By Chris Bond, Yorkshire Post, 25 March 2009
A decade after Jackson Pollock’s paint extravaganzas had confounded critics, pop art pioneers like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were turning the art world on its head. Amid this cultural maelstrom, John Jones, then a fine art lecturer at Leeds University, travelled to New York in 1965 to find out more.
He spent two months interviewing nearly a hundred different artists, including such luminaries as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Willem de Kooning, as well as a young Japanese performer called Yoko Ono.
“There were art movements popping up all over the place, so I thought it was a good idea to talk to the artists themselves so they could explain what their work was about. I met abstract expressionists and pop artists and through them I was invited to a couple of happenings and this was when I met Yoko.”
Jones says these surreal performances, or “happenings”, tried to challenge traditional concepts of art. “A lot of it was meaningless, but that was the point.”
Yoko was among the artists he spoke to. “She was very interesting because she was already a well-established artist in New York, which people don’t always realise. She told me she had originally wanted to be a composer but said she wasn’t very good. Then she started writing poems and became interested in art.”
As well as her happenings, she also produced “irrational” art objects which she sold, including her Disappearing Machine, which claimed to make an object disappear “when you pushed a button.”
A year after his visit to the US, Yoko held a happening at Leeds College of Art and Jones invited her to stay at his house in Headingley. Her trip to Yorkshire came shortly before her first, fateful meeting with John Lennon, and 20 years later Jones was asked to write about it for a book on the life of the former Beatle, called The Lennon Companion: Twenty-five years of Comment, a reading of which takes place tonight at Café Lento, as part of the Headingley Literature Festival.
Jones, now aged 82, remembers watching Yoko at the college. The first part of her performance involved her, and her then husband, Tony Cox, climbing into a black bag on stage.
“The audience watched as they moved around inside wondering what they were doing, and whether or not they were taking their clothes off. Which, of course, was the whole point, she wanted the spectators to imagine what was happening.”
The second part was her take on a party game where a message is whispered to someone and then passed along a row of people. “It was a bit like Chinese whispers and afterwards she asked members of the audience what they had heard and they all said something different. She then revealed what she had said, which was nothing.”
Yoko and her husband, along with their young daughter,
Kyoko, stayed with him for the weekend.
“I thought they would want to see the sights of Yorkshire but they were quite happy spending time with us. I showed Yoko a film I’d made of my own family which I thought she might like, but she was more interested in the blank film left over, that was typical of her.
“But she was quite charming company and we got on very well, I remember she entertained the children by making origami birds and animals.”
Before leaving, Yoko mentioned that she needed to raise money for a film. “I had a bit of spare money, so I lent her £50,” he says.
This went towards her underground film Bottoms, which features a hundred different behinds. Before the film came out, Yoko sent him a cheque for half the amount she owed and said that Apple, set up by The Beatles, would pay the remainder, which it did.
That was that, or so he thought. “A few months later, I was working at the university when a huge bouquet of flowers arrived for me, with a cheque for £25 and a note which said ‘Love and Peace. John and Yoko’. I posted this extra cheque back to Yoko at Apple, but a week later it returned, stamped ‘Not known at this address’.”
For more information about the Headingley Literature Festival, visit www.headingleylitfest.blogspot.com