"I was like a punching bag from many angles: being an Asian, and being a woman and being an avant garde artist," says Yoko Ono, in a phone interview. "And I don't think people know that I was doing music way before I met John. And I think they felt I just got into music when I got together with John. So anyway, there was a lot of misunderstanding."
A show of Lennon's drawings at the Buckhead Borders In My Life: The Artwork of John Lennon from Sept. 7-9 probably won't do much to help Ono's image or redeem her in the eyes of Beatles fans, whose adoration of those Liverpool lads makes devotees of Barbie and "Star Trek" look like exemplars of restraint. Even 20 years after his murder outside his Upper Westside Manhattan home, John Lennon remains a profitable franchise with fans still anxious to own a piece of Lennon's aura.
With the feel of a posthumous yard sale, the traveling In My Life exhibition features more than 100 of Lennon's fanciful doodles, from relatively affordable serigraphs to original works ranging up to $160,000, according to the show's organizer Larry Schwartz, whose Santa Rosa-based Legacy Productions is staging the Borders event.
But it's the show's trappings that may rub some fans the wrong way, with its remnants of hippie peace and love masking an essentially for-profit venture. Fans may bristle at Ono's name proprietarily attached to this exhibition of Lennon's artwork, or the gloss of feel-good social cause in the organizers' request that viewers make a $2 donation at the door to the Operation Smile organization, which corrects facial deformities in indigent children.
The show features a range of Lennon's work, from song lyric manuscripts to whimsical drawings made for his son, Sean, of blue camels and smiling monkeys, with adorable captions like "An Elephant Forgetting" or "An Owl Hooting." From the G- to the R-rated, In My Life also includes erotic lithographs commemorating John and Yoko getting it on from Lennon's controversial "Bag One" series seized in a 1970 raid by British police (though the work would eventually become part of the Museum of Modern Art's collection).
Though the "Bag One" works may have initially raised eyebrows, in the current seen-it-all age they are as quaint as Birkenstocks, knee-socks and the illustrations of hairy hippie gropings captured in Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex. Rendered in sherbet-y colors or cursorily executed in black and white, the works on display in In My Life are the kind of casual doodles elevated to emotion-laden art by their maker's celebrity and untimely death.
"When I see his work, it's almost like touching his body heat," says Ono, whose own art career often has been eclipsed by Lennon. An avant-garde artist accustomed to trafficking in conceptual work, Ono was educated at elite Japanese schools and Sarah Lawrence, and gorged on the heady vapors of the New York art world. But despite her own grounding in experimental, cutting-edge material, Ono remains a passionate advocate of the simpler pleasures of her late husband's work.
Lennon's drawings continued an interest in art fostered at the Liverpool Art School, says Ono. "I think that it allowed him to be more himself in the sense that he was expressing what he liked to express; a sense of humor and all that, and his love for his family and for his son. In rock and roll, he felt a bit macho so he was really going out of his way not to be like that." Even despite his musical fame, Ono says, "He wanted to express himself artistically as well as musically ... he never gave up on art."
Ono was accepted within Manhattan's downtown art scene for her pioneering work with the radically visionary '60s art movement, Fluxus, whose members included Korean installation artist Nam Jun Paik, composer John Cage and George Maciunas. But Lennon was less warmly received by the art world. "It wasn't that easy for him to be recognized as an artist," recalls Ono. "I have that memory of him trying to have a gallery show.
"There was a certain kind of snobbery," Ono says, to the art world's chilly reception of Lennon's work. "Even after his death he had a hard time. Most of the gallery owners would say, 'We don't do that sort of thing,' meaning the dabbling of a pop artist or something like that."
Though pop culture history has not remembered Ono as anything more than Lennon's uppity, dilettante appendage, the recent resurgence of the art world interest in her contributions to the avant-garde tell another story.
Her 40-year body of work recently was honored in an October 2000 retrospective at New York's Japan Society. Critic Peter Frank credits Ono with anticipating "everything from minimalism to performance art, the furthest reaches of new cinema to the most extreme of punk-new wave music."
Part of America's hostility toward Ono is no doubt due to its ignorance of the avant garde, whose radical performance pieces and often quirky attempts to bring art into a daily context are harder to grasp than the more accessible peace-and-love messages of Lennon's work. But in many ways, Lennon and Ono -- despite his popularity and her obscurity -- were birds of the same feather. Fluxus, with its efforts to lessen the deification of art, and rock music, with its accessibility, were universal, inclusive forms in Ono and Lennon's hands. The hippie and the hipster shared a philosophy of communication.
"That's what it was about John: [With] pop and rock it was accessible. And the avant-garde was a little bit more Ivory Tower but still within that there was a group like Fluxus who believed in breaking the ivory tower, trying to do some stuff that communicates on a larger level," says Ono. She says she's tried to extend that availability of Lennon's gift to his artwork by offering fans not only original art, but more affordable serigraphs in the In My Life show.
"I've always believed that the energy of art and music should be shared by many people," she says.
Yoko Ono and Borders Books & Music present In My Life: The Artwork of John Lennon Sept. 7-9 at Borders Books & Music, Buckhead, 3637 Peachtree Road. Fri. 5-9 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. 888-ART-1969.
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