Imagine: jewelry and other radical art by Yoko Ono

Crowds will pile into the Museum of Modern Art this weekend to see Yoko Ono’s art. Saturday night they will applaud (or boo) as she takes the mic with the Plastic Ono Band.

Wait. Is this 1970?

No, but this may be your last chance to see this sixties phenomenon in her radical element. Yoko Ono is 82 and still rocking. And in case you’re wondering why I’m posting a story about her on this blog, Yoko is also a jewelry designer. She tried her hand at it anyway, like many artists before her. Some were pretty good at it, others not so much. Yoko Ono’s was among the more impressive efforts, I’d say.

"Imagine Peace" gold ring by Yoko Ono

“Imagine Peace” ring of 18k yellow and white gold by Yoko Ono, 2004 (8/8 edition, collection Diane Venet)

The “Imagine Peace” ring was included in the Picasso to Koons exhibit a few years ago at the Museum of Arts and Design, as well as the book From Picasso to Koons, the Artist as Jeweler. (Imagine Peace is also the name of Ono’s website.) Its top replicates a record album, engraved with the title, paying tribute to her husband’s famous song and “solid gold” album, Imagine, the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed album of Lennon’s solo career.

Here’s a video of her performing that song with Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band, wearing dove-white, in various venues around the world. (Yoko, performing on her own without Lennon’s soothing voice, is not so easy to listen to.)

You won’t find it at the MoMA this week, but at least you’ll find something, which is more than museum goers got with Yoko’s first (unauthorized) show at that museum in 1971. MoMA wasn’t in on that joke but right at the center of it. Ono advertised it as a one-woman show at the “Museum of Modern (F)art.” When people arrived, they found a sign she had posted at the entrance explaining that she had unleashed a swarm of flies in the museum courtyard and invited them to track the flies through the city. And the museum invited her back!

This is the final week of Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971. It’s an inside look at the radical turn art took in that period, in NYC – a movement Ono was at the center of. In this case, as we all know, it’s also when the crazy conceptual art world of the sixties emerged from the societal fringes and plunged, headlong, into the heart of pop culture. Which is to say, the Beatles. A stranger (and more disparaged) marriage there never was.

Yoko Ono interacting with people activating Bag Piece (1964), a participatory work in Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo Ryan Muir © Yoko Ono)

Yoko Ono interacting with people activating Bag Piece (1964), a participatory work in Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Sept. 7, 2015. (Photo Ryan Muir © Yoko Ono)

It was the decade Yoko Ono hooked up with John Cage (mentor), and then John Lennon (lover). Some say it’s when she broke up the Beatles. The legend Lennon and Ono circulated was that they met at a London gallery, an opening during which he climbed a ladder – her art often invited audience participation – and read the word “yes” through a spy glass. He dug her optimism. Paul McCartney says they met well before that, when Ono asked the Beatles to donate song lyrics to a project she and Cage were working on. Who knows what really happened?

You won’t find an exposé at the MoMA but you will find evidence of her collaborations with Lennon, as well as other evidence of her art, not as well-known as the “yes” story but far more radical. “Cut Piece,” for example, was an avant grade piece she conceived in 1964 and then performed around the world. She entered the gallery, placed a pair of scissors by her side, and invited the audience to cut away pieces of her clothing. Talk about putting yourself out there.

Swarovski Elements- Yoko Ono's key pendants

“Key to Open the Universe” clear crystal key pendant (limited edition 1,300) with smaller “Key to the Forest” pendants by Yoko Ono for Swarovski Elements, launched 2012


Yoko Ono at the 2012 launch of her Swarovski Element key pendant collection

By the time she designed (in 2004) the ring and “Make a Wish When the  Sun Hits” pendant we saw in Picasso to Koons, her famous husband and peak of fame were long gone, but she remained creatively and politically active.

Like many 20th century artists – Dali, Man Ray, Picasso, Lichtenstein – her jewelry referenced earlier art works. She also designed pendants based on a glass key piece she made in 1966 titled “Glass Keys to Open The Skies.” In 2012, Swarovski Elements launched a collection of key-cut crystal pendants inscribed with Ono’s signature, with the statement that it “combines her trademark playfulness with a search for deeper philosophical meaning.”

Would this simple key design have even been noticed, let alone turned into a collection with a major publicity campaign, had the designer not been the wife of John Lennon? For that matter, would she have landed a real one-woman show at one of the most famous modern art museums in the world? Would anyone pay to hear her perform?

I don’t think she cares. In her own way, she was as much of a maverick as her husband. She has never let public opinion keep her from doing what she wants, and she’s not letting age slow her down either. You have to admire that.

Here’s another question. Was Yoko Ono the mastermind of the crazy publicity she and Lennon generated with their radical anti-war statements? (Witness her 1960s stunt with the MoMA. She was a marketing genius.) Did she manage to harness Lennon’s massive popularity and channel it to help turn the tide of public sentiment about the war, empowering others to do the same – enough, maybe, to hasten political response?

Obviously, those two weren’t the only movers and shakers protesting that war, but John Lennon carried a lot of weight back then. Is it possible? A pop star partnered with a radical performance artist….  Imagine that.

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