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Yoko Ono

Japanese-American Conceptual and Performance Artist, and Musician

Yoko Ono Photo
Born: February 18, 1933
Tokyo, Japan
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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.
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.

Key Ideas

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."

Important Art by Yoko Ono

Painting to Hammer a Nail (1961)

Painting to Hammer a Nail (1961)

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.

Bag Piece (1964)

Bag Piece (1964)

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.

Cut Piece (1964)

Cut Piece (1964)

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.

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Content compiled and written by Laura Fiesel

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein

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