Graham Reid | | 7 min read
“If there’s such as things as [a genius], I am one”
-- John Lennon, 1970
In the late Sixties when controversy swirled around them like a cyclone, John Lennon said of his wife Yoko Ono, “everyone knows who she is, but nobody knows what she does.”
Since his murder 28 years ago this month, it has become clear what Ono does: she is the keeper of his flame; the one who believes in Lennon’s genius as much as he did, and is determined to have others acknowledge it too.
She ensures his name, art and political beliefs are kept alive, and with equal and undiminished energy pursues her own art career which often appears inseparable when it comes to activities in the cause of peace.
Whether it be licensing Lennon’s music and image for use in advertisements or commercial products, allowing Ben & Jerry to create an ice-cream flavour (Imagine Whirled Peace) with his signature on the tub, or releasing new pieces of his art annually for inclusion in touring exhibitions, Ono has been tireless.
As an associate observed recently, Ono is “not at all a lady of leisure”. And hard to pin down.
In advance of the exhibition Imagine the Art of John Lennon in Auckland she went from her home in New York to Iceland where last year she installed the remarkable Imagine Peace Tower which sends a dramatic shaft of light into the night between October 9, Lennon’s birth day, and December 8, the day he was shot. Then it was on to Shanghai and Tokyo.
Certainly she flies in comfort and wants for nothing, but this is a punishing schedule for someone approaching their 76th birthday. In the past five years she has been in 80 cities.
A little over a decade ago when she spoke to the Herald -- again on the occasion of a touring Lennon art exhibition -- she was equally busy and professed a desire to slow down.
When that comment is put to her she laughs loudly, then with an almost childlike excitement talks about her Shanghai exhibition and first visit to China, and her surprise and delight they were knowledgeable about her art.
“It was so exciting I just have to tell you. It was the first time I have been to china and I was a bit nervous because I didn’t how they felt about a Japanese, but basically there was an open-armed welcome and they knew my work. I asked how they did when I had never been there . . . And it’s the internet. They are all connected, isn’t that great?”
She, of course, has her own website launched last year: “I’m very lucky to have started that -- but I am in position where I have lots of friends helping me,” she laughs.
She speaks enthusiastically about the site -- the number of on-going Lennon/Ono/peace/charitable activities makes impressive reading -- before mentioning another reason for being in Japan: the annual Lennon tribute concert which raises money to build schools in Africa and Asia.
“I’m here because I am rehearsing for this show and it has all the famous, successful rather, rock stars of Japan, each one singing one of John’s songs. It is a tribute concert and this is the eighth year and every year we have this and the proceeds, all of it, goes to building schools in Africa or some Asian countries where they are needed. And surprise, surprise we have already created 75 schools already.
“And that is in seven years, our goal is that in our 10th year we will have built 100.
“I am surprised myself. I thought all these schools must be like shacks or something but actually no, I’ve seen photos. I suppose it’s not so expensive as New York to build a school!”
So think what you will about the Ben & Jerry deal or other less savoury aspects of her commercialisation of Lennon, you cannot deny the significant money she raises for charities and good causes (much of it given discreetly).
She notes money (a gold coin entry fee) from the Lennon exhibition of 50 limited edition lithographs and screen-prints of Lennon drawings and handwritten lyrics showing in New Zealand -- for sale from $950 to $60,000 -- goes to the New Zealand Peace Foundation.
The best of Lennon’s idiosyncratic ink or brush drawings have drawn favourable comparisons with the sketches of Saul Steinberg, Salvador Dali and Picasso. But most are the work of a man with a keen eye for a crisp and evocative line, a sure sense of drawing a legacy from his shared autobiography with Ono (works illustrate their wedding, the famous Bed In, walks in Central Park or domestic life) and -- especially in his Beatle days when he published two slim, illustrated books of his amusing writing -- a wry wit.
“When he started it was sort of difficult actually because not everybody felt open-arms about his drawings, because he was famous as a musician -- and that was their attitude.
“But now I think everybody loves and understands his art work. It’s a very popular programme.”
These days Ono, an established avant-garde artist before she met Lennon, annually releases four new Lennon limited edition reproductions from drawings done in their years together to be added to the catalogue of the touring exhibition. Among them are some very funny sketches with dry captions.
“John’s personal sense of humour was almost like he couldn’t help it. And when you see John’s drawings the lines are already funny. I don’t know how he managed that, but it is true.
“He was probably an originator of that style that is now popular all over the world. But at the time he was just doing it Liverpool.”
Certainly the quirky drawings by Lennon -- who studied, albeit half-heartedly, at the Liverpool College of Art before the Beatles took off -- opened doors for other musicians, many of them lesser talents, to illustrate album covers with their own work.
It is hard to imagine that without Lennon’s lead that Kurt Cobain, Daniel Johnston, many of New Zealand’s Flying Nun artists and others would have had the nerve or confidence to put their art on album covers, let alone in galleries.
“I’m glad you said that because in this particular situation John was the first. And he just did it. It was very difficult in the beginning because of the snobbery of the art world like, ‘Oh we don’t do that sort of thing with a pop star‘.
“But now they know that John went to art school before he became a rocker and he was accepted by the Liverpool art school which was very important school at the time, and he was a very professional artist in a way.
“[Musicians making their own art] started because John’s programme became so successful that the gallery owners started to look around like, ‘Can we find another artist who is a musician?’ “ she laughs.
Yet when Lennon wished to be taken seriously as an artist following Ono’s lead in conceptual areas or with the Bag One drawings of 1970 (seized in London amidst accusations of obscenity, charges subsequently dismissed), he was ridiculed. Musicians back then were expected to know their place.
Yet he and Ono persisted: their international billboard campaign War is Over anticipated the work of Jenny Holzer by a decade; their provocative conceptual exhibitions today look somewhat mainstream; and the Bag One erotic lithographs may be sexually explicit but capture an intimacy rarely on public display.
Ono assiduously exposes Lennon’s work and recently bought the original lyrics to Give Peace a Chance, scribbled down by Lennon at the Bed-In in a Montreal hotel room, for what was believed to be in excess of NZ$200,000.
“I know, it’s crazy. It’s crazy because originally [many of these sorts of things] came from my closet or something and now I am buying it back. But in certain situations I do because like with Bag One you can make it into a lithograph to show to people who would never see it if somebody else bought it.
“The Imagine one belonged to somebody else, but he is a friend and was very good about letting us use it in the exhibition.”
Ono allows local curators to choose reproductions from the Bag One series (we have slightly risqué examples but not the most graphic work) and as an artist she is comfortable with the sexually explicit pieces of her in the public domain.
“I shouldn’t have any problem because I’m an artist and I would feel good about it. In the art world this would be taken very seriously.
“Picasso does all this stuff and he’s not accused of anything, but then John does it. I was an artist who said ’the lines are beautiful’ and really that was how I took it and I hadn’t realised that when it was shown to the whole world it would be a different story rather than when it was in the intellectual art circles.
“So now I am embarrassed but I have to fight that feeling of anxiety, I know I should be saying 'maybe I should put that back in my closet'. But I don’t.”
And when she and Lennon posed full-frontal naked on the cover of their Two Virgins album (1968) she was naïve about the controversy it would create. Despite a lifetime of Lennon/Ono headlines she still is.
“It may sound like I’m a bit of a dingbat, but I’m not. But the  Liverpool Biennale asked me to do a show. It was photographs of naked breasts and the vagina and I thought I was giving Liverpool some very beautiful work.
“I thought Liverpool would be a very hip town because it produced the Beatles. But many people didn’t like it. I was very surprised.
“But I shouldn’t be surprised by now,” she laughs. “Should I?”
This is much expanded version of the interview which appeared in the New Zealand Herald in December 2008