Yoko Ono: 80, a New Book, and Unearned Relevance


People tell me not to hate Yoko Ono. I want to agree with them, because I feel like girls who don’t like Yoko Ono are the valley girls with Beatles iPhone covers and bad style that aren’t capable of seeing the Beatles and their ancillary parts on a temporal musical scale. Yes, she broke up the Beatles, but you can’t say that honestly something else wouldn’t have, you can’t stay too long at the fair, too much of a good thing is a bad thing, insert another adage, etc. Also I don’t think anyone places enough blame on John Lennon for thinking below the belt and letting Yoko Ono break up the Beatles. But my problem with Yoko is my problem with New York, Lena Dunham, the art set in general, that credit does not necessarily befall talent.

I saw this firsthand one winter day a few years ago when I interned for Isabelle Dufresne (also known as Ultra Violet), a friend of Yoko. I’d found her listing on a website for college students in the arts. She was a former star of Andy Warhol’s films, not unlike the infamous Edie Sedgwick. Ultra, like Sedgwick and many others whom Warhol exploited in his artwork, was eventually cast aside once he was through with her. She still didn’t hesitate to use his name to propel her career post black-and-white blow jobs and pouty portraits, but I would find out over the course of the day that she certainly considered herself famous in her own right.

She’d received my resume on a Friday, and responded on Sunday morning asking me to come in at noon for an interview. It was unorthodox, you know, the Lord’s Day, but I wasn’t quite sure how to say no to the self-proclaimed muse of Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali (she at one point blew him and never let anyone forget it). I carefully combed the Internet for information about my potential mentor. Her website was tiled with an older French woman dressed in shades of purple, wearing glasses made from two CDs, holding a plastic lobster to her ear like a telephone. Such blatant eccentricity rarely lends itself to a sweetheart. 

Within minutes she had the whole studio plugged in; she was startlingly sprightly for her age. The room glared with neon installations refracting off mirrors and aluminum statues shellacked with shimmering purple automobile paint. Along the back windowsill were laptops in different stages of dissection. She apparently loved taking them apart because the inner workings were so beautiful. She drew my attention to an old Macintosh model with “THE MESSIAH IS THE MESSAGE” glued in mirrored letters to the screen. I’d just noticed the framed Raphael-style angels on the wall, and didn’t know whether I should take this woman for a French Catholic, so I mustered up an “Oh, I like that.” Marginally satisfied, she ran to her desk, handed me a wad of take-out napkins, “Can you dust? A curator from Baltimore is coming at 1:30. We need to clean the studio.”

Two hours later I’d cleaned the studio, the entire time Ultra snapping demoralizing quips at me. She charged. She fumed. She ate an avocado. My makeup ran down my face, and my feet ached in the three-inch heels I’d put on for my “interview.” My sweater was wet with sweat. I finally put my hair up with a rubber band I found on the floor. I’d been scolded for not moving fast enough, not paying attention, moving too fast and missing some dust in the corner. My morale was fading. This woman was trying to break me. 

Ultra took special pride in a series of paintings concerning 9/11 and Mickey Mouse.  She said in a way that betrayed her nationality how the spirit of America died on September 11th, and that Mickey Mouse represented that spirit. In one painting the ghost of Mickey Mouse leaned against his gravestone that read “Mickey Angelo November 18, 1928-September 11, 2001.” Another was a take on the Creation of Adam panel from the Sistine Chapel, where the hand of God reached out to a reclining Mickey Mouse. “IXXI” appeared in many of the paintings, the roman numerals for the date of September 11. She told me she was about to mass-produce a chatchki of the symbol, “kind of like a snow globe.” 

Luckily the curator arrived. He was a tall, bald knight in shining armor, and the first person to talk to me like a human being in hours. Ultra greeted him and a friend he’d brought along, a mousy female artist who’d been in the process of taking a picture of Andy Warhol’s grave in Pittsburgh every day for a year. Ultra was not impressed by this idea, and was almost as dismissive of the young woman as she was to me. When Ultra failed to acknowledge my presence in the room, they said hello themselves. 

Ultra spent the next hour showing off her art to her visitors. I registered a familiar confusion on their faces. Ultra did not. As the conversation turned to small talk the curator brought up that Andy Warhol had gone down a couple of spots in the ranks of the most wealthy estates of deceased celebrities. Ultra rolled her eyes, “Well you know what, I’m not jealous of him. He’s in the ground and I’m here.” Soon after the curator and his friend left, their goodbyes a lot less sincere than their hellos. 

After they left Ultra and I sat at her desk. She pulled a sandwich from her bag and started eating while I considered tackling her for it. She asked me if I’d read her book 15 Minutes, and was shocked that I hadn’t. She told me if I was going to work for her I needed to have it read by our next meeting. She asked me if I could paint because it was her job as the artist to come up with the ideas, but she obviously didn’t have time to carry them all out, as though no one had ever heard about Warhol’s Factory. 

I pretended to get an emergency phone call and left. As I walked out I finally noticed the life size poster hanging above the door frame of her and Yoko Ono from when they’d recorded a single together. The comparison was uncanny, that’s the kind of person I was dealing with. They are the kind of women who used their sexual prowess to climb up a sexually charged 60s art scene in Manhattan and weren’t going to let that go just because the men who helped put them there were dead. On the one hand I respect the adamant feminism of it all, but they are also the kinds of artists who make it hard for people to respect women as artists. In one respect you have Yoko, the woman who was capable of derailing one of the world’s greatest musical minds, a woman who now seems to try and act as a living representation of something she represents for few people. Ultra on the other hand curses Warhol, but also thrives on his name.

Regardless of talent people will always flock to them and others in similar positions, just as the curator from Baltimore saw value in Ultra for his museum no matter how desperate her ideas were. Yoko and Ultra have the value of proximity to people no one can reach anymore. I will admit that Yoko has done admirable work to promote world peace. I was floored with respect when she released the photograph of Lennon’s bloody glasses from his murder.

It was a move some thought to be a crude self-promotion of her own relationship to him, but I think her message of nonviolence was earnest. On the other hand she released her second book of poetry Acorn this month after turning 80 earlier this year. The Observer aptly called it “cosmic psychobabble.”

I’m sure people will disagree with me vehemently and to them I will respond with Yoko’s own words from the launch party of Acorn:

“This is actually a bit of future, now. I just read some book that said all these intelligent people … because they’re so used to the Internet, they can’t really read a book from beginning to end; the brain refuses it because they’re so used to Internet communication…That is not as saddening, because I think that a suggestion like that — the book was stuck, and I think that Acorn was already that changed form before this particular situation was happening. So when you read Acorn, you’ll see that it’s short enough so you don’t have to think about reading a whole page; there’s no whole page. Thank you.”