The Museum of Modern Art has finally organized a retrospective of Yoko Ono’s work (Yoko Ono: One Woman Show 1960–1971). But the show’s title is misleading–the exhibit focuses as much on Ono’s relationships with other artists, her ever-evolving communities, as it does on her own work. As a result, the exhibit has a wistful feel; even if you weren’t alive during the early 1960s, the show will leave you faintly nostalgic for the New York art scene of that period.

The exhibit opens, rather pointedly, with two pieces about the ephemeral nature of art. First, Lighting Piece, one of Ono’s “instruction” pieces–a white index card with a typed message saying simply, “light a match and watch till it goes out.” In the next room, a fresh green apple sat on a Plexiglas pedestal over a golden plaque reading “apple.” Museum visitors dutifully walked around the apple, examining it from all sides, and questioned the guard about how often it was replaced. He had no answer.

Apples eventually rot, and matches blow out, and art movements fall apart too. The curators have devoted a lot of space to the ephemera from exhibitions and happenings that Ono was involved in over the years. Most of one big room is spent on invitations to events at Ono’s Chambers Street Studio–mimeographed pages reading, “free wine will be furnished,” and announcing performances by the likes of John Cage. The effect is a little sad, like being told about a wonderful party you weren’t in time for, and now all the guests are scattered.

 

Yoko Ono (Japanese, born 1933) Apple. 1966.
Yoko Ono (Japanese, born 1933)
Apple. 1966.
Plexiglas pedestal, brass plaque, apple, 45 × 6 11/16 × 6 15/16″ (114.3 × 17 × 17.6 cm).
Private collection.
© Yoko Ono 2014

Then we have the rooms dedicated to Ono’s years with John Lennon. There is a TV screen playing the very sweet Bed In For Peace, which puts together a week of footage of John and Yoko lounging in their pajamas, laughing and chatting and cuddling. There’s a piece they created together called Half a Room, which is just what it sounds like: a room with all the furniture cut in half. These pieces still breathe with fresh energy, but they also carry the smell of disaster–it’s hard to see John and Yoko’s young love without remembering how it all ended.

Of course, the end was always meant to be from the beginning. Many of Ono’s own works were designed to be stepped on, ripped up or painted over by her audience. The exhibit preserves one of Ono’s “instruction” booklets, a big brochure originally full of short-as-haiku instructions to the audience on how to have an artistic experience. But the surviving booklet is all covered in black paint, because the original audience dutifully inked over the instructions after reading.

No matter how hard it tries, a museum can never quite replicate the experience of visiting an experimental gallery. The MOMA cannot make us feel as though we are in Ono’s Chambers Street studio. Nor do the curators really want to. Ono designed one new work for this retrospective, an installation called Sky Piece. It’s a fine spiral staircase reaching up to a skylight; it wobbles a little at the top. But of course, it’s carefully policed; instead of climbing up together, laughing and talking, museum visitors are put in an orderly line by the guard and told to go one at a time.

There is no collective experience here. We are looking at the husks of works of art which were never meant to last; we can only imagine what they were like when flush with fresh life. Still, it’s better to see dry husks than nothing at all, and some of the works are very worth looking at on their own. Pieces like Hammer–a hammer hanging next to a wall of nails–have a commanding physicality. Still, the overwhelming mood is nostalgia, an effort to recapture a time that will not return.

Yoko Ono: One Woman Show runs through September 7 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

 

Photos: MOMA