piece. For instance: “Listen to the sound of the earth turning,” and “Use your blood to paint. Keep painting until you faint. Keep painting until you die.” (MoMA has framed every page of Grapefruit and is exhibiting the book on a long wall.) It also included works like 1960’s Painting to be Stepped On, which is what it sounds like.
Ono also placed numerous mundane objects on pedestals, like a needle, or a green apple left to rot until it reverted back to a seed. That piece greets visitors as they enter the exhibition at MoMA. At the Everson, there were also contributions from friends. According to Harithas, Andy Warhol sent Ono an audiotape of people talking around an office watercooler. The show went against anything resembling conventional wisdom about how art should be exhibited. Much of the coverage was breathless and reactionary.
“We had a press conference before the show opened,” Harithas told me, “and after it ended, we realized the press—at least 40 people—had taken some…souvenirs. It was little things, like a thimble, and we were able to replace most of it, but that really surprised me. We didn’t even have the guards out during the preview.”
“The press,” Ono announced to me sarcastically from her kitchen, raising her hands in mock exaltation. “They kind of raided it.”
Worse than a group of journalists stealing her work, on the morning the show was set to open to the public, Ono had a major falling out with artist and avant-garde impresario George Maciunas, the Everson show’s “producer,” who had himself raided Ono years earlier, in a manner of speaking.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Ono’s Chambers Street loft was, along with the Reuben Gallery on the Lower East Side, a kind of makeshift headquarters for the experimental art and music blossoming in downtown Manhattan—it was the site of “the first loft concert in New York City,” Ono told me, proudly. She rented it for $50.50 a month. It was also, more or less, where Henry Flynt came up with the term “concept art.” The composer La Monte Young organized a performance series there beginning in December 1960. He’d been introduced to Ono by David Tudor at a dance concert. Young, by this time, was already an established composer and session musician, but he’d recently relocated from California to New York to study with Richard Maxfield at the New School.
“I was considered very famous,” Young told me in an interview. “And the first thing Yoko said to me was, ‘One day I’ll be as famous as you.’”
Ono asked Young to direct a series of concerts at her loft, and he agreed. “And the artists were all artists that I chose,” Young said. “She didn’t know any of my artists until later.” He called Ono “the patron. The promoter.” (Of the performance series, Ono told me, “We did it together.”) There were performances by, among others, Joseph Byrd, Henry Flynt, and Terry Jennings—for which Young also played saxophone.
“Yoko’s place wasn’t the only place, but I must say she was very generous with it,” said choreographer Simone Forti, who had her first solo concert at the loft. There, Forti debuted work she categorized at the time as “dance constructions and some other things.” The “other things,” she said, included “someone shaking a pan full of nails while another person sang a song—an Italian folk song, that I sang at the top of my lungs.” Merce Cunningham was in attendance, which was expected for the loft. John Cage, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg all made appearances as well. The concerts were “very well attended,” Young said. Young, who takes all of the credit for curating the performances, said that he backed out of his involvement in the loft because Ono wanted to bring in her own artists. “I did not consider her a very important artist,” Young said, while also admitting to having “high standards” and adding that Ono “was a very nice person.” Important or not, when Maciunas opened his short-lived but influential AG Gallery on Madison Avenue, he did so with many of the artists who had been featured in Ono’s apartment.
“Many people were upset with me because I had had such good luck doing this Chambers Street space, and nobody else did that before,” Ono said. Then Maciunas began scooping up the artists working out of her loft. “I thought, ‘Oh, OK, well I’m finished then,’” she told me. “I didn’t mind it so much, because there was a lot of hatred and intensity going [on] around me—I did my best and that’s it. But then I got a call from George Maciunas himself, who was taking everything from me. And he said, ‘I would like to do your show.’ This was the first time anybody wanted to show my work in a serious space.”
That was 1961. Maciunas—who believed that an artist must “demonstrate the self-sufficiency of the audience,” according to his 1965 “Manifesto on Art”—would soon become the closest thing early Conceptual art had to a Svengali. He coined the term Fluxus as a means of branding Ono and her peers, and operated a number of illegal live-work lofts that he outfitted with booby traps to keep out lawyers and police. Maciunas and Ono supported each other throughout the next decade, though their relationship could be volatile (“What shall I say—we loved—we loved and we fought—or we fought and loved?” Ono says in an oral history of Maciunas called Mr. Fluxus). For the Syracuse show, Ono hired Maciunas to produce the objects for the exhibition. She had come up with a piece called John Lennon As a Young Cloud that Maciunas described in his notes, included in MoMA’s Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archive, as “a wall of many drawers and doors, all empty inside except one with a microscope titled: ‘John’s Smile.’” (This piece isn’t at MoMA, but a video of John Lennon smiling is.) Maciunas constructed an intricate and very large installation of cabinets with brass hinges. Ono, in an incendiary letter to Maciunas from December 1971, also in the MoMA archive, wrote that the shelves “were like…bad Italian modern furniture.” (In the same letter Ono told Maciunas, “Stalin would be ashamed of you for owning so many lofts and not paying the poor workers.”) She told David A. Ross, then a young curator at the Everson, to paint the shelves white.
“She gave me the order at midnight the night before the opening,” Ross told me. “So we just painted it—me and a couple of other guys. When [Maciunas] came in the next morning and saw what we had done, he absolutely freaked out. He was an imposing guy. He wasn’t big, but he looked like a Prussian general. He looked like he’d just bite your head off.”
What happened next is a matter of some debate among the parties involved. Harithas said only that Maciunas “got furious at Yoko.” Ono’s letter to Maciunas says he “threatened to blow up a bomb in the men’s toilet.” According to Ross, Maciunas did, in fact, retrieve a canister of helium that he planned to throw over a balcony into a passageway of the museum. (“I don’t even know if it would have exploded,” Ross said.) Harithas managed to talk him down, Ross said, but Maciunas demanded to be taken away from the museum immediately. Ross, being relatively low on the totem pole, was assigned this “unfortunate task,” to use his phrase.
“We jumped into my 1970 Datsun,” Ross said. “I was on Route 80, headed toward the airport, and we were going 60 miles an hour. And he just opened the door and rolled out. I couldn’t believe it! Someone then must have picked up this beat-up-looking hitchhiker and driven him to New York, because when I turned the car around, he wasn’t there. I have no idea what happened after that. I never spoke to him again.” The story is corroborated, at least in part, by a 1971 account of the opening by Jonas Mekas, Ono’s friend and occasional collaborator, which was eventually published in 2005 by the Post-Standard. Mekas recalls driving in a taxi on the highway to the museum and spotting Maciunas “running along the highway in the opposite direction.”
“He had very specific ideas about how the show should be handled,” Harithas said of Maciunas. “But Yoko, she was tough. She had her own ideas about the show.” The two would eventually reconcile, but Maciunas didn’t make it to the opening.
After the Everson show, Ono mostly retired from visual art, focusing instead on records with her husband that are ostensibly pop music, though in style they bear some of the wild aggression of Ono’s early pieces. After Lennon’s death, in 1980, she revived her career as an artist and attempted to almost literally cement her reputation as an important forebear of Conceptual art with a 1989 solo show at the Whitney Museum, in which she made bronze casts of some of her earlier sculptures and paintings. This was a questionable choice, but perhaps a necessary statement.
“I’ve worked a lot on Conceptual art in my life, and I want to better understand, where does Yoko fit in?” Christophe Cherix, one of the MoMA show’s curators, told me at the museum a few weeks before the exhibition opened. “What is her contribution before she becomes Mrs. Lennon? Ten years before, she really emerged as a real voice. She was very present.”
And here she sat in front of me, in the same apartment she shared with Lennon, her central position in pop culture intact, and her reputation in the art world, for now at least, somehow only marginal.
“Things happen a strange way in my life,” she said.
“Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971” runs May 17 through September 7 at MoMA.
M.H. Miller is senior editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 16 under the title “Of Flies and Homemade Bombs.”