Like Queen Victoria and Jackie Kennedy, Yoko Ono was fated to be a Major Public Widow, making her way in the world while hauling around the husband's eternal flame. But because she was also the woman blamed for breaking up the Beatles, Yoko was Victoria without the authority, Jackie without the glamour. Now 67, she's briskly tending her own flame too. She cooperated fully with "Yes Yoko Ono," a show that recently opened at the Japan Society in New York City and will travel to six cities in the U.S. and Canada. It reverently brings together her lifetime of work in conceptualism, performance art, experimental music, underground film and whatever else she has tried her hand at, including shrewd self-promotion and a kind of bumptious pop stardom.
Long before she met John Lennon, in 1966, Ono had been part of the group of New York musicians and artists who would call themselves Fluxus, pioneers of conceptual and performance art. For her 1964 Cut Piece, Ono sat onstage at Carnegie Hall while audience members came up one by one to scissor off pieces of her clothes. Her "instruction paintings" of 1961 were just typed directives like watch the sun until it becomes square.
It's funny how easily the ineffable verges into the insufferable. Conceptual art has a way of churning minor ground into dust, and Ono's work is full of attenuated Surrealist gestures, as in Four Spoons, a plaque holding three spoons and the crater of a missing fourth. In Pointedness, a crystal ball sits atop a Plexiglas pedestal engraved with the words this sphere will be a sharp point when it gets to the far corners of the room in your mind. You can try lending weight to this by comparing it to the gentle paradoxes of Zen and the subtleties of haiku. In the show's catalog, Alexandra Munroe, the director of Japan Society Gallery, who curated this show, tries. But no one would blame you if Peanuts also came to mind.
It's Ono's underground films, much heard about but not often seen, that turn out to have some wit and brains. For No. 4 (Bottoms), made in 1966, Ono invited friends to drop their pants and walk in place while she filmed the piston motions of their bare behinds. On the soundtrack you hear their nervous chatter as the rear ends-plump or scrawny, smooth or furry-rise and dip and bunch up on-screen. The point that we're all human has been made before, but not usually with tongue so literally in cheek. Four years later, she made Fly, in which, for 25 minutes, what appears to be a single housefly (actually there were several) is photographed at close range navigating the body of a naked woman. Even when the bug inspects the woman's lips, busies itself at her nipple or ventures between her legs, she's as motionless as a guard at Buckingham Palace. Whatever else Fly might be, it's a weirdly absorbing encounter between two forms of life, one a tireless speck of aggressive curiosity, the other a serenely mysterious stretch of pure being.
And then there is Ono's music. She took seriously the example of the avant-garde composer John Cage, who incorporated actual noise into his work. For the soundtrack of Fly, Ono simply makes a succession of nerve-jangling vocal sounds-ululations and sudden shrieks, weird cooing and feline melismas-that are unworldly but unmistakably human. To put it mildly, her voice is not the ideal instrument for mainstream pop, but it can have the cracked charm of Neil Young's or Kurt Cobain's. If she had not been too famous by the late '70s to make a name for herself, she might have found a niche in punk. Just hours before Lennon's death, she and John recorded her one indisputable pop wonderment, Walking on Thin Ice, a punkish war whoop that combined his saw-toothed guitar with her high-frequency keening.
Ono's greatest conceptual project was marriage to Lennon. It let her inflate her thought balloons to global scale, but they burst. Those "bed-ins" for peace were sweet but also hard to distinguish from pure exhibitionism. The dreamy directives of her conceptual art became harder to square with the iron-clad narcissism of so much else that she did. "After unblocking one's mind," she once wrote, "by dispensing with visual, auditory and kinetic perceptions, what will come out of us? Would there be anything? I wonder." By the end of this show you may still be wondering.