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"Yes Yoko Ono" is surprisingly good

Oh YokoIt's an understatement to say that Yoko Ono is misunderstood. Many people still blame her for the breakup of the Beatles, envisioning her as some kind of "dragon lady" who tore Lennon from McCartney with her steely fangs. Other, less racist folks simply view her music as unlistenable and her art as preposterous. (Back at Sarah Lawrence College, which both she and I attended, my peers and I just thought of her as the rumored benefactor of our after-meal ice cream -- the donator toward a kind of slush-y fund.) But thanks to SFMOMA's far-reaching retrospective "Yes Yoko Ono," which opened this week and runs through Sept. 8, the public will have a chance to see that much of Ono's work is provocative, moving, and even humorous.

To better understand Ono's multimedia oeuvre, it helps to know something of her life. While she was born into wealth in 1933, she suffered greatly during World War II, often having to beg for food. Her family moved repeatedly, following Ono's father from Tokyo to San Francisco to New York and back to Tokyo. From an early age Ono studied classical piano, German lieder, and Italian opera, but gave them all up for the bizarre atonalities of the New York avant-garde scene when she moved to the Big Apple in 1952.

After collaborating with boho classicalists John Cage and LaMonte Young in the late '50s, Ono helped initiate the fluxus movement, which mixed bits of dada, existentialism, social thought, and Eastern minimalism. Ono's early shows -- one of which featured a miked toilet-flushing, years before Married With Children -- were abject failures in the eyes of the art press. Her two pre-Lennon marriages, to Juilliard student Ichiyanagi Toshi and Young's musician friend Anthony Cox, didn't fare much better. (Cox had married Ono after he'd rescued her from a Japanese mental institution, where the staff was accused of oversedating her after a suicide attempt. Perhaps they were trying to make a statement about her art.)

But by the mid-'60s, the world had caught up to Ono's way of thinking. At a show at the Indica Gallery in London in 1966, a young Liverpudlian named John was particularly taken with a piece called Ceiling Painting, in which a viewer walked up a ladder and used a magnifying glass to read the artist's stated "instruction," a simple, block-lettered "YES." Three years later, Ono and Lennon were sharing their honeymoon "bed-in" with reporters, hippies, and Smothers brothers; plastering album covers with their bare butts; and suggesting we give this peace thing a chance.

"Yes Yoko Ono" covers the full scope of the artist's career, although it focuses heavily on her groundbreaking work during the '60s and '70s. In S.F., the traveling exhibit also re-creates Ono and Lennon's infamous "wish billboard," which sported the slogan "War is over! If you want it" and was erected in 12 cities throughout the world before Christmas 1969 (on the corner of New Montgomery and Howard). Personally, I think they should've updated the billboard for modern times; then they could've wished for a smaller miracle, like for people to stop using the word "jiggy."

The exhibit, which takes its name from the punch line of Ceiling Painting (on display here but not available for climbing), is divided into six sections. The first, "Grapefruit: The Early Instructions," is the most pretentious and least effective. All the works are from the early '60s, when Ono was in her highly conceptual period. It may have seemed revolutionary at the time for an artist to place instructions for a vine to grow and die next to a photo of a blank canvas against a wall, but now it just seems lazy. The same goes for the section's Instructions for Painting series, which consists of various ideas for paintings translated into Japanese and written in calligraphy, and Touch Poem No. 5, a bunch of hair trapped in a book. During a walk-through with fluxus scholar Jon Hendricks, he suggested that this period showed Ono "trying to get away from the artist having to put paint on canvas." This theory sounded good to me, although I bet if I attempted something similar, my editor would tell me to get back to work. As for On Insound, a concert piece that plays out of a speaker on SFMOMA's wall, the intro line should be self-explanatory: "Like really in-within-inner-non-un-insane-crazed ..."

Luckily, the next section, "This Is Not Here: Yoko Documents," brings Ono's sense of humor to the fore via exhibition fliers, posters, ads, programs, and more. A sales list is written on one wall, but instead of prices for her works it includes a bunch of imaginary devices like the Danger Box, described as a "machine that you will never come back the same from if you get in," a steal at $1,100. Next to the list is the re-created Blue Room Event, in which Ono takes a white room and writes phrases such as "This room slowly evaporates every day" and "This room glows in the dark while we are asleep" all over it.

The fourth section, "Fly: Events, Performances, and Films," contains some of Ono's best work, in a variety of mediums. One of her continuing motifs is interaction with her audience, best exemplified by Painting to Hammer a Nail, which is a block of wood affixed with a bunch of nails waiting to be pounded in by viewers, and Amaze, a large Plexiglas maze that leads a barefoot patron to a life-size toilet.

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