Yoko Ono: The Most Famous Unknown Artist

Yoko Ono, the woman described by John Lennon as “the most famous unknown artist” in the world, remains an innovative and diverse artist whom most people know as John Lennon’s wife.

Jun 5, 2020By Carol Walden, Bachelor in Media & Communications
yoko ono and john lennon
Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Bed-in For Peace, (1969), via Getty Museum and Yoko Ono, The Gentlewoman, Issue 2, Autumn & Winter 2010. Portrait by Willy Vanderperre

Though best known for her marriage to John Lennon, Yoko Ono (b.1933) is a fearless avant-garde, conceptual and performance artist who was one of the pioneers of multimedia art. Her work open people’s minds to new ways of thinking about life and art. Many people do not ‘get’ Yoko’s art, but she continues to bring her message to the world through her words, installations, music, and performances. While she has many adoring fans, there are negative reviews coming from audiences who possibly know little or nothing about her and her messages to the world. If we come to ‘know’ the artist, we are more open to receiving her message, and so acquire more understanding of her art and what she works to convey to us.

Formation of an Artist with Something to Say

Yoko Ono, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Jonas Mekas in gallery during Paintings & Drawingsby Yoko Ono, AG Gallery, New York, July 17–30, 1961. Photo: George Maciunas


Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo, Japan on 18 February 1933 as the eldest of three children. Her father’s career took the family across the world several times. Soon after Yoko’s birth, her family moved to California for about four years, returning to Japan in 1937. She was enrolled at an elite school in Tokyo, but the family moved to New York in 1940 and back to Japan again in 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II ensued. Yoko and her family remained in Tokyo during the war, surviving the horrific firebombing of March 1945.


The family moved to New York when Yoko was 18 years of age where she enrolled at a leading private, liberal arts facility, Sara Lawrence College. The enrolment was short lived, however. Several months in, she eloped with her first husband, emerging composer and pianist Toshi Ichiyanagi. They then settled into Greenwich Village, Manhattan where she began writing poetry and her interest in art flourished. However, their marriage was already failing.


At that time, Yoko was not popular and considered too radical. However, she started gaining recognition when she began working with Anthony Cox, American film producer and musician. She eventually married Cox and Yoko gave birth to their daughter Kyoko Chan Cox in 1963. The couple divorced in 1969 and Yoko married John Lennon soon after.


Yoko Ono with John Lennon and Kyoko at London’s Heathrow airport in 1969, via the Independent


In 1971, during a custody battle for their daughter, Cox disappeared and took Kyoko with him. Although Yoko and John searched for Kyoko, Yoko did not see her daughter again until 1998.

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Yoko Ono the Artist

Yoko Ono, White Chess Set, 1966


As a contemporary, conceptual and performance artist, Yoko’s art is informed by societal issues and infused with her own well-developed values and beliefs. Her childhood, family life and early experiences were extraordinary by anyone’s standards. She draws on those personal experiences and world events to inform her public of incongruities in our modern ways of living, that often escape the attention of ordinary people. 


Yoko uses devices in her art to radically question common assumptions about life and making art. As a conceptual artist, she doesn’t create art as particular material pieces to be admired for their own sake. Rather she combines ideas, instructions, objects and place, then manipulates them to symbolically put a concept across. For her the message has always been more important than the art.


A Revolutionary Pioneer

Editorial Committee list, Brochure prospectus for Fluxus Yearboxes, second version1962 [V.F.8], via MoMA

Fluxus, while little known outside the art world, was founded in 1960 by George Maciunas. The Lithuanian/American artist, art historian and impresario was famously anti-establishment and derisive. The Fluxus art movement is more properly defined as a network of creatives, artists, designers, composers, and poets who formed a revolutionary movement aimed at transforming the function of art. Until that time, it was customary to view art as a detached commentary on life. The shared attitude of Fluxus was that art be viewed as an extension of life. 


Yoko is cited as being one of the pioneering creatives in the Fluxus movement which is often described as ‘intermedia’. The term was coined by Dick Higgins in his influential 1965 essay Intermedia. Yoko and other Fluxus creatives engaged in experimental art performances which highlighted their artistic process rather than a finished object.


Invitation to Participate in the Art

In 2019, Leeds University opened an exhibit of a selection of Yoko Ono’s interactive installations: Mend Piece, Wish Trees, Add Color Painting (Refugee Boat) and Arising (political open calls).


Yoko Ono, Wish Trees for Beijing (1996/2015), installation view at Faurschou Foundation Beijing, Beijing, China, 2015. Photo: Emma Zhang.


Yoko’s installations often include instructions and invitations to participate in her art. Her installations are designed to confront and challenge her public further through their participation. 


Arising is one of her most relevant and modern installations with an open and ongoing call to all women who have been harmed just for being women. She calls for women to send written testaments of that harm which are printed out and placed on the gallery wall. Their testament includes a picture showing the woman’s eyes only. It’s interesting to note that the exhibition’s debut at the Venice Biennale in 2013, preceded the ‘Me Too’ movement by four years. 


Yoko Ono, Arising (2013/2019), installation view, Yoko Ono at Leeds, Blenheim Walk Gallery, Leeds Arts University, Leeds, England, 2019. Photo: Hamish Irvine


Arising, which Yoko believed expressed the rising of our spirits, gave women the opportunity to say something about their experience of life in a patriarchal world. She highlights what has happened to women, that it is good for women to be strong rather than making themselves small. She received an overwhelming response from women around the world.


Emerging as an Experimental Musician

Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Abba To Zappa Exhibition: A Hong Kong Exhibition Celebrates Music Legends. 2019. Photo: Gijsbert Hanekroot


The boundaries existing within the art world have certainly been tested by Yoko’s experimentation. Her screaming at an art show is a perfect example. That performance is raw, shocking, confronting and elicited responses and reviews ranging from adoring to extremely negative.


Although we can watch that performance on our devices, faithfully reproduced for those who could not be there, Yoko would possibly feel that this reproduction devalued the uniqueness of her live performance. Most would agree that it packed more punch to be present with her in her art as an experimental rock singer. She catapulted her cries and screams straight out of the turbulent, idealistic, and revolutionary counterculture of the 1960s in America, and into a modern culture she seeks to awake.


As an experimental rock vocalist, Yoko’s urge to ‘scream from the heart’ illustrates her desire to use her voice for a purpose other than in service to rock music. However, in her career, she has released 14 studio albums, 40 singles as a lead artist, and eight collaborative albums. She has won two Grammy Awards with five nominations.


Yoko Ono as a Conceptual and Performance Artist

Conceptual art emerged as a movement in the 1960s. Its core premise is that the concept behind the work is more valuable than the finished art object. While the term is used to describe this type of art created from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, it is still applied to artists today whose work fits the somewhat loose criteria.


Grapefruit by Yoko Ono, published by Simon and Schuster, via MoMA


Many of Yoko’s works were instructional. She communicated her instructions either in written or verbal formats. It is through those instructions that the artworks were completed by the audience either physically or imagined. In 1964, Yoko compiled over 150 of these instructions in her ground-breaking artist’s book Grapefruit.


Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, performed at the Yamaichi Hall, Kyoto, 1964. Reproduced from: Rhee, J. (2005). Performing the Other: Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’. Art History, 28(1), pp. 103.


Cut Piece (1964), was first performed by Yoko Ono at Yamaichi Concert Hall, Kyoto, Japan. In 1965 she took the performance to Carnegie Recital Hall, New York in New Works of Yoko Ono. The performances involved inviting audience members to approach and cut away pieces of Yoko’s clothing. While they did so, she knelt silently on the stage in the Japanese sitting position seiza, which is used in formal settings. 


At the outset, people timidly snipped small pieces of clothing from her outfit until a man came up and boldly cut her bra straps. The performance addressed how women often have to relinquish everything, and the potential for sexual violence in a public display. Cut Piece is an early example of Yoko’s feminist performance art. The performance ended when she was left in her underwear and surrounded by the tatters of her clothing.


The last performance of Cut Piece by Yoko Ono was in 2003 at Theater Le Ranelagh in Paris, protesting the violence of terrorism and war.


Yoko Ono – Cut Piece 1964. Performed by the artist on September 15, 2003 Theater Le Ranelagh, Paris, France.


John Lennon and Yoko Ono

George Harrison, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and John Lennon at a UNICEF Gala in Paris, France.


Many Beatles fans believed that Yoko was instrumental in breaking up the Beatles. However, according to Paul McCartney, the Beatles were already splitting up when she came along. During the time of their first meeting in 1966 and when they married in 1969, John Lennon had given in to substance abuse and the band was struggling with leadership and business issues. In 1967, their manager Brian Epstein died from a drug overdose, and in 1968 they went to India to seek the help of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation teachings.


At the beginning of their relationship, John and Yoko immediately collaborated on their first musical recording, Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins. They each continued with their solo careers and further musical collaborations together. Their son Sean Lennon was born in 1975.


The Dakota building, Manhattan, New York. Photo: Ullstein Bild, via AD


In December 1980 a crazed fan, Mark David Chapman, shot and killed John Lennon in front of The Dakota building in Manhattan where the couple had lived since 1973. Yoko was walking beside him at the time. After the shooting, she went into a long confinement in their home. An iconic and historic building, Yoko still lives there to this day.


In June 2017, the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) announced Yoko Ono, at age 84, would share credit as co-writer with John Lennon for the song Imagine, 48 years after it was written. It was also awarded the “Centennial Song” award in the same year.


In 2018, Yoko re-imagined Imagine with a haunting, clearly enunciated, mostly spoken version of the song she can now rightly claim credit for as a writer and as a woman.


Yoko Ono ‘the artist’ and the person is also an author, film maker, musician, and peace activist. She is still working into her late 80s, a significant accomplishment. But to still be challenging the status quo at her age brings her firmly into the category of ‘extraordinary creative’. She is still pioneering her field, mining for gold in conceptual art practice.


What Came First, the Art or the Activism?

All her working career, Yoko Ono has been campaigning for peace, human rights and equality. Her activism has encompassed women’s rights, gender issues, ecology, anti-fracking, gun control, and same-sex marriage. Her art and activism have been recognized with awards like the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Observer Ethical Awards in 2015.


Imagine Peace Tower, conceived by Yoko Ono in memory of John Lennon. It is situated on Viðey Island in Reykjavík, Iceland.


On John Lennon’s 67th birthday, October 9th 2007, the Imagine Peace Tower was unveiled and dedicated to John. It is a dramatic light memorial on Viðey Island in Reykjavík, Iceland, conceived by Yoko Ono. The beam of shimmering light is a towering symbol of their shared global campaign for world peace. It is switched on every year on John’s birthday, October 9, and lasts until the anniversary of his death, December 8, as well as various other high points in the year.


After living through a world war and surviving firebombing raids on Tokyo, it is easy to understand why Yoko focuses on her ongoing global peace project, encouraging the population at large to imagine and make wishes for peace. Her art is her chosen vehicle for activism. It is how she expresses her political and social beliefs and need for change. So, what came first, the art or the activism? In the context of her early life, it appears that her activism was born of extreme experiences and it needed an outlet…she gave it art.

Author Image

By Carol WaldenBachelor in Media & CommunicationsCarol Walden has been producing art for most of her life. After completing a Bachelor of Media & Communications, Writing & Publishing she has dived into writing in the field of arts. Her father’s family were a French travelling circus troupe; multi-disciplined artists living in horse-drawn wagons and on ships in the Asia-Pacific Region. This ancestral journey has greatly influenced her life’s work and her passions for art, writing and physical performance.