“Yoko Ono is really one of the most original artists of the last half-century,” yet “her fame made her almost impossible to see.” Arthur Danto, 2000
No question. Yoko Ono has been overlooked and under discussed within serious art scholarship. As a Conceptual artist, she ranks as an equal to John Cage, George Brecht and La Monte Young, all of whom were artistic descendants of Duchamp, and in fact Ono predates the Fluxus camp of anti-art artists. In the public’s consciousness, “Ono’s artistic prowess is overshadowed by the celebrity of her marriage to her third husband and Beatles front-man John Lennon.” Eva Yi Hsuan Lu suggests that “Perhaps it is because of her associative celebrity that Ono’s own career is ignored. However, there is also a fundamental oversimplification of her artistic endeavor.”
At the core of “Sky Is Always Clear” were Ono’s “Instructions,” which Ono referred to as “paintings,” “instruction paintings,” or “unfinished paintings.” Most importantly, Ono intended for others—gallery- and museum-goers, for example—to realize her works. The first instruction was a 1955 work:
Light a match and watch till it goes out.
This simple direction is perfectly complete. The action needs no further explanation, and certainly no rationale. It is enveloped in the ever-ephemeral. Gunnar B. Kvaran, the exhibition’s curator, explains that Ono’s Instructions “are the antithesis of the symbolic artwork, [and] escape the possibility of becoming a sellable object. . . the artwork becomes a fleeting physical and mental communication.” Lu clarifies this further, saying Ono’s “engagement with the absurd and physically impossible sets her apart from other conceptual artists of the time who worked on event scores or word pieces as a kind of ‘poetry of the everyday’.” Ono’s work is not banal.
While Ono’s “Instructions” were often limited to text instructions, she provided the museum-goer with several opportunities to activate instructions. Painting to Hammer a Nail (1961) was an invitation (if not a summons) for viewers to pick up a hammer and bang a nail into “the painting.” There, in the gallery, was a rectangular wooden panel, a carpenter’s hammer and a bucket of nails. Periodically, in the MMOMA’s galleries the sound of hammering extended the action piece into a sound work. It was an irresistible request. It was immensely satisfying to add to the piece.
Another work, Walk in the Footsteps of the Person in Front (1964), instructs:
1) On the ground
2) In mud
3) In snow
4) On ice
5) In water
Try not to make sounds.
These are a kind of hybrid of patterned instructions, simultaneously Zen walking meditation instructions and akin to the unusually detailed verbal and pictographic instructions in Samuel Beckett’s plays, “which so meticulously prescribe the deportment and movement of the performers.”
In a corridor between the museum’s domestic-sized galleries—which are perfectly proportioned—was My Mommy Is Beautiful, the first version of this was presented at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1997. It was and is a participatory piece. Visitors were invited to contribute photographs of and thoughts and memories about their mothers. (In effect, the participants became co-creators and part of the work’s DNA.) The wall was the physical realization of an evolving memoir of a complex unseen super-mother with the full range of emotions contributed by the participants.
This exhibition was both playful and meditative. Participation was voluntary and effortless. Even more passive museum-goers helped to co-author each work, by viewing/not-viewing and thinking/not-thinking. There is a particular liberation in Yoko Ono’s conceptual art, when one surrenders to the spark of her ideas.
Sky Is Always Clear was at The Moscow Museum of Modern Art, October 15 — November 24, 2019.
Arthur C. Danto. “Life in Fluxus." The Nation, December 18, 2000: 36.
Gunnar B. Kvaran (ed.) Yoko Ono: The Sky Is Always Clear (Moscow: Moscow Museum of Modern Art. 2019).
Eva Yi Hsuan Lu. “Instruction Paintings: Yoko Ono and 1960s Conceptual Art.” SHIFT. Graduate Journal of Visual and Material Culture, Issue 6 (2016).
Josephine Starte, “Beckett’s Dances,” Journal of Beckett Studies, 23(2) (September 2014) 178-201.