New York Say the name Yoko Ono and a crush of images crowd the mind: strange howling music, odd bits of performance art in which Ono's clothes are cut off piece by piece or a fly crawls over a woman's naked body.
Then, of course, there's John Lennon: Ono as his quiet shadow, his often misunderstood wife and widow. But with the opening of "YES Yoko Ono," her first U.S. retrospective and perhaps the most comprehensive Ono show yet, she emerges as an important avant-garde artist who took the idea of multimedia art to its outer limits long before the art world had fully grasped conceptual and performance art.
The retrospective, which was five years in the making, will be on view at the Japan Society in Manhattan, through Jan. 14. It then travels to Minneapolis, Houston, Cambridge, Mass., Toronto, San Francisco and Miami.
Asked about her show, Ono fairly glows with pride.
"It's done beautifully and I'm very pleased," the 67-year-old artist said in a recent interview. In many ways, it's the public's best chance yet to understand her as her own person.
In an upbeat exhibit full of humor, Ono is shown to have been an important cultural bridge, injecting Asian thought into international avant-garde art as she collaborated on projects with John Cage, George Maciunas, Andy Warhol and others.
Her works with those artists, as well as her more famous works with Lennon such as a film of their 1969 "Bed-In for Peace" are among the 150 pieces in the show. Some of the items have never before been shown in public.
The exhibit, which was five years in the making, covers works from 1960 to the present, although it focuses primarily on the 1960s and '70s. It's also the first time a show has emphasized Lennon's role as a collaborating artist on a wide array of experimental works, and features a new film by Ono, "Blueprint for a Sunrise" her first in 20 years.
"Ceiling Painting" ("YES Painting") is the name of the 1966 work that first brought Ono and Lennon together.
Featured in the first gallery, the work consists of a white ladder. A magnifying glass hangs from a chain above the ladder, and affixed to the ceiling is a framed piece of paper with the word "YES" written in the tiniest of letters.
"'YES' was my work and John encountered it and he went up the stairs and he looked at this word that said 'Yes.' At the time I didn't really think it would be taken so personally," she said with a smile. "But I don't really connect it with John as much as I connect it with my view of life.
"My view of life is the fact that there were many incredible negative elements in my life, and in the world, and because of that I had to conjure up a positive attitude within me in balance to the most chaotic ... and I had to balance that by activating the 'Yes' element. 'Yes' is an expression that I always carried and that I'm carrying."
Another work, "Glass Keys to Open the Skies," shows a row of four glass keys in a glass frame. "Sky Machine" is a reconfigured vending machine that gives customers cardboard pieces of "sky." Another work, "Morning Piece," sells "future mornings."
There are playful "word paintings" in Japanese, and "Play It by Trust," which features all-white chess sets so that the opponent is indistinguishable from the player and any piece can be moved to any square.
In one room a phone sits on a shelf, with a note telling viewers to pick it up if it rings to speak to Yoko Ono. She plans to call the exhibit at random times to chat with whoever might be standing by the phone at that moment.
The few gloomier pieces understandably appear after Lennon's death in 1980: "Family Album," is a sealed metal box that appears to be oozing with blood, and "Weight Objects" is a scale with a gun on one side and a family photo on the other.