Japanese artist and musician Yoko Ono has often been cited as a divisive figure in the history of The Beatles. She married John Lennon in March 1969, and collaborated with him on a series of recordings, films and artworks.
Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo on 18 February 1933. Her father Eisuke worked for the Yokohama Specie Bank, and her mother Isoko was from the wealthy Yasuda banking family.
Shortly after Ono’s birth the family moved to San Francisco, where her father was transferred to. They returned to Japan in 1937, and Ono enrolled at the exclusive Gakushuin University.
During World War Two the family briefly moved to New York City, but soon returned to Japan. Following the bombings of 9 March 1945 they sought refuge in the Karuizawa mountain resort.
After the war the Ono family moved to Scarsdale, New York, and Yoko enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College. There she embraced the bohemian lifestyles of her fellow students, and was encouraged to develop her artistic aspirations.
Yoko Ono married composer Toshi Ichiyanagi in 1956, but the couple divorced in 1962 after living apart for several years. On 28 November 1962 she married Anthony Cox, an American film producer, jazz musician and art promoter, although the union was annulled on 1 March 1963 as Ono failed to finalise her divorce from Ichiyanagi.
Cox and Ono married properly on 6 June, and their daughter Kyoko Chan Cox was born on 8 August. The marriage was short-lived, with frequent conflict between the pair, although they stayed together for the sakes of their careers.
Ono was a member of Fluxus, an avant-garde art group inspired by Dada. However, she preferred to develop her own career, and was influenced by John Cage and La Monte Young. She explored conceptual and performance art forms.
In 1964 she performed Cut Piece at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo. Ono walked on stage in a draped garment, and audience members were encouraged to cut pieces from it until she was naked. That same year she published Grapefruit, a set of instructions in book form to be completed in the mind of the reader.
Yoko Ono also became an experimental filmmaker, completing 16 pieces between 1964 and 1972. One of the most notorious was No. 4, better known as Bottoms, which consisted of a series of close-ups of people’s backsides.
Event, to me, is not an assimilation of all the other arts as Happening seems to be, but an extrication from various sensory perceptions. It is not a get togetherness as most happenings are, but a dealing with oneself. Also it has no script as Happenings do, though it has something that starts it moving- the closest word for it may be a wish or hope.
After unblocking one’s mind, by dispensing with visual, auditory and kinetic perception, what will come out of us? Would there be anything? I wonder. And my events are mostly spent in wonderment … The painting method derives as far back as the time of the Second World War, when we had no food to eat, and my brother and I exchanged menus in the air.
Lecture at Wesleyan University, January 1966
With John Lennon
Lennon was also impressed by a piece at the exhibition which he had to view by climbing a stepladder to look through a magnifying glass.
Yoko was having an art show in London at Indica Gallery. In those days most art put everybody down, got people upset. I walked up the stepladder 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.
The Mike Douglas Show, 1972
One of the exhibits was a white board into which gallery visitors were instructed to hammer a nail. Ono refused to let Lennon hammer in a nail, as the exhibition wasn’t to open until the following day. When told who he was, she offered to let him do so for five shillings.
Lennon’s reported reply was: “I’ll give you an imaginary five shillings if you let me hammer in an imaginary nail.”
Lennon was intrigued by Ono, and they began corresponding. Their friendship blossomed, and Lennon later claimed that he wanted to take her to Rishikesh, India, where The Beatles studied meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in early 1968.
Their affair began in May 1968. While Lennon’s wife Cynthia was in Greece with Magic Alex Mardas, he and Ono recorded an album of experimental sounds at Weybridge, Lennon’s Weybridge home. After its completion they made love for the first time. When Cynthia returned to England it was clear that her marriage was over.
The experimental recordings were released in November 1968 as Unfinished Music No 1: Two Virgins. While the music was too avant-garde for most listeners, the cover, featuring a fully nude John and Yoko, made the release one of the most notorious for a mainstream musician.
The sleeve photography was shot in early October 1968 in the basement of Ringo Starr’s flat in Montagu Square, London, using a delayed shutter release. Most record labels refused to release Two Virgins, and a number of record stores refused to stock it.