Yoko Ono's '60s Art Revisited. ART: REVIEW
NEW YORK — WERE the 1960s as scintillating, artistically speaking, as they're often claimed to have been? That question keeps coming to mind as I attend the show called ``Yoko Ono: Objects, Films.'' It's on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art here (through next Sunday) and will play the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston early next year. Ms. Ono's work epitomizes the late '60s and early '70s, when most of her objects and films were dreamed up. She questions authority, subverts convention, breaks rules, and flies in the face of propriety. In the process she reveals an artistic personality that's alternately charming, frustrating, and infuriating, just like the period in which she made her most significant impact.
The decade known as the '60s didn't really begin until about 1965. The arrival of the Beatles, headed by Ono's husband-to-be, John Lennon, was a key event in the cultural changes that ushered in the period. It reached its climax in 1968, but didn't fade until around 1975, after Watergate had wrought a new set of changes in the American consciousness.
Most people remember the '60s as a decade of experimentation and revolt, but it was also a time of great naivet'e and sentimentality. For a sample of its fey taste, see Ono's sculpture ``Pointedness,'' made in 1964 and reworked in 1966. It consists of a crystal sphere accompanied by a text that says, ``This sphere will be a sharp point when it gets to the far side of the room in your mind.'' The qualities of this sentence - its lack of logic, its nebulous imagery, its longing for magical transformation - are about as '60s as one can get.
Some of Ono's ``objects'' are more clever and insightful. The best is ``Play It by Trust,'' an elegantly crafted chess set consisting entirely of white pieces - a witty conception that comments lucidly on '60s ideas of communality, as well as the mentality of game-playing.
Influences on Ono's art include the indeterminate music of John Cage, the allusive properties of Zen Buddhist thought, and the iconoclastic art of the Fluxus group, to which she belonged in the early '60s. Also important are the ideas of John Lennon, her late husband. Although the ``Objects'' displayed at the Whitney aim to reconsider Ono's solo work ``unhindered by the distractions of two decades of superstardom,'' the accompanying film-and-video series shows Lennon's influence to be inescapable.
The films demand far more of the spectator than Ono's objects do, since they exist in time as well as in space - asking us to sit still for lengthy periods while (in many cases) very little happens. ``Film No. 5,'' also known as ``Smile,'' shows Lennon smiling into the camera for 51 minutes.
Ono's films are rooted in the bravest '60s notions about non-narrative structure and cinema as a self-reflexive experience. She never attains the radical purity of an Andy Warhol, however. Even her most visually minimal works, such as ``No. 4'' (80 minutes of unerotic backsides) and ``Up Your Legs Forever'' (70 minutes of mostly bare legs), accompany their images with busy sound tracks, full of disembodied voices proclaiming the brilliance and/or outrageousness of the very footage we're watching.
Ono did create some substantial film and video works. ``Bed-In'' is a quirky but engaging 1969 documentary about a week when Ono and Lennon stayed in bed - receiving the press in their pajamas, like royal layabouts - to publicize their world-peace crusade. The metaphorically titled ``Rape'' is about the harassment of a young woman by a filmaking crew; we're supposed to think the victim was chosen at random on the street, but evidence in the movie suggests the situation was set up in advance.
Best of all is ``Apotheosis,'' wherein Ono and Lennon soar above an English village in a hot-air balloon, soon entering a cloud (how Zen! how '60s!) that obscures everything from view. The movie should end at this point, but it continues with several minutes of blank whiteness - until we suddenly emerge above the clouds with a deep sky and frosty sun above us. It's a dazzling moment, and it reveals in Ono - and in the '60s sensibility she embodied - a streak of cinematic creativity that's as genuine as it is ornery.