“Offbeat” Artist: Yoko Ono

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We’ve all heard of the controversial yet easily recognizable name “Yoko Ono”. Whether it be for her eccentric performance art pieces — such as the “Bed-ins for Peace”, her howling music, her relationship with musical icon John Lennon, or her possible hand in breaking up the Beatles. What not as many people know her for is her legacy as a solo performance artist and her influence on the genre. 

According to MoMA Learning, Ono was a “pioneer” in participatory art — which is now far more common. From writing offbeat instructional books to splitting furniture down the middle, Ono was a trailblazer in her pieces and was quickly gaining steam as an artist before meeting Lennon. Their often scandalous romance would end up catapulting her further into fame. Art in Action offers a lesson on Yoko Ono and her famous piece “Wish Tree”. However, to better understand Ono, let’s examine the thing that would undeniably have a huge influence on the woman she is today: her youth.  

credit: Artsper Magazine

Ono was born in February 18, 1933, in Tokyo, Japan to an aristocratic family. She was the eldest of her two other siblings. Her father, Eisuke Ono, worked for Yokohama Specie Bank, a job which resulted in him and his family being transferred between Japan and America for many years. Ono would live in places like San Francisco, California and New York City, New York for some years, before returning to Japan once again. She received an education at some of the most exclusive schools and was expected by her family to associate only with the “high class”.

Through World War II, Ono’s family resided in Tokyo — meaning she was present for the great fire-bombing of March 9, 1945. As a result of this incident, starvation was rampant throughout her home. Her once high-class family had to beg for food while carrying what was left of their belongings in a wheelbarrow. Ono would later describe that this period of her life resulted in her developing an “aggressive” attitude and an “outsider” status.

In 1953, Ono and her family would all end up in Scarsdale, New York, which was an “affluent town”. She joined Sarah Lawrence College, a school her parents approved of, but disappointed them by engaging with people they felt were beneath her class — such as bohemians, artists, and poets. It was here that she started attending galleries and art happenings, increasing her desire to start her own art performances. It was also in New York that she would meet La Monte Young and John Cage, two people that would serve as artistic mentors that helped start her career. 

In 1956, Ono abandoned Sarah Lawrence College to elope with a successful and experimental composer named Toshi Ichiyanagi. They would ultimately divorce in 1962, resulting in her suffering from clinical depression which led to her institutionalization into a mental asylum. However, Anthony Cox, an American jazz musician and film producer, was “instrumental” in her release from the asylum. He would go on to become her second husband and main financier for several works of hers, including her “interactive conceptual events” in the early 1960s. 

credit: taringa.net

By now, Ono had settled in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where she was creating art and poetry of her own. Much of her early productions was considered too radical. However, her collaboration with Cox gradually changed that perception. The two had a child named Kyoko in 1963 (after Ono and Cox’s marriage fell apart, he would end up stealing Kyoko away from Ono and joining a cult. Ono would lose contact with her child for many years because of this). 

In 1964 is when Ono’s art career finally took off. The piece that first brought her to widespread attention was a performance entitled “Cut Piece”. It entailed Ono wearing her “best suit” and kneeling on stage, where she instructed the audience members to get up on stage as well and cut pieces of her clothing off until she was left naked. She would remain quiet and emotionless throughout the process. The piece was meant to face issues of gender, class, and cultural identity. MoMA Learning describes how interestingly “Some people approached hesitantly, cutting a small square of fabric from her sleeve or the hem of her skirt. Others came boldly, snipping away the front of her blouse or the straps of her bra.” The piece would ultimately end at Ono’s discretion. 

credit: Imagine Peace

Soon following “Cut Piece” and her other famous creations, “Grapefruit” (1964), “Half-A-Room” (1966), “Ceiling Painting/Yes Painting” (1966), Ono would end up meeting Lennon as a result of the finally mentioned piece. Lennon was so struck by the positivity of her art that the two began a relationship — one which would ultimately influence our perceptions of art, music, and celebrity. 


Check out our Wish Tree lesson, inspired by Yoko Ono: https://store.artinaction.org/collections/yarn-bombed-wish-tree-kits


Wikipedia, Yoko Ono

Biography.com, Yoko Ono

MoMA Learning, “Cut Piece”