Yoko Ono discusses the artistic life of John Lennon and his evolution as an icon
I always knew I was going to make it, but I wasn’t sure in what manifestation,” said John Lennon in a 1980 Playboy interview. “I used to read the reviews of books and art and music before I ever put anything out and I’d half expect to see my name in the review, even though I hadn’t written a book or a song — I was expecting to see myself in newspapers, to be famous. I knew it was just a matter of time.”
Conducted months before his December 8 death, the Playboy interview with David Scheff underscored the fact that Lennon’s abbreviated life was a 40-year entanglement with immortality. When Lennon left The Beatles in 1970 to pursue a career as a solo musician and artist, some were angry at the betrayal. There were charges of the big sell-out. Few people realized at the time that Lennon actually attended art school as a young man, and his career as a pop musician was more of an afterthought. In many ways, those years following the breakup of The Beatles were the most productive of Lennon’s life, and when he finally resurfaced after a five-year exile from the tabloid circus, there was something centrifugal about Lennon’s return. As if, after 40 days in the desert (in Lennon’s case, cloistered in a ritzy New York apartment), the mercury had cooled. On the pop charts, the active “Revolution” morphed into the passive “Watching the Wheels,” while the #1 hit “Starting Over” felt something like a cleansing sigh of ablution. But the interview with Scheff was the one everyone was waiting for. It was the serious answer to “What’s the meaning of this?” Lennon was suddenly content and fans needed to know why.
Almost 30 years later, imagine no possessions, and then think about the December 2007 auction, when a lock of Lennon’s hair sold for $48,000. Six months later, a signed, hand-written sheet with the lyrics to “Give Peace a Chance” went for a little over $800,000. Stranger things have happened, and the irony would certainly not be lost on Lennon, who would be 68 next month. Back in 1969 when the lyrics to “Give Peace a Chance” were written, the occasion was the second “Bed-In” protest for peace, held at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Fifty invited guests — including Timothy Leary, poet Allen Ginsberg, comedian Tommy Smothers, singer Petula Clark and the Canadian chapter of the Hare Krishnas — attended the event, staged to protest the United States government’s absurd refusal to grant Lennon entry due to an October 1968 marijuana possession charge.
The first Bed-In was a honeymoon, set in Amsterdam following John and Yoko’s March 1969 wedding. Holding all-day press conferences in their pajamas, not only were the two now physically married, but the Bed-Ins were performance art and a chance to introduce the world to Bagism, a collaborative expression of Lennon, the rebel goof, and Ono, the intensely serious avant-gardist. Lennon’s wedding gift to Ono was a series of 14 lithographs titled Bag One Portfolio, drawings that detailed the wedding ceremony, the honeymoon and Bed-Ins for world peace. In January 1970, when Lennon held an exhibition at the London Art Gallery, on the second day, Scotland Yard confiscated eight of the pieces (including simple nude scribblings of Yoko) deemed obscene by authorities.
“We weren’t that cognizant of the details,” recalls Ono. “We were in Canada at the time, and we heard that Scotland Yard came and confiscated them, and we were just laughing. Because this was back in the ’60s when there was a sexual revolution and sexual freedom and all of that, so it sounded really crazy to us. But they did eventually return the pieces.”
Lennon met Yoko Ono in 1966 during one of her art openings.
“Yoko was having an art show in London at Indica Gallery,” said Lennon on the Mike Douglas Show in 1972, explaining that the first piece displayed was a stepladder that you had to climb. At the top hung a painting, while a spyglass dropped down from the ceiling. “In those days most art put everybody down — got people upset. I walked up the stepladder,” Lennon continued, “and picked up the spyglass. In teeny little writing it just said ‘Yes.’ And I made my decision to go see the rest of the show.”
Lennon’s interest in the arts dates back to before the phenomenon known as The Beatles, when he studied at the Liverpool Institute of Arts between 1957 and 1960. Stu Sutcliffe, a fine artist and Lennon’s best friend, became the band’s first bass guitarist, later dropping out in 1960 to get married and continue his arts studies, making way for Paul McCartney. These diverging roads made a significant impact on Lennon. Sutcliffe, who was like a brother to Lennon, took the high road of art, while Lennon took the path of pop culture fame. Lennon had always been torn between the arts and music. The respect that an artist earned differed, he believed, from that of a rock ’n’ roll musician, whose fame wasn’t serious. That the art world refused to take this other important side of Lennon seriously bothered him throughout his career.
“But it wasn’t that frustrating,” says Ono. “He just didn’t like it. He was trying to get a gallery show, but nobody was really that interested in it. So one day he said, ‘Why don’t we just do a show with all the different album covers that we did. They would accept that because they know I’m a musician.’ He was that passionate about doing a show.”
After meeting Lennon, the two began avant-garde collaborations such as 1967’s Half a Wind Show: Yoko Plus Me, an art installation where everyday household objects like chairs, shelves and appliances were cut in half, painted white and staged in a typical home setting.
“He started to feel like he wanted to do a gallery show, probably because he was stimulated by the fact that we met each other at my show at the Indica Gallery,” Ono muses. “He said, ‘Well, I can’t do it because I’m a Beatle.’ I said, ‘What kind of nonsense is that? Of course you can do it!’ But he was right. The first show that he did was at the Robert Frasier Gallery. It was just a very huge round canvas, and in the center it said, ‘You Are Here.’ It was similar to a performance piece. When the viewer went into the gallery, they had to walk through a variety of charity boxes to come to ‘You Are Here.’ None of his friends came to see it. It wasn’t reviewed, either. There was a kind of art-world snobbery of, ‘Oh, he’s just a pop star. He’s dabbling. We’re not going to show that.’”
In 1964 and 1965, just before John and Yoko met, he published two books, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. Filled with nonsensical poetry and illogical stream-of-consciousness story lines, these books showcased the simple line-drawings and caricatures that embody the style that Lennon would later master with the Bag One series, which is now on permanent display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was a style that began to develop as far back as Lennon’s childhood.
“He was doing it earlier. Much earlier. When he was even 9 years old,” says Ono, describing Lennon’s early fling with the arts and an imaginary newspaper he designed called The Daily Howl. “It was a spoof of the Liverpool Echo. Liverpool Echo is the name of Liverpool’s newspaper, and he did an animation kind of thing that I was very impressed with. When he was 9 and even as a teenager, he was doing very mature, incredible drawings.”
In 1986, while a Beatles renaissance began stirring in the American pop culture, Yoko Ono posthumously published another illustrated book by Lennon titled Skywriting By Word of Mouth. The same year, she began releasing a series of Lennon’s art to the public.
“When John passed away, I told the fans that every year I would put something out of John’s,” explains Ono. “It’s for them. You know, I felt that I had to do it. It was a totally different atmosphere at the time. There were girls falling off the roof to be with John. It was just a very difficult time for everybody. I felt that I had to give them something. The fact that I’m doing all these art programs definitely makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m still with him because I’m promoting his work.”
Starting with This is My Story Both Humble and True, Ono dedicated much of her time organizing Lennon’s art and coordinating traveling exhibits, including much of the work he’d created during his five-year absence in the late 1970s. Themed predominantly on Lennon’s family life with Yoko and his son Sean, more art followed, including Bag One Continued…, Dakota Days, Karuizawa Series and ai: Japan Through John Lennon’s Eyes (which was also released as a book in 1992), and most recently the Real Love series. According to Ono, gallery directors felt much of the art was too flat for exhibit, suggesting that color be added to the prints, and giving Yoko an opportunity to collaborate with her late husband.
“The art programmers came to me, and they showed me a brightly colored sample of John’s drawing,” explains Ono. “I said, ‘What did you do?’ I decided to do it in a way that the color doesn’t overwhelm John’s drawings. I just wanted to put a little color on, so that it doesn’t really look like it’s there, but it’s there. Not killing his work.”
Working Class Hero, the new collection now on tour and dropping into Boulder for three days, is a mutation of 2006’s Come Together collection and will benefit the Emergency Family Assistance Association. Working Class Hero includes selections from most of the above-mentioned series, sold in numbered lithographs, serigraphs, copper etchings and aqua tints, all signed by Ono and with Lennon’s red chop mark, which interprets to “Like a Cloud, Beautiful Sound.”
“The main thing about the drawings is that they’re a product of love,” says Ono. “When you see his artwork, you feel some kind of warmth towards it because it’s something beautiful that he did out of love. But out of love for doing it, not out of love for anything else. He just enjoyed it, he just did it.”
On the Bill
On the Bill:
Working Class Hero by John Lennon will be on display from
Friday, Sept. 26, to Sunday, Sept. 28
at 902 Pearl St., Boulder, Colorado