There are very few museum shows that make me smile from beginning to end. But I suddenly realized that I and several other women I encountered at Tuesday’s press preview were walking around with goofy grins at Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, which opens Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art.
One could argue that the trajectory of a show devoted to a living and still working artist should have been a full retrospective, rather than ending in 1971. But as Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, explained it, this was the show that MoMA could have (should have?) done in the year when Yoko had advertised her imaginary one-woman show at that august institution, “Museum of Modern [F]art.”
In 2010, Ono did get to commandeer MoMA’s rotunda for “Voice Piece for Soprano,” inviting visitors to shriek into a microphone. Her original 1961 instructions for that is one of 151 typewritten postcards from her artist’s book, “Grapefruit,” 1963-64, all of which are arrayed in the current show. They give instructions to notable people in her life, which “range from the possible to the improbable,” in the words of the wall text:
But some of the museum’s own staff “found it utterly unacceptable that noise from someone else could bleed into spaces that they had curated,” as Lowry told a 2013 conference organized by Asia Society in Hong Kong. (The volume was eventually lowered in response to complaints, against the artist’s wishes.)
Early in the current show, curated by Christophe Cherix and the embattled (now “redeemed”?) Klaus Biesenbach, you’ll encounter Ono’s celebrated “Cut Piece,” 1964, in which she stoically endured the indignity of having her “best suit” and undergarments snipped off by members of an audience. The film at MoMA was shot by Albert Maysles and David Maysles during a 1965 performance at Carnegie Recital Hall:
Also near the beginning of the show, two people (supposed to be naked, according to the instructions) are making mischief in a wriggling black cloth bag (“Bag Piece, 1964/2015):
Are the hanging bags and additional box for shoes meant as invitation for others to participate? I didn’t do that, but I did plant my foot on a scrap of black painted fabric labeled, “To Be Stepped On.”
Near the end, we come upon the personage we’ve been waiting for—a slow-motion 1968 film of John Lennon, who helped bring wider recognition to his partner’s work. Very gradually, he breaks out into a beatific Beatle-ific smile:
Lennon’s image bookends the show with the slow-motion film of Ono at the exhibition’s beginning, in which she gradually blinks.
Another set of bookends is “Apple.” 1966, which introduces the display…
…serendipitously echoed by the Apple record label at the end of the show, in a room devoted to the music of the eponymous founder of the amorphous “Plastic Ono Band”:
I admit that my nostalgia for the transgressive, utopian counterculture of the ’60s was part of this show’s appeal for me. But more than that, I was both captivated and amused by the droll wit, absurdist sensibility and utopian humanism of this pioneering conceptual and performance artist.
Below is my Twitter report from the press preview. Be sure to read Holland Cotter‘s laudatory, perceptive review from today’s NY Times, linked at the bottom of these tweets.
Finally accorded the recognition she wanted in 1971, the peace sign she flashed at the press conference could have also been a “V” for victory: