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Life as art: Yoko Ono celebrates her 90th birthday

Torsten Landsberg | Silke Wünsch
February 17, 2023

Yoko Ono might be best known as John Lennon's wife, but she has forged her own pioneering path as a multimedia artist, singer and songwriter — and remains a prominent peace activist.

Yoko Ono, woman with a hat peers over her sunglasses
Yoko Ono — the artist, musisican, peace activist in 2018Image: Jason Roberts/empics/picture alliance

Yoko Ono's life has been indelibly tied to her third husband, John Lennon, and to his band the Beatles after many blamed her for the Fab Four's break-up. 

But Yoko Ono has always been her own person, and has stamped her own distinctive mark on art and music for over 60 years.

Early conceptual art 

The daughter of a wealthy Tokyo family, Ono moved to the US as a young woman and became part of New York's artistic avant-garde in the early 1960s.

One of her best-known early performances is 1964's "Cut Piece," in which the artist sat passively on stage in her best suit and allowed the audience to cut off her clothes with scissors.

It was a daring piece of participatory art that was soon echoed in the work of conceptual artist, Marina Abramovic.  

Ono's artistic inspiration came partly through her involvement in the Fluxus movement in New York, including "Flux Film" avant-garde filmmaking. 

Her most famous film from the period is 1966's "Four," which shows the naked buttocks of people drawn from the London intellectual scene as the subject passes the camera on a moving walkway. 

Yoko Ono and John Lennon, in bed, photographers gahtered at foot og bed taking pictures  Bed Peace 1969
Yoko Ono and John Lennon stage a "bed-in" for peace in 1969Image: Getty Images/Central Press

Yoko Ono has a wide range of influences from French Dada artist Marcel Duchamp to experimental composer John Cage — who she met in New York through Cage's student and Ono's first husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi.

But when Ono developed a high-pitched, screeching singing style — a feature of the Plastic Ono Band formed with John Lennon —  she drew the ire of the music press, and the public.

Meeting John Lennon

Yoko Ono met John Lennon at one of her exhibitions in London in 1966.

Two years later, they started having an affair, and Ono accompanied Lennon to the studio for the recording of the Beatles' "White Album" — breaking an agreement not to bring along female partners. Encouraged by Lennon, Ono is said to have interfered in the recording process.

The couple married in 1969. A year later, Paul McCartney announced that he was leaving the Beatles. John's relatiuonship with Ono had played a part in his decision, he said at the time.

Decades later in a TV interview with David Frost, McCartney conceded that Yoko Ono's constant presence at the band's studio recordings was not the reason for the breakup. But he did not deny in retrospect that he and the two other Beatles  eyed Ono with suspicion.

Ono and Lennon's relationship at times came across as an art production, including the "bed-ins" for peace in a hotel bed and the eighteen-month "Lost Weekend" period, a marital time-out that Ono ordered.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, look at each other nose to nose, with short hair
John Lennon and Yoko Ono had their hair cut short in 1970 for an auction to benefit the Black Power organization in the UKImage: Bob Dear/AP/picture alliance

Distant relations with children

While Yoko Ono has remained aloof from the public eye, she has admitted in interviews that she had a a distant relationship with her son Sean Lennon from her marriage to John Lennon; and daughter Kyoko Chan Cox from her second marriage to film producer Anthony Cox.

Her first pregnancy was not planned and robbed her of her sense of freedom, she said. She left the girl with Cox after she started going out with John Lennon.

In 1971 Anthony Cox, who had joined a cult, went into hiding with the girl. It was not until the mid-1990s that Kyoko Chan Cox got in touch with her mother.

After Yoko Ono gave birth to Sean Lennon in 1975,John Lennon is said to have been the prime carer of their son in the following years until his murder in 1980.

 Yoko Ono, woman wearing large sunglasses holds a microphone
Yoko Ono in 1982Image: Bandphoto/Photoshot/picture alliance

Art knows no boundaries

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had just returned from a studio recording session on December 8 that year when Mark David Chapman, an obsessive fan, shot Lennon dead.

It was in front of the Dakota Building in New York where Ono still lives today.

For Ono, art was life, and death, and in 1981 she placed a photo of her husband's blood-splattered glasses on the cover of her solo album, "Season of Glass."

In the decades since, her art works are still exhibited all over the world.

Most recently, the exhibition "War is Over! If You Want It — Tribute to Yoko Ono," was staged at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

This article was originally written in German.