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Indepth Arts News:

2002-06-22 until 2002-09-08
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco, CA, USA

YES YOKO ONO offers the first comprehensive reevaluation of Ono’s work, exploring her position within the postwar international avant-garde and her critical and influential role in originating forms of cutting-edge art, music, film, and performance. The exhibition examines her early and central role in Fluxus, an avant-garde movement that developed in New York in the early 1960s; her important contributions to Conceptual art in New York, London, and Tokyo; her concerts; experimental films; vocal recordings; public art, including works made with John Lennon; and recent works, including interactive installations and site-specific art.

Avant-garde figures such as John Cage, George Maciunas, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Andy Warhol, and Ornette Coleman collaborated with Ono, and their resulting works are also represented. Accompanying the exhibition is the catalogue YES YOKO ONO, the first major art publication surveying Ono’s artistic career, co-published by Japan Society and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. The catalogue features an essay by former SFMOMA director David A. Ross and includes a CD of new musical works by Yoko Ono.

The exhibition title, YES YOKO ONO, refers to the interactive installation known as Ceiling Painting, an important work shown at Ono’s historic 1966 Indica Gallery show in London. The viewer is invited to climb a white ladder, at the top of which a magnifying glass, attached by a chain, hangs from a frame on the ceiling. The viewer uses the reading glass to discover a block-letter “instruction” beneath the framed sheet of glass — it says “Y E S.” It was through this work that Ono met her future husband and longtime collaborator, John Lennon. (Note: Due to the fragile nature of its materials, the installation is no longer interactive.)

Born in Tokyo in 1933 into a prominent banking family, part of Japan’s social and intellectual elite, Ono received rigorous training in classical music, German lieder, and Italian opera. She attended an exclusive school where her schoolmates included Japan’s present emperor, Akihito, and Yukio Mishima, the world-renowned novelist who committed ritual seppuku, or suicide by disembowelment, to protest Japan’s Westernization. Ono, raised partly in America, witnessed Japan’s devastation in World War II, and by the time she entered Gakushuin University in 1952 as its first female philosophy student, she was swept up by the intellectual climate of the postwar Japanese avant-garde. This movement was characterized by a spirit of rebellion against all orthodoxy, a yearning for individual self-expression, and a desire for spiritual freedom in a landscape reduced to absolute nothingness by the ravages of warfare.

Disillusioned with academic philosophy, Ono left Japan to join her family in New York. Attending Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, she soon gravitated to the vibrant art community of lower Manhattan. At the time, non-Western cultures, especially those of China and Japan, were inspiring new forms of artistic expression.

A loose association of these artists was eventually formed under the name of Fluxus. The group experimented with mixing poetry, music, and the visual arts through a wide spectrum of activities including concerts and exhibitions. As a member of Fluxus, Ono presented work and launched a career that would take her back to Japan, where she became an active member of the Tokyo avant-garde, back to New York, and then to London, where the 1966 Indica Gallery show took place.

In the decades since that seminal show, Ono has continued to expand the boundaries of her art in diverse media. After her marriage to John Lennon in 1969, she collaborated with him on a number of projects in music, creating a bridge between avant-garde and rock in releases such as Unfinished Music for Two Virgins (1968), Wedding Album (1969), and Double Fantasy (1980). Their happenings, Bed-Ins for Peace, and the billboard campaign, War Is Over! If You Want It, were landmark projects created to promote world peace, a continuing theme in their work together.

During the 1980s, influenced by the rampant materialism of the decade, Ono revisited some of her 1960s objects, transforming works that were originally light and transparent into bronze, symbolizing a shift from what she calls “the sixties sky” to the new “age of commodity and solidity.” In the 1990s, Ono’s prolific output of interactive installations, site-specific works, Internet projects, concerts, and recordings were widely represented in numerous venues across Europe, America, Japan, and Australia.

Yoko Ono
Ceiling Painting (YES Painting), 1966
Text on paper, glass, metal frame, metal chain, and painting ladder
Collection of the artist
Photo: Oded Lobl

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