was about to burn a painting.
alongside curators and conservators in an unused gallery at the Museum
of Modern Art this spring, the 82-year-old superstar wanted to copy a
cigarette hole that John Cage, the avant-garde composer, had burned into
another blank canvas of hers half a century earlier. For the remake,
she had asked for the French cigarettes that Cage would have used but
ended up settling for one from Nat Sherman. Lighting up in a museum that
had not smelled of tobacco for decades, she reached out and, with a
sure artist’s touch, scorched a tidy round hole. Velazquez painting the
Spanish king could not have been watched more closely than Ms. Ono was —
though it was hard to know whether these courtiers were crowding around
to witness creation or to prevent conflagration.
“Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971
,” opening on May 17 in one of MoMA
prestigious sixth-floor galleries, is a major event of the museum’s
summer season. On display will be more than 100 vintage works — and in a
few cases, as with the burned canvas, facsimiles — that represent the
heyday of Ms. Ono’s first career in art, long overshadowed by her
better-known image as pop-culture icon and widow of John Lennon. A great
deal is riding on the event — for Ms. Ono, for the museum and also for
Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator at large at MoMA and a co-organizer of
her show. The exhibition could recalibrate the reputations of all three.
Ono in the ’60s was a historically important, groundbreaking,
influential artist, working in London and Tokyo and New York,” explained
Mr. Biesenbach, sitting in a MoMA boardroom, his platinum hair slicked
back above one of his trademark skinny suits. Ms. Ono’s achievement as
an artist, he said, “is nearly hidden by her fame; we want to uncover
As for Mr. Biesenbach, the show may help counteract the drubbing
that he has taken for “Björk
his celebration of the Icelandic pop star that is now filling MoMA’s
atrium. One critic said it had “laid a colossal egg”; another called for
his resignation. Working with Ms. Ono satisfies the curator’s
well-known love of celebrities, but the artist’s early, conceptual work
has an undeniable heft and rigor that may help earn back Mr.
Biesenbach’s credentials as someone sober and substantial.