Yoko Ono’s Mind Games—And Her Enduring Legacy

Question of Yoko OnoHer marriage to John Lennon sits like a water buffalo at the center of any conversation about her eight decades as an artist. It’s oversized, hairy, imposing, impossible to ignore, difficult to move. Do you tiptoe around it, avoid it, or approach it head-on?

Is anyone who has paid attention to Ono’s fascinating career since the late 1960s—when she and Lennon became the Heloise and Abelard of popular culture—can tell you, the conversation tends to follow a difficult axis that yields wildly contradictory conclusions: Ono’s marriage to the world’s biggest rock star launched his career. Does she ruin it? Did that relationship bring her almost unimaginable levels of fame in the art world or bury her efforts under the barrage of celebrity, gossip and mediocrity of the entertainment world? intelligence?

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Ono and John Lennon hold their marriage certificate.Bettmann/Getty Images.

You try to eliminate such conjecture, but then a series of annoying side concerns arise, such as: Would Ono have become the world’s most famous widow in 1980, after his murder? Lennon or not (she was known to compare herself to Coretta Scott King and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), would the public be interested in her work? Does Ono deserve to be considered, as she often is, a footnote in postwar art, a minor figure cited in essays on Fluxus or conceptualism or performance art? acting? Or a brief mention in the avant-garde music scene, a minor player in the brilliant milieu of John Cage and La Monte Young? Or a passing reference in conversations about 1960s art films, which inevitably focused on Andy Warhol and Bruce Conner?

If we can imagine an alternative art history in which Ono did not become the iconic, reclusive queen of her Dakota tower, then perhaps we can imagine her as an artist appears almost anonymously in oral testimony about the New York art scene in the early 1960s—an insightful, authoritative interview. And perhaps, at some point, the female artist who crossed this line from an unabashedly patriarchal era – creating performance works like cut piece And bag piece, and conceptual films fly, bottom, And Rape—she will finally be rewarded, in a way that was previously unknown Judy Chicago and Niki de Saint Phalle.

If Ono’s marriage to Lennon was a water buffalo, then these other nagging questions were just a swarm of mosquitoes that were extremely difficult to repel. To walk through the retrospective spans a new career Yoko Ono: Music of the mind, at Tate Modern in London (on view until September 1), is to feel them gnawing at you until they are truly an element of art. While inconvenient, they are an unavoidable reality of Ono’s complex, rich, multi-chapter life and career, as well as her lasting influence. (She has inspired generations of artists and musicians, from Pipilotti Rist to Sonic Youth comes Lady Gaga to John Lennon.) You can begin to feel that they make the experience of Ono’s work much more complex—frustrating, layered, frustrating, surprising. Until some distant Ozymandian future, this was simply the fate of the woman Lennon himself described as “the most famous unknown artist in the world.”


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