John Lennon once characterized his wife, Yoko Ono, as the world’s “most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.” What she was famous for, of course, was him. The art for which she was unknown could not conceivably have made her famous–although even the most famous of artists would be obscure relative to the aura of celebrity surrounding the Beatle of Beatles and his bride. Yoko Ono had been an avant-garde artist in New York and Tokyo in the early 1960s, and part of an avant-garde art world itself very little known outside its own small membership. The most robust of her works were subtle and quiet to the point of near-unnoticeability. One of her performances consisted, for example, of lighting a match and allowing it to burn away. One of her works, which she achieved in collaboration with the movement known as Fluxus, consisted of a small round mirror which came in an envelope on which YOKO ono/self portrait was printed. It belonged in Fluxus I–a box of works by various Fluxus artists, assembled by the leader and presiding spirit of the movement, George Maciunas. But the contents of Fluxus I were themselves of the same modest order as Self Portrait. We are not talking about anything on the scale, say, of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. We are speaking of things one would not see as art unless one shared the values and ideologies of Fluxus.

Fluxus, in that phase of its history, was much concerned with overcoming the gap between art and life, which was in part inspired by John Cage’s decision to widen the range of sounds available for purposes of musical composition. Cage’s famous 4’33” consisted of all the noises that occurred through an interval in which a performer, sitting at the piano, dropped his or her hands for precisely that length of time. A typical Fluxus composition was arrived at by selecting a time–3:15, say–from the railway timetable and considering all the sounds in the railway station for three minutes and fifteen seconds as the piece. As early as 1913, Marcel Duchamp made works of art out of the most aesthetically undistinguished vernacular objects, like snow shovels and grooming combs, and he was in particular eager to remove all reference to the artist’s eye or hand from the work of art. “The intention,” he told Pierre Cabanne in 1968, “consisted above all in forgetting the hand.” So a cheap, mass-produced object like a pocket mirror could be elevated to the rank of artwork and be given a title. How little effort it takes to make a self-portrait! In The Republic Socrates made the brilliant point that if what we wanted from art was an image of visual reality, what was the objection to holding a mirror up to whatever we wished to reproduce? “[You] will speedily produce the sun and all the things in the sky, and the earth and yourself and the other animals and implements and plants.” And all this without benefit of manual skill!

Fluxus made little impact on the larger art world of those years. I encountered it for the first time in 1984, at an exhibition held at the Whitney Museum of New York in which the art made in New York in the period between 1957 and 1964 was displayed. It was a show mainly of Pop Art and Happenings; and there were some display cases of Fluxus art, many of them objects of dismaying simplicity relative to what one expected of works of art in the early 1960s, exemplified by large heroic canvases with churned pigment and ample brush sweeps. Maciunas spoke of Fluxus as “the fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gag, children’s games and Duchamp”; and the display cases contained what looked like items from the joke shop, the children’s counter in the dime store, handbills and the like. Ono’s relationship to Fluxus is a matter of delicate art-historical analysis, but if she fit in anywhere, it would have been in the world Maciunas created around himself, where the artists and their audience consisted of more or less the same people. It was a fragile underworld, easy not to know about. Ono’s work from that era has the weight of winks and whispers.

So, it was as a largely unknown artist that Lennon first encountered her, at the Indica Gallery in London, in 1966. The point of intersection was a work titled YES Painting, which consists of a very tiny inscription of the single word Yes, written in india ink on primed canvas, hung horizontally just beneath the gallery’s ceiling. The viewer was required to mount a stepladder, painted white, and to look at the painting through a magnifying lens, suspended from the frame. It was part of the work, as it was of much of Yoko Ono’s art, then and afterward, that it required the participation of the viewer in order to be brought fully into being. Much of it, for example, had the form of instructions to the viewer, who helped realize the work by following the instructions, if only in imagination. The ladder/painting was a kind of tacit instruction, saying, in effect, like something in Alice in Wonderland, “Climb me.” Somehow I love the fact that John Lennon was there at all, given what I imagine must have been the noisy public world of the Beatles, full of electric guitars and screaming young girls. Lennon climbed the ladder and read the word, which made a great impression on him. “So it was positive,” he later said. “It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say no or fuck you; it says YES.” There was only the simple affirmative rather than the “negative… smash-the-piano-with-a-hammer, break-the-sculpture boring, negative crap. That ‘YES’ made me stay.” It would be difficult to think of a work of art at once that minimal and that transformative.

“YES” is the name of a wonderful exhibition at the Japan Society, much of it given over to the works for which, other than to scholars of the avant-garde, Yoko Ono is almost entirely unknown. I refer to the work from the early sixties, a blend of Fluxus, Cage, Duchamp and Zen, but with a poetry uniquely Ono’s own. The most innovative of the early works are the Instructions for Paintings, which tell the viewer what to do in order for the work to exist. These have the form of brief poems. Here, for example, is the instruction for a work called Smoke Painting:

Light canvas or any finished painting
with a cigarette at any time for any
length of time.
See the smoke movement.
The painting ends when the whole
canvas or painting is gone.

Here is another, called Painting in Three Stanzas:

Let a vine grow.
Water every day.
The first stanza–till the vine spreads.
The second stanza–till the vine withers.
The third stanza–till the wall vanishes.

Now these are instructions for the execution of a work, not the work itself. They exist for the purpose of being followed, like orders. In formal fact, the instructions are very attractive, written out in gracious Japanese calligraphy by, as it happens, Yoko Ono’s first husband, Ichiyanagi Toshi, an avant-garde composer. It is true that the conception was hers, but by means of whose handwriting the conception should be inscribed is entirely external. Nothing could be closer to Duchamp’s idea of removing the artist’s hand from the processes of art. Duchamp was interested in an entirely cerebral art–the object was merely a means. And so these attractive sheets of spidery writing are merely means: The work is the thought they convey. “Let people copy or photograph your paintings,” Ono wrote in 1964. “Destroy the originals.” So the above instructions, in numbers equal to the press run of The Nation plus however many pass-alongs or photocopies may be made of this review, are as much or as little of “the work” as what you would see on the walls of the gallery. The question is not how prettily they are presented or even in what language they are written. The question is how they are received and what the reader of them does to make them true: The instructions must be followed for the work really to exist.

So how are we to comply? Well, we could trudge out to the hardware store, buy a shovel, pick up a vine somewhere, dig a hole, plant the vine, water it daily–and wait for the wall against which the vine spreads to vanish. Or we can imagine all this. The work exists in the mind of the artist and then in the mind of the viewer: The instructions mediate between the two. At the Indica Gallery, Ono exhibited Painting to Hammer a Nail. A small panel hung high on the wall, with a hammer hanging from its lower left corner. Beneath it was a chair, with–I believe–a small container of nails. If you wanted to comply with the implicit instructions, you took a nail, mounted the somewhat rickety chair, grasped the hammer and drove the nail in. At the opening, Ono recalls, “A person came and asked if it was alright to hammer a nail in the painting. I said it was alright if he pays 5 shillings. Instead of paying the 5 shillings, he asked if it was alright to hammer an imaginary nail in. That was John Lennon. I thought, so I met a guy who plays the same game I played.” Lennon said, “And that’s when we really met. That’s when we locked eyes and she got it and I got it and, as they say in all the interviews we do, the rest is history.”

Jasper Johns once issued a set of instructions that became famous: “Take an object./Do something to it./Do something else to it.” Ono’s version would be “Imagine an object./Imagine doing something to it./Imagine doing something else to it.” Ono’s enthusiasts like to say how far ahead of her time she was, based on some entirely superficial parallels between her Instructions for Paintings and certain works of Conceptual Art, which also consisted of words hung on the wall. Thus in 1967 Joseph Kosuth composed a work that reproduced the definition of the word “Idea” as it appears in a dictionary. The title of the work is Art as Idea as Idea. The work of art is the idea of idea (Spinoza–profoundly–defined the mind as idea ideae). For reasons entirely different from Ono’s, Kosuth was bent on transforming art into thought.

Art historians are always eager to establish priority, usually by finding resemblances that have little to do with one another. In truth, Ono was precisely of her own time. It was a time when the very idea of art was under re-examination by artists. Works of art can never have been more grossly material–heavy, oily, fat–than under the auspices of Abstract Expressionism. But the aesthetic experiments of Cage, of Fluxus and of Yoko Ono were not, in my view, addressed to the overthrow of Abstract Expressionism. They were rather applications of a set of ideas about boundaries–between artworks and ordinary things, between music and noise, between dance and mere bodily movement, between score and performance, between action and imagining action, between artist and audience. If the impulse came from anywhere, it came from Zen. Cage was an adept of Zen, which he transmitted through his seminars in experimental composition at The New School. Dr. Suzuki, who taught his course in Zen at Columbia, was a cult figure for the art world of the fifties. Yoko Ono had absorbed Zen thought and practice in Japan. The aim of Zen instructions was to induce enlightenment in the mind of the auditor, to transform his or her vision of world and self. The aim of Ono’s instructions was similarly to induce enlightenment in the mind of the viewer–but it would be enlightenment about the being of art as the reimagination of the imagined. In her fine catalogue essay, Alexandra Munroe, director of the Japan Society Gallery, writes, “Asian art and thought were the preferred paradigm for much of the American avant-garde.” Abstract Expressionism and the New York avant-garde exemplified by Cage, Fluxus and Ono belong to disjointed histories that happened to intersect in Manhattan at the same moment.

At the time of their marriage, Ono said that she and John Lennon would make many performances together, and the fact that Lennon set foot in the Indica Gallery in the first place and engaged with Yoko Ono in that atmosphere implies that he found something in art that was lacking in the world of popular music, for all his great success. It is characteristic that for him, art meant performance–not painting on the side, which was to become an outlet for his fellow Beatle Paul McCartney (there is an exhibition of McCartney’s paintings making the rounds today). What Ono offered Lennon was a more fulfilling way of making art, and inevitably she was blamed for the dissolution of the band. What Lennon offered Ono was a way of using her art to change minds not just in terms of the nature of art and reality but in terms of war and peace. In 1968 Yoko Ono declared that “the art circle from which I came is very dead, so I am very thrilled to be in communication with worldwide people.” One of Yoko Ono’s most inspired pieces was her White Chess Set of 1966 (a version of which, Play It By Trust, can be seen in the Japan Society lobby). Instead of two opposing sides, one black and one white, she painted everything–the board and the pieces–white. Since one cannot tell which pieces belong on which side, the game quickly falls apart. “The players lose track of their pieces as the game progresses; Ideally this leads to a shared understanding of their mutual concerns and a new relationship based on empathy rather than opposition. Peace is then attained on a small scale.” But with Lennon, she and he could attempt to achieve peace on the largest scale–could use art to transform minds. In 1969, for example, they enacted their Bed-in for Peace. The tremendous widening of the concept of art earlier in the decade made it possible for being in bed together to be a work of art. The press was invited into their hotel bedrooms, gathered around the marital bed, to discuss a new philosophy in which, as in White Chess Set, love and togetherness replaced conflict and competition. In the same year the couple caused billboards to be erected in many languages in many cities, as a kind of Christmas greeting from John and Yoko. The message was WAR IS OVER! (in large letters), with, just beneath (in smaller letters), IF YOU WANT IT. There was no definite article: The sign was not declaring the end of the Vietnam War as such but the end of war as a human condition. All you have to do, as their anthem proclaimed, was GIVE PEACE A CHANCE. Get in bed; make love, not war.

There is a somewhat darker side to Ono’s work than I have so far implied. In a curious way, her masterpiece is Cut Piece, a performance enacted by her on several occasions, including at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965. Ono sits impassively on the stage, like a beautiful resigned martyr, while the audience is invited to come and cut away a piece of her clothing. One by one, they mount the stage, as we see in a video at the Japan Society, and cut off part of what she is wearing. One of the cutters is a man, who cuts the shoulder straps on her undergarment. The artist raises her hands to protect her breasts, but does nothing to stop the action. Ideally the cutting continues until she is stripped bare. I find it a very violent piece, reminding me somehow of Stanley Milgram’s experiment in psychology, in which people are encouraged to administer what they believe are electrical shocks to the subject (who pretends to be in agony). The audience has certainly overcome, a bit too gleefully, the gap between art and life–it is after all a flesh-and-blood woman they are stripping piecemeal with shears. It reveals something scary about us that we are prepared to participate in a work like that.

Another film, Fly, shows a housefly exploring the naked body of a young woman who lies immobile as the fly moves in and out of the crevices of her body, or moves its forelegs, surmounting one of her nipples. The soundtrack is uncanny, and we do not know if it is the voice of the fly, the suppressed voice of the woman or the weeping voice of an outside witness to what feels like–what is–a sexual violation. It is like the voiced agony of a woman with her tongue cut out. The sounds are like no others I have heard. Yoko Ono is a highly trained musician who gave her first concert at 4 and who sang opera and lieder when she was young. But she is also a disciple of Cage and an avant-garde singer who uses verbal sobs, damped screams, deflected pleas, to convey the feeling of bodily invasion.

Yoko Ono is really one of the most original artists of the last half-century. Her fame made her almost impossible to see. When she made the art for which her husband admired and loved her, it required a very developed avant-garde sensibility to see it as anything but ephemeral. The exhibition at the Japan Society makes it possible for those with patience and imagination to constitute her achievement in their minds, where it really belongs. It is an art as rewarding as it is demanding.