By Reed Johnson
Los Angeles Daily News
Once Beatles fans reviled her as the pretentious flake who broke up the band. Now it's compulsory for hip performance artists to pay homage to Yoko Ono's early-'60s experiments with New York's avant-garde Fluxus movement.
Like a Third World dissident who has been pardoned by the new regime, Ono, 63, is savoring her rehabilitation.
But despite her newfound status as a multimedia swami, there's at least one visual artist who leaves her slightly awed.
His name, as if you hadn't guessed, is John Lennon.
"I'm an artist myself, and I know I can't do what he does," says Ono, promoting an exhibition of 80 of her husband's sketches, drawings and signed lithographs that opens Thursday at the Promenade mall in Woodland Hills.
"It looks very simple, but it isn't, you know?" she continues. "And I think maybe one day I'll try it, because I work in a totally different way."
But what's this? John Lennon, barefoot philosopher, in a Valley shopping mall? The man who imagined no possessions, sharing a roof with Ann Taylor?
Ono's response comes through the phone line without hesitation.
"Well, I had a soul search about that. I come from an arts background where we were kind of rebels, and we would use any place for expression. His work was for people, and people go to shopping malls. And I think that's fine, as long as it's not J-U-S-T shopping malls. I mean, his stuff is now in a collection of the Museum of Modern Art."
Richard E. Horowitz, the show's curator, seconds that opinion.
"I think galleries put people off," says Horowitz, who owns two San Diego record stores and is partnered with Pacific Edge Gallery of Laguna Beach. "People are more likely to feel intimidated by galleries. When we do mall shows, we find that more people come."
Ken Stephens, the mall's marketing director, boasts that Promenade offers several advantages over a traditional gallery: more open space and more foot traffic, plus several restaurants and 16 movie screens within a few paces.
"We felt that it was a good fit with the kind of customer that we have here," he says. "We also knew after having spoken with Richard Horowitz that this was a very high-quality exhibition, a very well-done exhibition."
Spanning the period 1969 through 1980, the exhibition provides insight into Lennon's second marriage, second bout with fatherhood and the mundane textures of domestic life during the years when the Ono-Lennons inhabited the Dakota hotel at the edge of Manhattan's Central Park.
Before he swapped his sketch pad for a Rickenbacker guitar, Lennon had spent three years studying at the Liverpool Art Institute. In those days, Ono says, her husband concentrated on oil painting, plus "some collages and watercolor stuff, too."
After he and Paul McCartney dreamed up the Beatles, Lennon used drawing as a stress reliever, doodling on airline cocktail napkins and dashing off caricatures while puttering at home.
"One day he was depressed, and I looked over his shoulder," Ono remembers, "and I found that he was drawing something funny, but he was depressed. So that statement was coming from his experience in that he was using drawing as a kind of security blanket, you know?"
The bulk of the show is made up of hand-signed lithographs and seriagraphs, all from limited-edition series of 325. Starting at $200 apiece, the lithographs run as high as $12,000 for some of those belonging to the so-called "Bag One" collection, an illustrated chronicle of the Lennon-Ono nuptials that the groom gave his bride as a wedding gift in 1969.
Etched in Lennon's spidery hand, they evoke the ruefully humorous scenes described in the late-era Beatles hit "The Ballad of John and Yoko": the exchange of vows before a Gibraltar judge, the weeklong "Bed-in for Peace" at the Amsterdam Hilton and so on. The series also contains a copper etching of the smooching newlyweds, their matching coiffures merging into a single, blissful profile.
Equally visible is Lennon's penchant for goofy, first-person erotica, visual puns and whimsical wordplay - a not-unexpected trait from the author of "I Am the Walrus" and "In His Own Write."
Elsewhere in the show are Lennon's handwritten lyrics for 10 songs, on loan from Ono; gentle sketches of John and Yoko's son, Sean, who was barely 5 when his father was killed; and a string of deceptively simple self-portraits.
"Technically what he did was very, very good and very difficult," says curator Horowitz. "To draw a self-portrait in three lines is not easy."
Ono is convinced that her husband's playful humor has kept his art from being taken more seriously - that, and what she describes as Lennon's surprising shyness about displaying his works. She says he liked to identify with Rene Magritte, the Belgian surrealist whose menacing, sexually charged paintings belied his bowler hats and staid banker's demeanor.
Lennon thought that art, when it wasn't trying so hard to impress, could get closer to its true inspiration. Instead of a shrine to immortality, he saw it as a kind of beautiful, boyish prank.
"It's funny," Ono says, "because John was into Sean's work. Sean would just (draw something), and John would say, `What is this?' And then Sean would say some (gibberish), and then John would write it down as a title.
"I have a kind of longish hall in my apartment, and John had all Sean's drawings framed, and those are the only ones in my apartment. John was like that."