A Tate Modern Retrospective Is Reclaiming Yoko Ono

“MUSIC OF THE MIND,” refuses to let Yoko Ono remain history’s most 'famous unknown artist.'

A black and white photo of a woman wearing all black sitting in an all-white room
Yoko Ono with ‘Half-A-Room,’ 1967 from HALF-A-WIND SHOW, Lisson Gallery, London, 1967. Photo © Clay Perry

In 1964, Yoko Ono self-published an anthology of “instructions” entitled Grapefruit. The work gave guidance on staging specific acts or visualizing certain scenes, all to radically empower readers to create—or become—an artwork. The unusual text also helped inspire one of the greatest songs of all time. A new retrospective dedicated to Ono at Tate Modern, “YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND,” highlights her provocative, if often overlooked, artistic perspective. Whether staging a peaceful sit-in or being disrobed with scissors by an audience, Ono has asked us to imagine and participate together. Individual acts can lead to collective action Ono argues in her art.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="nofollow noreferer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

Grapefruit, written between 1953 and 1963, was itself a groundbreaking work of conceptual thinking from the Japanese-American artist, one emblematic of the postmodern shifts from traditional notions of art. It featured so-called “scores” outlining directives—such as “Painting to be stepped on” and “Painting to be constructed in your head”—for readers to then enact. Ono’s final product was uniquely placed in an individual’s hands or dreamy imagination.

Sheet music and notes on yellowed paper
Yoko Ono, ‘Grapefruit,’ Page 11, “SECRET PIECE,” 1964. Courtesy the artist. © Yoko Ono

The unconventional book also shaped one of the most celebrated popular songs of all time: “Imagine.” Famed Beatle John Lennon (1940–1980) told the BBC in 1980 that “Imagine” was inspired by it:

Actually, that should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song because a lot of it—the lyric and the concept—came from Yoko. But those days I … omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book. There’s a whole pile of pieces about “Imagine this” and “Imagine that.”

Owing to Lennon’s creative excision, and other racial and misogynistic politics leveraged at Ono, she never received widespread credit for her contribution to the acclaimed masterpiece. (The more popular and sensational question was whether the “dragon lady” broke up The Beatles.)

The U.K. exhibition features seven decades of works from the famously iconoclastic—if also famously “unknown”—artist. From recent large-scale text works (like 2021’s I LOVE YOU EARTH), to recordings of infamous films (such as Bottoms from 1966-67), the show demonstrates Ono’s enduring preoccupation with imagination and its ability to imbue individual escape and collective empowerment. It also showcases the original typeset draft of Grapefruit (marking its first appearance in the U.K.), reminding us of Ono’s role in shaping the inspired anthem intoning for world peace.

SEE ALSO: A Guide to All the April Art Fairs

The fact alone that the Tate Modern is mounting a comprehensive retrospective is sign enough of the institution’s noble effort to recuperate the artistic identity of this multi-faceted—and often publicly maligned—artist.

Born in Japan in 1933, Yoko Ono grew up in the nuclear aftermath of World War II, a time that ravaged her country as atomic bombs rained down on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It was the safe and perpetual presence of the sky above—which Ono would often turn to for escapist comfort when lying in hiding—as a site of solace and possibility. The sky later became a central motif in her art, one representing limitlessness and freedom from Earth’s sometimes cruel hand.

It was the time living in New York in the 1960s, however, that galvanized Ono’s desire to allow the viewer to fantasize—with or without a sky—too. Early works asked that we project our own mental images onto blank canvases with prompts, such as in Grapefruit, or play an uncompetitive game of chess with only white squares and white pieces (White Chess Set). “Play as long as you can remember where all your pieces are,” were her instructions.

“Yoko upended the relationship between the artist and the audience,” says Juliette Bingham, Curator of International Art, who helped assemble the exhibition. “Yoko Ono is such a versatile artist and has worked in so many different ways to convey her message.”

Participation has remained key to Ono’s work and message, one that is a through-line from early pieces to contemporary efforts too. The impetus to ask us to experience the pleasures of our own abstract thoughts be energized to enact real social change, too.

A black and white photo of a woman sitting on an empty stage holding her clothing to her bosom
Yoko Ono, C’ut Piece,’ 1964. Performed by Yoko Ono in ‘New Works by Yoko Ono’, Carnegie Recital Hall, NYC, March 21, 1965. Photo © Minoru Niizuma

The exhibition features work like Cut Piece (1964), a filmed performance where spectators were invited to cut off her clothing, examining the objectification and socio-political control leveraged at women’s bodies. Add Colour (Refugee Boat) (2019), another participatory piece but produced decades on, presents a boat stationed in a white room instructing viewers to color the blank space and its structure blue and white. The piece asks us to consider the plight of refugees—often reviled in the media and othered by politicians—fleeing homelands to seek salvation in Europe.

The public perception of Ono may have been marked by misogyny and vilification during her years married to Lennon, but it was after his early death that Ono partly capitalized on the notoriety. Continuing the work that she had begun with him—like Acorns for Peace 1969, which saw the pair send acorns to world leaders—Ono continued to advocate for humanitarian causes via her art. Take her Wish Trees series (first begun in 1996 and featured again at the Tate today), an enduring project that seeks to engage the public to contribute personal wishes of world peace.

A woman prunes a tree inside a large gallery space with a video display in the background
Yoko Ono, ‘Wish Trees for London,’ 2024 installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND Tate Modern, London. Photo © Tate (Reece Straw)

Some may see it as a confected exercise but it’s a popular, wistful work that attracts many wanting to pin a note to the olive tree.

The message of peace might remain the same but its relevance in an age of new global conflicts, from Ukraine to Gaza, means new connections are formed by audiences. “What’s amazing is the way that people see and approach her work and how its meaning has changed over time,” Bingham told the Art Newspaper. “It changes over the decades because we bring a different context to it.”

“YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND” is an inspired and enlightening project, one reclaiming the obscured, even overlooked, artistic achievements of Yoko Ono. It joins other recent projects, such as the docu-series Get Back, challenging the corrupted public image surrounding Ono and the past devaluation of her own artistry.

At seven decades of delivering disruptive creative endeavors, the way Ono continues to challenge notions of performance and the artist remains remarkable, now one rightfully honored by a major gallery in her lifetime.

While other artists have visualized onto a canvas, or projected into abstractions, Ono has always challenged viewers to see the imaginative potential in themselves. It’s only through collective imagination that united action can be found: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”

YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND” is on view at Tate Modern, London until September 1, 2024. Advanced booking is recommended.

A Tate Modern Retrospective Is Reclaiming Yoko Ono