Life in Fluxus
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.