In the winter of 1971, Yoko Ono mounted her first exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a two-week show she announced with a small ad in the Village Voice.
She neglected, however, to tell MoMA.
When museum-goers arrived, bundled for the frigid December weather, a man clad in a sandwich board quickly apprised them of the truth behind the one-woman show: There wasn’t one.
Instead, the board offered instructions. Several flies, the man’s sign read, had been spritzed with Ono’s perfume and released in the museum’s sculpture garden. Now likely flitting about the city, they would be distinguishable from the insect hoi polloi only by their certain eau de Yoko.
To find the “show,” the perplexed museum-goers would have to find them — in a city, by the way, that numbered 7.9 million people and lord knows how many flies.
“I think people came, looked for the show and didn’t find it, or found it in their mind. That’s the beauty of it,” Christophe Cherix, a MoMA curator, says with an amused smile when I meet him in the museum’s glass-walled offices. “She asked a film crew to interview people and ask, ‘Did you see the Yoko Ono show?’ Some people said, ‘Oh, sure, it was terrible.’ And some people said, ‘Sure, it was extraordinary.’ ”
Four decades later, I find myself in their position, standing on bustling 53rd Street trying to grasp at the legacy of Yoko Ono like so many flies. In 20 years of museum-going, blissfully roaming galleries from L.A.’s Getty to Houston’s Menil to Chicago’s Art Institute, I have encountered Ono’s work only twice in the flesh. As soon as I gazed into “Sky TV,” consisting of a clunky old television set broadcasting a blue sky with whipped-cream clouds, I counted myself among the charmed. And the chastened: I was instantly reminded I really ought to spend more time outside and less time catching up on the Kardashians.
I’m at the Museum of Modern Art now because this month the museum will finally host its first official survey of Ono’s work, painstakingly dug up and re-created from a particularly prolific moment in Ono’s contemporary-art career. It begins in the early 1960s and ends with her fly project — which, it’s great fun for me to learn, Ono dubbed “The Museum of Modern (F)art.” Also in the galleries will be “Sky TV,” now rigged, Cherix tells me, to broadcast a live feed of the sky above MoMA.
That 1966 piece hails from one of Ono’s most influential periods, a run of quick-witted brilliance and wry social commentary that lasted from the ’60s to the early ’70s. Her work then was conceptual with a capital C, sometimes made up of a single instruction on a slip of paper and once, famously, just a lowly apple perched on a pedestal. She tossed a canvas on the ground, dubbed it a “work to be stepped on” and invited gallery-goers to tromp all over it — if, that is, they could get over the hang-up that art is precious. In the well-known “Cut Piece,” which she performed several times, including once at Carnegie Hall, she asked audiences to snip away at her clothing.
It is classic Ono, tweaking and prodding those who come to see her work. Without them, there was no art. In many ways, Ono’s artistic pieces were predecessors to happenings such as Marina Abramovic’s blockbuster “The Artist Is Present” and Kara Walker’s recent “A Subtlety.”
“Her work,” Cherix explains, “for a younger, emerging generation of artists, is becoming more and more important.”
Yoko Ono was born in 1933 in Tokyo, to a well-off family that flitted regularly between the Japanese city and New York. Ono became a kind of borderless woman, too, moving between nations fluidly. She enrolled in and then abandoned Sarah Lawrence College, and then landed in Manhattan, holing up in a loft on Chambers Street.
For artists, downtown New York, from Chambers Street in Tribeca to the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, was an ideal stomping ground. The neighborhoods were full of old factories that had emptied out in the postwar years; they had room for art, if not crown molding and prewar charm.
I arrive downtown in search of a metaphorical fly: the story of Ono’s first solo show.
In the early ’60s, Ono began running with a crew of artists in a burgeoning movement known as Fluxus, which took its cues from Dada and aimed to skewer all that was formal and rigid about art. Led by the idiosyncratic Lithuanian American artist George Maciunas, the Fluxus artists were a merry band of artistic pranksters, and in 1961, when Maciunas offered to show Ono’s work at his AG Gallery, she jumped at the chance.
As I stroll the brick streets on my way to the tiny, white-walled Fluxus Foundation, a small gallery dedicated to promoting the Fluxus aesthetic, I find downtown is not what it was then, or even what it was a decade ago.
The relic of an old industrial freight-train system is now a chic park, the High Line — the center of a new ecosystem. In the five years since the High Line opened, even the buildings in the neighborhood have begun to change shape dramatically, each new construction peacocking for the elevated park’s 5 million annual visitors. On Ninth Avenue, Chelsea Market bustles with diners noshing on Cambodian sandwiches and bowls of ramen. The old Hotel Chelsea, where the painter Jackson Pollock and singer Bob Dylan once lived as they eked out a spartan living as artists? It’s getting a facelift; its storefront on 23rd Street is now occupied by a gourmet doughnut shop. (Yes, of course I stopped for a doughnut.)
But there is one major indicator that the neighborhood could reclaim its reputation as the center of New York’s contemporary-art universe: Recently opened on Gansevoort Street is the new Whitney Museum of American Art, which uprooted from its stiff Madison Avenue address and moved downtown to the neighborhood where art was once king.
The Fluxus Foundation is just a few blocks north. There, Harry Stendhal, who started the foundation in 2009, greets me with a stack of books on Ono.
“They were very playful, they didn’t take anything seriously,” Stendhal says of the Fluxus crowd. “At the same time, they had serious convictions.”
At the time of Ono’s first show, Stendhal says, Maciunas and Ono “were both young, they were both broke.” No one was buying their work, and perhaps there was freedom in that; they spent weeks discussing their art and their hopes for the future. As Ono recalled it in a piece penned in 2008, it was Maciunas’s last show at the floundering AG Gallery on Madison Avenue. The electricity had been cut, and few people came. But for Ono, it was a start. The city, she would say, felt like it was hers alone.
Back with Cherix at MoMA, I’m peering into the exhibition plans. Outside, a zillion tourists mill about in MoMA’s labyrinth of galleries, but here, behind the scenes, there’s a peaceful, studious stillness. A few glossy photos of Ono’s performance work are laid out on a table; they will soon be enlarged and hung in the sixth-floor exhibition space for another generation to experience.
But I’m plagued by the question of why it’s taken so long for Ono to command this space — New York, after all, is her home. Some of the reason, Cherix says, is the ephemeral quality of her work. The AG Gallery works were largely lost. A gift of Fluxus pieces in 2008 helped fill in many of the gaps in this exhibition, and some works, such as “Bag Piece,” which asks visitors to put on a cloth sack and watch themselves as they move, had to be re-created from scratch.
But there is one more reason: Ono’s legacy as a solo artist has been overshadowed for decades by the man she loved. Before Ono met John Lennon, Cherix tells me, “She had at least a 10-year career which was extremely influential. . . . She touched upon a number of really radical ideas that define the ’60s.”
In fact, her art brought them together.
Lennon met Ono in November 1966, after he visited London’s Indica Gallery, a brew pot for the counterculture movement. Lennon gamely climbed the ladder to her “Ceiling Painting.” At the top of the ladder was a small telescope, and when Lennon peered through the glass at the painting, he saw a single word: “YES.”
It was the beginning of their friendship, their collaboration and their love affair. Her work pivoted after meeting Lennon, becoming more political. Who can forget their “Bed-In” to protest the Vietnam War?
Cherix points to where “Ceiling Painting” will occupy a gallery at the MoMA. No longer will guests be able to climb it — it is nearly 50 years old. But Ono has designed a new piece, a spiral staircase, at the top of which is nothing but a view of the New York sky.
It is very much Ono, and very much of the city.
Today, Ono, 82, is still savvy about getting her message out. She has 4.7 million Twitter followers (compare this with, say, Lena Dunham’s paltry 2 million.) She’s an activist, raising awareness about fracking. And last month, her caterwauling 1973 anthem “Woman Power” re-emerged on Billboard’s dance club charts, remixed for a new generation as a thumping dance track.
“I want to keep creating things,” she tweeted last month, “and that’s who I am.”
With this show, who she was, and what it was to be an artist in that New York, suddenly feels within reach.
The Standard High Line
848 Washington St.
Though far from MoMA, this bright boutique hotel near the popular High Line Park on Manhattan’s West Side spills out onto brick-lined streets and a relatively neighborhoody vibe, not the usual Midtown melee. It’s a luxurious splurge, but an ideal place to have your own bed-in. Rooms from $425.
19 Kenmare St.
Ono is an outspoken environmentalist, and so this plant-based-foods cafe in Nolita fits right into her worldview. Could anything make your carbon footprint feel daintier than lunching on lettuce-leaf and tempeh tacos ($15) and a Mason jar of kale-cucumber-green apple pressed juice ($9)? Afterward, walk a few blocks west to downtown shopping mecca SoHo.
75 Ninth Ave.
First dates, tourists and lunch-hour scavengers jockey for trendy food in the narrow corridors of this modern-day mess hall. Grab a huge Cambodian-style sandwich ($7.75-$11.75) at Num Pang, where there are lines for the spicy, marinated tofu or five-spiced pork belly stuffed into a golden, slightly sweet Nerf ball of a bun, topped with crunchy pickled vegetables and cilantro. At Beyond Sushi, vegan rolls such as the raw-mango-and-black-rice Spicy Mang ($6.65) are as eye-catching as they are delicious. Insider’s tip: There’s not much dedicated seating, but you can always take your food and head for the High Line.
25 Clinton St.
Ramen, still the city’s hottest foodstuff, is expertly rendered by a border-crossing chef, Ivan Orkin, who, like Ono, divided his time and affections between Tokyo and New York. Make a reservation to ensure you’ll get a bowl ($15-$16) at the tiny but packed Clinton Street restaurant that opened last year.
8 Stuyvesant St.
While the artistic community in Ono’s early career flocked to the empty warehouse spaces of the West Side, much of New York’s young, urban Japanese expat community has long been entrenched in New York’s East Village. Experience its depth with a dip into this hidden bar tucked behind a soundproof door in a second-floor Japanese restaurant, Village Yokocho. Inside, Japanese mixologists are making elaborate cocktails; go for the show-stopping Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, whose glass is smogged table-side with the scent of toasted spices. Drinks $15 and up.
Museum of Modern Art
11 W. 53rd St.
A broadly focused contemporary art museum in Manhattan’s Midtown neighborhood.
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Open till 8 p.m. Fridays. $25; seniors $18; students $14, younger than 16, free. Free admission Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971” opens May 17 and runs through Sept. 7.
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort St.
The contemporary art museum left its former home on stodgy Madison Avenue for new digs in a neighborhood that rumbles with energy. Opened May 1, the new glass-and-steel Whitney stands like a massive cruise ship where Gansevoort Street meets the Hudson River, its lower level aglow with a restaurant and bar, its upper level aglow with a smile-inducing light installation by Glenn Ligon. Bonus: It’s in the shadow of the High Line Park. Hours: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Admission: $18-$22. Younger than 18, free.
Guide to New York City arts: www.nyc-arts.org
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