So back in 1957 Jasper Johns failed to do the obvious: quit painting and become a conceptual artist. At root his work was truly conceptual: reimagined flags, targets and maps, but he covered it up in layers of impasto. He wanted to be a painter, an artiste, and good for him. However, even before he’d dabbled in the radical world of conceptual art another artist had already lapped him, in fact packed him in a torpedo and sent him hurtling off to his own lonely explosion somewhere off Atlantis. He didn’t know it, noone really knew it, but Yoko Ono had set anchor in an entirely new world of art, one that would take flower and become an integral part of the entire world’s culture. Johns on the other hand would spend the next 5 decades protecting his legacy and getting awards from Presidents. Sue me for slander, but history has a way of resolving itself and the critic’s darling of the late 50’s and early 60’s, also 70’s, 80’s ad infinitum, never had the stones to do what Ono did, which was to reinvent the entire medium.
Here’s the deal: By 1955, a 22 yr old female Japanese artist named Yoko Ono, whose family had survived the atomic bomb, starvation and other atrocities of war, had begun a simple project: Event Scores. Absent a decent photograph, here it is:
Lighting Piece: Light a match and watch till it goes out.
Simple, no? Spare text on paper. That’s it. Ono’s original pieces were in Japanese, so here’s an original titled Painting for the Wind:
Now then, you ask, what’s the big deal? An instruction manual for peyote-eating hippies gone to find God, and later a pint of ice cream? Close! If by close you mean in fact the complete opposite. Here’s what Yoko actually did:
1. Remove all classic fine art materials
2. Remove the need for imagery
3. Reduce the scale of the work
4. Require audience participation
5. Reinvestied in language
Understand that Ono didn’t create her work in a vacuum. She was later surrounded by heavyweights such as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim and others, but at this point she was still basically just a Sarah Lawrence dropout looking to find her place among the New York avant-garde. That said, let’s look closely at each of these innovations to better understand how it all works:
Remove all classic fine art materials. The mid-50’s was the height of American painting with the Abstract-Expressionist movement having overtaken their European counterparts as the leading edge in the development of the form. Ono dispensed with the need for paint (historically the highest regarded medium in fine art), instead offering a simply written single sentence on a piece of paper as the finished work.
Remove the need for imagery. The Ab-Ex movement was in some respects a spiritual movement where the artists, having been brutalized by their experience with the 2nd World War and a profound distrust of the messages of American culture, turned inward looking for inspiration for their own abstract masterpieces.
Popular as it was, Ono ignored the entire movement as well as a few thousand years of portraits of Kings, Queens and peasants, nevermind foxes, rivers, mountains and the baby Jesus.
Reduce the scale of the work. Painting had become MASSIVE in the 50’s with the main propagator of Huge and Impressive being Jackson Pollock.
Painting For The Wind is about 3 x 4”. In terms of scale, recall that Dali’s originals were actually quite small; it’s just that they’ve morphed into obligatory college dorm posters seconds after the paint dried with the scale being completely out of proportion to the original. Not so in this case, especially with the publication of Grapefruit in 1964, a series of instructions typed on index cards.
Require audience participation. Traditionally, art has been observational. The painter painted it, you looked at it. That’s pretty much it. Here, in order to engage with the piece you have to read it. Observe v. Absorb. It’s a simple change of viewership principle, but an essential one as it requires the viewer to actively engage with the work in order to ‘understand’ what it is trying to get across. No more passive emotional responses with a cup of Riunite in hand! It also required you to be literate, ah ha, something we most certainly take for granted. In all honesty, I think this was the most radical of the 5 rules as it changed the relationship between the artist, art and viewer, something DADA tried but never quite figured out how to bridge. Unless they were trying to slug you, which as an artform had its place.
Reinvested in language. Whether to trust in language is a recurring theme throughout the history of text-based art. Sometimes the question is whether to trust in the language of the art, or the language the art purports to illuminate. Ono didn’t necessarily trust or distrust language, it was simply a tool she used, in fact you could argue it was her medium. The idea of language as medium akin to paint, stone or even, say, paper mache, is completely radical if not overtly subversive. After all, artists painted pretty pictures, but the act of cultural messages was reserved for the ruling upper classes, no? It was, at heart, a civil rights issue, nevermind that it came from a smoking hot 22 yr old Japanese artist noone outside of lower Manhattan had ever heard of.
And this being the 1950’s, which at the time the following things were popular among certain segments of the population: lobotomizing unruly housewives, keeping negroes in their place, gearing up for a war with the Soviet Union, a massive expansion of an increasingly docile suburban population and the ever popular McCarthyism.
All of which leads to +1, which is this: Ono’s early text pieces were genderless. It wasn’t that Ono was fighting for women’s rights or gender equality through her work, it’s that she’d already gotten over to the other side on the issue and unapologetically made work that did away with the sweeping machismo of Abstract Expressionism. She didn’t include tasteful nudes, pheasants or bowls of fruit, but instead laid the foundation (as a true heir of Marcel Duchamp, as was John Cage) for work predicated on the quality of one’s thoughts, period, which is by and large the great leveler of society. Do you think Phyllis Schlafly, George Wallace or yer basic American xenophobe would have approved? Probably not. It was radical thinking for work of such sly and gentle provocations, light years ahead of its time.