Since his murder 28 years ago this month, it has become clear what Ono does: she is the keeper of his flame; the one who believes in Lennon’s genius as much as he did, and is determined to have others acknowledge it too. She ensures his name, art and political beliefs are kept alive, and with equal energy pursues her own art career.
Whether it be licensing Lennon’s music and image for use in advertisements or commercial products, allowing Ben & Jerry to create an ice-cream flavour (Imagine Whirled Peace) with his signature on the tub, or releasing new pieces of his art annually for inclusion in touring exhibitions, Ono has been tireless.
As an associate observed recently, Ono is “not at all a lady of leisure”. And hard to pin down.
In advance of the exhibition Imagine the Art of John Lennon which opens at Ferner Galleries in Parnell today, she went from New York to Iceland where last year she installed the Imagine Peace Tower which sends a shaft of light into the night between October 9, Lennon’s birthday, and December 8, the day he was shot. Then it was on to Shanghai and Tokyo.
Certainly she flies in comfort and wants for nothing, but this is a punishing schedule for someone approaching their 76th birthday. In the past five years she has been in 80 cities.
A little over a decade ago when she spoke to theHerald – again on the occasion of a touring Lennon art exhibition – she was equally busy and professed a desire to slow down.
When that comment is put to her she laughs, then with an almost childlike excitement talks about her Shanghai exhibition and first visit to China and her surprise and delight that they were knowledgeable about her art via the internet.
She had her own www.imaginepeace.com website launched last year and speaks enthusiastically about it – the number of on-going Lennon/Ono/peace/charitable activities makes impressive reading.
Think what you will about the Ben & Jerry deal or other less savoury aspects of her commercialisation of Lennon, you cannot deny the significant money she raises for charities and good causes, much of it given discreetly.
She notes that money (a gold coin entry fee) from the Lennon exhibition of 50 signed, limited edition lithographs and screen-prints of Lennon drawings and handwritten lyrics showing here – for sale from $950 to $60,000 – goes to the New Zealand Peace Foundation.
The best of Lennon’s idiosyncratic ink or brush drawings have drawn favourable comparisons with the sketches of Saul Steinberg, Salvador Dali and Picasso. But most are the work of a man with a keen eye for a crisp and evocative line, a sure sense of drawing a legacy from his shared autobiography with Ono and – especially in his Beatle days when he published two illustrated books of his amusing writing – a wry wit.
These days Ono, an established avant-garde artist before she met Lennon, annually releases four new Lennon limited edition reproductions from drawings done in their years together to be added to the catalogue of the touring exhibition. Among them are some very funny sketches.
“John’s personal sense of humour was almost like he couldn’t help it. And when you see John’s drawings the lines are already funny. I don’t know how he managed that, but it is true. He was probably an originator of that style that is now popular all over the world. But at the time he was just doing it in Liverpool.”
Certainly the quirky drawings by Lennon – who studied, albeit half-heartedly, at the Liverpool College of Art before the Beatles took off – opened doors for other musicians to illustrate album covers with their own work.
Yet when Lennon wished to be taken seriously as an artist following Ono’s lead in conceptual areas or with the Bag One drawings of 1970 (seized in London amidst accusations of obscenity, charges later dismissed), he was ridiculed. Musicians were expected to know their place. Yet he and Ono persisted: their international billboard campaign War is Over anticipated the work of Jenny Holzer by a decade; their provocative conceptual exhibitions today look somewhat mainstream; and the Bag One erotic lithographs capture an intimacy rarely on public display.
Ono allows local curators to choose reproductions from the Bag One series (we have slightly risque examples at the Ferner) and as an artist she is comfortable with the sexually explicit pieces of her in the public domain.
When she and Lennon posed full-frontal naked on the cover of their Two Virginsalbum (1968) she was naive about the controversy it would create. Despite a lifetime of headlines she still is.
“It may sound like I’m a bit of a dingbat, but I’m not. But the  Liverpool Biennale asked me to do a show. It was photographs of naked breasts and the vagina and I thought I was giving Liverpool some very beautiful work. I thought Liverpool would be a very hip town because it produced the Beatles. But many people didn’t like it. I was very surprised. But I shouldn’t be surprised by now,” she laughs. “Should I?”
by Graham Reid, The New Zealand Herald