Discipline: Interdisciplinary Art – performance

Yoko Ono

Discipline: Interdisciplinary Art – performance
Region: New York

Medalist: 2024 Medal Day

Yoko Ono is an artist, musician, and activist who grew up in Japan before becoming the first woman admitted to the philosophy program at Gakushuin University, Tokyo, where she studied before moving to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence College.

You can read our press release announcing Yoko Ono as the 64th Edward MacDowell Medalist here.

In 1956 she settled in Manhattan with her then husband, composer Toshi Ichiyanagi and became immersed in a community of artists and composers, and developed her own art practice. In 1960 Ono rented a loft on Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan and began organizing performances and events in the space, becoming a vital part of the New York avant-garde scene.

In 1961, Ono’s first solo exhibition at George Maciunas’ AG Gallery featured Painting To Be Stepped On, a work of canvas placed on the floor with a card inviting the viewer to step on it, was one of several Instruction Paintings exhibited. She also performed works involving movement, sound, and voice including, AOS – To David Tudor, and A Grapefruit in the World of Park at Carnegie Recital Hall. More performances followed at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo including, The Pulse, and Instructions for Paintings, this time comprising only written instruction, marking a key moment in the history of conceptual art. She performed with John Cage on a concert tour throughout Japan, and in 1964, performed Cut Piece and Bag Piece in Kyoto and Tokyo, and self-published Grapefruit, her foundational book of instructions.

In 1965 Ono returned to New York, continuing to perform and pioneering new ways of disseminating her art through advertising and postcard events, and began making her own films, including Film No. 4, Match and Eyeblink.

In the fall of 1966, Ono was invited to London to perform and lecture in the Destruction in Art Symposium. Ono had a solo exhibition at Indica Gallery, and Lisson Gallery the following year, showing new conceptual object-based works like White Chess Set, Apple, and Half-A-Room. At her Indica show she met John Lennon, beginning a personal and artistic relationship in art, film, music, and activism. During this period, she also performed concerts throughout England and continued making new films, including a new version of Film No. 4 (Bottoms). By 1968 Lennon and Ono’s conceptual events to promote peace had become world-wide news, including the Bed-In for Peace held in an Amsterdam hotel room during their honeymoon in 1969 and later in Montreal.

In the early 1970s Ono’s activities, along with Lennon, primarily centered around music and activism, releasing five solo and collaborative albums over three years. In 1971 Ono had her first retrospective, This Is Not Here, at the Everson Art Museum. Later that year, Museum of Modern [F]art, Ono’s unofficial conceptual exhibition at the museum was advertised in the Village Voice and documented as a new film.

In 1975 the birth of their son Sean Ono Lennon led the couple to take a break from public life.

In August 1980, Ono and Lennon returned to the studio to record their first album together since 1972. Double Fantasy was released in November and went on to win the 1981 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Less than a month after its release, Lennon was shot and killed outside their home in New York.

Emerging from the tragedy of Lennon’s death, Ono immersed herself in making music, releasing several albums during the decade. “It was the music that made me survive” Ono said. After a long absence from exhibiting her art in museums and galleries, Ono’s 1989 solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Yoko Ono: Objects, Film, signaled a renewed interest in her art, which continues to be exhibited extensively across the world.

In 2000 Yes Yoko Ono, a retrospective originating at the Japan Society Gallery in New York toured to 13 international venues over four years. In 2007, Ono unveiled the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER on Videy, an island off the coast of Reykjavik, Iceland, giving a permanent home to her and Lennon’s long-standing commitment to world peace. In 2009 she was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 53rd Venice Biennale, the same year Ono released Between My Head and the Sky, her first studio album as Plastic Ono Band since 1973. In 2018 came her 13th solo studio album, Warzone.

Ono’s work has continued to be honored with numerous exhibitions in some of the world’s most prestigious international venues, including The Museum of Modern Art in New York (2015) and currently at the Tate Modern in London (2024), clearly indicating that Ono’s work as an artist and activist remains singularly relevant and continues to challenge the boundaries of artist and audience.

Portrait by Bjarke Ørsted