This is the incredible story of Yoko Ono, an artist from the New York avant-garde, whose destiny was to fall in love with the world’s most famous man

This is the incredible story of Yoko Ono, an artist from the New York avant-garde, whose destiny was to fall in love with the world’s most famous man

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At first I started researching Yoko Ono`s oeuvre but soon I came across her Life. Her work is striking, avant-garde and sublime, but in this piece I want to tell you about her life, surely the only way to understand why and from where her enigmatic work comes from. She has had an incredible life that has always been overshadowed by the overwhelming fame of her third husband who used to call her “the world´s most famous unknown artist”. Everybody knows her name, everybody knows her face, but nobody knows who she really is.

Of course that has change tremendously in the last decades. Her work has had big retrospectives in the world´s leading museums and she is a very active woman connected to the XXI century. Here is her story.

The Japanese aristocrat

Yoko Ono was born into an aristocratic family. Her father Eisuko, descended from a long lineage of Samurai warriors that even claim to be related to an IX century emperor. From her mother´s family they descend from the Yasuda clan, one of the wealthiest families of Japan, including her great grandfather who was the founder of the prominent Yasuda Bank. Yoko was born in the palatial residence of her family in the ancient city of Kamakuro, in February 1933. In spite of growing up in these privilege surroundings, she always felt the emotional absence of her distinguish parents.

A bridge between two worlds

All her childhood and youth was marked by a constant oscillation between Japan and the United Stated. Her father Eisuke was forced to give up his passion as a pianist to hold a position in international banking, for this reason he was always moving. Yoko didn´t meet her father until she was two years old, when she traveled with her mother to San Francisco where he was living. Around 1940 they were again living in the USA, this time in Long Island. It´s at this moment when up-rooting feelings started to surface. The tension between the two countries was escalating and the children of her neighbor were not kind with her Asian eyes. The problem was that back in Japan her American ways set her apart from the other children, she was always the outsider.


Living in Tokyo they received the news of the Japanese attack to Pearl Harbor. Yoko clearly remembers the disapproval of her parents towards the violence of their own country. From that moment on, a very hard period started, which shaped her future pacifist battles. At the beginning the Onos could maintain their high status life, but as the war advanced, raids to the cities were more frequent and food more scarce. Eisuko was working in Hanoi and nothing was heard of him for a while. Desperate Isoko took her three children to the countryside. Yoko will never forget the misery of going through the fields in search of food. The war ended with the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the instant death of 230 thousand people. Peace and impermanence were concepts that Yoko treasured for long.


Other great subject in Yoko’s life and essential to understand her work was her constant and early musical education. Yoko Ono didn´t start to explore music when she met John Lennon, actually she gave her first piano concert at the age of 4. Her parents were passionate about music and exposed their daughter to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as to traditional Japanese music. At Jiyu Gakuen, the progressive school she attended in Tokyo (hosted in a Frank Lloyd Wright building), she was encouraged to listen the surrounding music. One of her homeworks was to translate the songs of birds into musical notes.

Years later she would create her Secret Piece that read, “Decide on one note that you want to play. Play it with the following accompaniment: the woods from 5 a.m to 8 a.m in summer”. When she finished her secondary studies she told her father she wanted to become a composer. A little shocked he adviced her to become a singer, something more suitable for a woman.


After dropping her philosophy studies in Gakushin University, she moved again to the States where her family was living. She got into Sarah Laurence College, and exclusive school for girls where she was remembered for sitting under a tree writing Haikus (short Japanese poems). Is in this period when she creates her first instruction pieces. Simple sentences with a call to action to open your imagination and mind, like Smell Piece and Lighting Piece.


Oriental thought and Beatniks

It was a Sarah Laurence teacher who suggested her to connect with John Cage and the other composers who were exploring new ideas about what music could be. For some years the great master D.T Suzuki, was spreading the word about the teachings of Zen Buddhism. This generated a diaspora that influenced the Generation Beat, Cage and the whole artistic community of Greenwich Village. Soon Yoko was hanging around with the Avant gard circles in beatnik’s fashions; no make-up, long and loose hair and black clothes. Finally she could expand her ideas.

Chamber Street Series

Within this world she meets Toshi Ichiyanagi, a brilliant Japanese composer with a scholarship in Julliard. They rented a loft in Chamber Street Series, furnished sparsely with orange crates. What is today trendy TriBeCa was then a derelict area with no hot-water buildings. Disinherited by her family, she throws herself into a bohemian lifestyle. For one year her loft was transformed into a platform for the most experimental artists of the New York scene to perform (Merce Cunnigham, John Cage, Phillip Glass, etc.). She organized these happenings along with minimalist pioneer Le Monte Young, where they gathered over 200 people, including Marcel Duchamp and Peggy Guggenheim.

At this moment Yoko realized that traditional painting was done for her. Words, even ideas could become art. She also understood that her work should be spontaneous, alive and in continuum; the audience can finish the work of art with their own mind, turning into artists themselves. All these ideas turn her into a non-recognized pioneer of conceptual art.


The couple decides to go back to Japan where Yoko will start one of the darkest periods in her life. See feels totally underestimated, nobody recognized her work if it wasn´t alongside the famous masculine figures she frequented. She ends up in a mental health clinic where a strange man name Tony Cox appears, assuring he is a great fan of her work. In her vulnerable state, she ends up marring him and back in New York, they have a child named Kyoko. While Cox takes care of the child Yoko goes on with her work and falls in love with Lennon. Cox terrified by the possibility of being cut out from the custody of his beloved daughter, changes her name and hides her. Yoko won´t see Kyoko for 23 years.

Her fame, her love with Lennon and his untimely death, all in part II

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