Yoko Ono is perhaps most known for her music and performance as well as her marriage to the famous musician John Lennon. Her work extends to music, film, antiwar activism, sculpture, and public art pieces. Born in Tokyo, Japan in 1933, Yoko Ono’s father was a banker but had dreams to be a concert pianist. Her mother was a painter.
Ono grew up wealthy, attended exclusive schools, and received private training in piano and voice. In 1952, she was the first woman accepted to the philosophy program at Gakushuin University. After two semesters of study, she left to join her family who had relocated to the United States due to her father’s job in New York. In New York, Ono enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College.
While at university Ono struggled to find the bohemian counterculture that she longed to be a part of. In 1956, she married Toshi Ichiyanagi, a Japanese composition student who became Ono’s link to the avant garde movement. Soon after, Yoko Ono’s loft in Tribeca became the site of Fluxus “Happenings” and performance pieces. Artists such as John Cage and La Monte Young were frequently in attendance.
Around this time, Ono presented conceptual art pieces, building from her Event Scores to a book called Grapefruit. These involved poetic instructions for performances that anyone could enact. One of her best-known performances, Cut Piece (1964), invited audience members to cut pieces of her clothing away as she sat still. Many of her other works encouraged participation, building on Fluxus ideas of audiences and inspiring contemporary feminist and performance art.
In 1961, Yoko Ono had her first solo show. After her performance of Cut Piece, she was invited to hold an exhibition at a gallery in London. While preparing this, John Lennon visited the gallery and noted the positive nature of her works. The two began a relationship, divorced their respective partners and began collaborating on works.
Aside from their musical collaborations, Yoko Ono and John Lennon are best known for antiwar performances such as their honeymoon Bed-In, a statement against the Vietnam War. Their fame made these artworks cultural and political statements but also put strain on their relationship. Ono’s avant garde friends thought she had gone too mainstream while Lennon’s fans saw her as taking him away from the Beatles. The two separated physically, but spoke every day.
A year later, in 1975, the couple got back together and Ono became pregnant with their son, Sean Lennon. In 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed as he and Yoko Ono approached their home in New York City. In the media rush surrounding this, Ono went into seclusion.
From the late 1980s, Yoko Ono began to reemerge as an artist and public figure.
She has worked to keep her husband’s memory alive, creating works such as the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland and the Imagine Memorial in Central Park.
Her works remain relevant in the 21st Century, and retrospectives at MoMA and her “Yes Yoko Ono” exhibition at the Japan Society Gallery in New York are well attended. Her pieces challenge the boundaries of artists and audiences and have encouraged future generations to use art as a political tool.