When other, much poorer artists struggle to paint portraits with oils or watercolours on canvas, Yoko Ono has always nurtured other ideas. Her Portrait of Mary (1962), is, on one level, pure word play, a thing of crafted calligraphy and printer's ink. On another, it's an idea in words that forces you, the reader, to paint a portrait of Mary in your own imagination.
Yoko Ono's portrait of Mary could be composed of hundreds of photographs of different Marys, rather than the singular Mary a more conventional artist would depict. If the idea seems a little hackneyed today, try and imagine how exciting it must have seemed 35 years ago.
At the beginning of the Sixties, Yoko Ono's Instruction Paintings were considered new and special among a small circle of Manhattan artists calling themselves Fluxus.
Ono was, perhaps, the most enigmatic of these young iconoclasts: she was tiny, Japanese, hid behind a Mount Fuji of black hair and said very little.
When she first showed her work in London in 1967 - a mix of word play and word paintings - it was considered even more enigmatic, because although London swung, it was a long way behind New York in the contemporary art stakes. Her whimsical idea-images struck a powerful chord in the imagination of one particular art school-trained pop star with a love of word play. That was John Winston, later John Ono, Lennon.
Lennon had turned up at the Ithica Gallery at the invitation of its owner, John Dunbar. At that time, Lennon was in his Nowhere Man period, living an idle rock-star rich life in Surrey's stockbrokers' belt. What happened that evening in Dunbar's St James's gallery was the meeting between John and Yoko and, thus, as legend has it, the end of the Beatles. Within six months, John and Yoko would set out on their joint adventure into the realm of beds, bags, radical politics, tabloid headlines and primal screams. Yoko would become the wicked witch of the rock world, the oriental exotic who stole John from Paul (and George and Ringo) and us and Cynthia and Weybridge.
Lennon moved to New York, where his post-Beatles songs erupted in screams of rage and exorcisms of jealousy. They began, in fact, to take on more than a riff of Yoko's powerful persona: "Imagine", for example, opens almost exactly the way Ono began most of her Instruction Paintings (gathered together in a new book, Yoko Ono: Instruction Paintings, to be published here next week).
While John absorbed Yoko's art, Yoko experimented with John's rock'n'roll producing such challenging albums as Approximately Infinite Universe. Her latest album, Rising, is a haunting, if slick foray into contemporary rock. It is, ultimately, an unconvincing struggle into new territory.
What Yoko Ono struggles with today, while still living in the vast Upper West Side apartment she shared with Lennon, is the word associations the rest of us have been trained to make whenever we hear her name. She will always be the odd Japanese artist who stole Britain's greatest rock'n'roller, the wife of John Lennon, the woman who split the Beatles, the siren on whose rock the mythical innocence of the Sixties was wrecked.
She is, as Michael Bracewell wrote last week, "a kind of psychic lightning conductor for other people's hostility". And, boy, does she feel it. Marriage to Lennon has made her fabulously rich, but that is no help to someone who still wants to be an artist at the cutting edge. Will Ono be remembered as an artist in her own right? Or simply as John Lennon's latter-day muse and lover?
"I think Yoko has done some good stuff," says John Dunbar, now a painter. "She hasn't done much since John, but, well, it's hard to when there's no struggle. At the time, though, none of us had seen anything like her work. London was still very stuffy when Yoko appeared; even our Pop art was controlled. Yoko filled the gallery with things like an apple on a plinth, and wrote the word "Yes" on the ceiling, but you could only read it through a telescope [this was John's favourite]. She got us to climb into black bags and to view the viewers from inside them. It might sound a little obvious now, but you've got to put yourself back nearly 30 years."
Did anyone buy a Yoko Ono? "Buy!" says Dunbar. "It was a miracle if we sold anything. The gallery was all about having a good time, changing the world... We were young. John was 27 and, even then, much older than me." (Yoko, born in 1933, was seven years older than Lennon.)
Did Lennon buy anything? "No. John wasn't collecting art then; that came later. We didn't think about collecting or the money. The art scene today is much more precious and more financially aware than it was in 1967, 1968. I mean, the reason Yoko had come to London was for a symposium at the Roundhouse on auto-destructive art. You could hardly collect art that destroyed itself, could you? Yoko was into what she called optimum conceptualism. Her work was about the imagination, about what could be."
Brought up on a diet of surreal and funny British word play - Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Spike Milligan - Lennon's imagination ran parallel with Ono's. Her Painting to See the Room might easily have found a place on Sergeant Pepper: "Drill a small, almost invisible hole in the center/ of the canvas and see the room through it."
The world disapproved, but John and Yoko seemed made for one another. Although it can only annoy the 62-year-old artist, the best things Ono did after her early performance art and Instruction Paintings in New York (when Lennon was playing Hamburg and the Cavern), were the happenings, sit-ins and bed-ins that brought her message of universal peace (one she still plugs, in Rising) to a worldwide audience. She was never so infamous or influential again.
Rising is an attempt to bring her message to a much younger audience. The constructions of the songs seem much like late Lennon. "I'm Dying", for example, repeats the line "I'm dying" for the best part of six minutes: "A purging," says Ono, "of my anger, pain and fear." She's... so heavy. And she only lightens up when she sings these wistful lines from "Warzone": "Wouldn't it be nice to be a heroine/ Cool and slinky with an appropriate/ Smile."
Those who think she is merely repeating the best of Lennon in his angriest years should remember that she was angry and weird a long time ago. In Wall Piece for Orchestra (1962), Ono knelt on stage and repeatedly banged her head on the floor. In Cut (Carnegie Hall, 1964), Ono knelt motionless on stage while the audience was invited to cut off her clothes with a pair of scissors.
At her Half the Wind show at the Lisson Gallery, London, a few years later, Ono cut household objects in half, forcing the viewer to ask where the missing half was. The missing half was John Winston Lennon, born in Liverpool during a German air-raid, losing his mother as a child and as filled with anger and a sense of loss as Yoko had been, and is now, again, since Lennon's murder outside their home 15 years ago.
It seems sad to say it, and is doubtless an offence to Ono's feminist sensibility, but without John Ono Lennon, Yoko Ono is not the artist she was once and would like to be again.
n 'Yoko Ono: Instruction Paintings' is published in the UK next week by Weatherill, New York & Tokyo. 'Rising' by Yoko Ono and IMA is out on Capitol
Painting for the wind
Cut a hole in a bag filled with seeds of
and place the bag where there is wind.
Portrait of Mary
Send a canvas to a Mary of any country and have
her paste her photograph.
Have her send the canvas to the next Mary of any
country to do the same.
When the canvas is filled up with photographs of
Marys, it should be sent back to the original
The name does not have to be Mary. It can also
be a fictional name, in which case the canvas will
be sent to different countries until a person with
such a name will be found. The object to paste
on the canvas does not have to be a photograph.
It can be a numeral figure, an insect, or a finger-
Painting to see the skies
Drill two holes into a canvas.
Hang it where you can see the sky.
(Change the place of the hanging.
Try both the front and the rear windows,
to see if the skies are different.)
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