My friends Robert and Achim, artists who live in Berlin, visited New York for a week and we spent part of a Friday afternoon walking through the Museum of Modern Art. I was eager to check out the Yoko Ono retrospective, since she has been an art hero of mine since I first heard of her when she and John Lennon got together and brought politically active anti-war performance art to front pages and evening news all over the world. As a precocious 15-year-old experimental art maven, I eagerly bought her book Grapefruit when it became available and loved its impy mixture of poetry and conceptual art.
It took a while but I eventually got my hands on a copy of John and Yoko’s Two Virgins album with the famous controversial naked pictures on the cover. The John Cage-like meanderings and Yoko’s shrill bleating were hard to love as “music,” but for a kid growing up on Air Force bases they were windows onto a wider, crazier, freer world. And I did sometimes enjoy putting a quarter in a jukebox, cuing up “Don’t Worry Kyoko” (the B-side of the Plastic Ono Band’s “Cold Turkey”), and walking out before her intense screaming filled the air. Art pranks are timeless. Ask Dada.
The MOMA show gives museumgoers plenty to see and think about and participate in. You can perform the “Bag Piece” yourself, alone or with a friend. The conceptual pieces are as fresh and witty as ever — even if you’re only looking at framed index cards with a sentence or two typewritten on them, your mind fills up with the actions she invites you to imagine. The video of her performing “Cut Piece” is riveting, impressive, and unnerving all at once.
I didn’t even notice the room devoted to “Touch Poem for a Group of People” until Robert pointed it out: a gray-carpeted room with a standing sign reading “touch each other.” This became the most fascinating (and sad) social experiment. Most people would peer in but be afraid to enter. Or maybe a group would walk in, jokingly poke one another in the arm with one forefinger, and leave. Robert and Achim and I decided to do a little massage, a little contact improv — passersby would peek in, see us, and walk away. Finally, a young couple from Nova Scotia came in and we engaged them in conversation about the shyness and awkwardness of public touching, and we all held hands for a moment.
At the moment MOMA is full of conceptual art — early drawings by British dandy pranksters Gilbert and George…
a room full of Warhol’s Campbell Soup can paintings…
and a hodgepodge of stuff in “Scenes for a New Heritage: Contemporary Art from the Collection,” my favorite of which was “The Black Star,” a portfolio of digital prints by Seheh Shah, a Pakistani artist now living in Brooklyn.
I also dug seeing a very large Jean-Michel Basquiat canvas I’d never seen before (Glenn) displayed in a hallway as well as the huge painting by Kerry James Marshall called Untitled (Club Scene) in the entrance hall.