The Palette of John and Yoko Art: It was Lennon's drawings that first attracted Ono's attention, and she has been promoting his work ever since. The art world has been slow to catch up.

November 29, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Most Beatle fans know that John Lennon first met Yoko Ono at a London art gallery in 1966, where he saw and was impressed by her work. Not quite so well known is the tale of how Ono first came into contact with Lennon's artwork.

"I always remember the first feeling I had when I saw his work," she says, over the phone from her New York home. "I saw it in a book shop. It was illustrations that he put in -- well, you can't call it illustrations, because most of the time it really didn't have very much to do with the text. But he had a book out, 'In His Own Write,' and I went to a book shop."

Although Lennon had been sketching since he was a child, his fame as a Beatle far eclipsed anything he did in the other arts. So even though the wry wit he exhibited in the stories and drawings of "In His Own Write" earned him fairly favorable reviews, it hardly garnered the sort of attention a new Beatles single might. So Ono had no idea what to expect.

"At the time, I had just met him, in a gallery context, once," she explains. "So I thought, 'Oh, it's that chap I met,' or something. I just started to go through the pages, and I was just totally shocked that his work was so brilliant. I thought, 'Well, this is not just a pop star or something that they're talking about. This is an artist.'

"I didn't know then that he went to an art school and had that sort of background," she adds. "But I was totally amazed. The lines were so incredible. The subject matter was sort of black humor kind of stuff. But it was beautiful, and as an artist myself, I really respected that, you know?"

Ono has championed her late husband's artistic efforts ever since. She inspired him to mount the famous Bag One exhibit of lithographs documenting their marriage, honeymoon and love life 1970 (eight prints were seized by London police under the Obscene Publications Act, but charges were later dismissed) and encouraged him to keep up his drawing throughout their life together.

In 1986, six years after he was killed, she decided to do a little more. Feeling that Lennon's fans might like the chance to see or even acquire some of his drawings, she decided to see if she could get a gallery or two interested in showing serigraphs (a type of print) of his work. Ten years later, the show is still touring and will be seen at the Omni Inner Harbor here in Baltimore through Sunday.

Given the show's continuing success, you'd think that gallery owners back then would have been clamoring for the opportunity to be among the first to put up the show. Unfortunately, the opposite was closer to the truth.

"It was very difficult getting things together, because many galleries did have some prejudice about rock stars 'dabbling,' or whatever they thought John's work was," she says. "They wouldn't even see the work. They'd say, 'This is a gallery that wouldn't do things like that.' The fact that he was so famous as a musician really didn't help."

Initially, Ono could persuade the gallery owners to take a chance only if she promised to make a personal appearance. "Actually, they brought it up as a condition, that I would come to the opening," she says. "It was quite humiliating, actually. But nowadays, luckily, people are starting to understand John's work, and they would not say things like that. They like the idea of really appreciating his work.

"I think, actually, the art students and professors of art and those people, when they walk into a gallery, they're surprised. The usual gossip writers and those people who are used to writing about John, they say things like, at the openings and everything, 'You call this art?' " She laughs. "And they wouldn't know what's what."

Few strokes

Lennon's artwork is deceptively simple. Working either with a pen or brush, he had a strong enough sense of line to convey a lot of information in very few strokes. "It seems casual, but it really isn't," says Ono. "Most people didn't take it seriously. But it's a very difficult thing to do."

All of the works on display and being sold are prints, something Ono says was done to preserve the populist spirit of Lennon's art. "It's a show mainly for young people and for fans as well," she says. "I really wanted to keep it down, the price especially, so that people just sort of feel it's easier to get his work. I think that was his spirit in a way, too, because -- well, he sold records, you know? So in that sense, he was a multiple artist from the beginning."

Ono adds that she doesn't think Lennon would have liked it if she had taken the high art route and sold only originals of his work. "In terms of making money, probably, it would make more money that way," she says. "But I don't think that would have sat well with John. John was always thinking about the people, and he felt proud about the fact that he had a direct communication with them."

Still, Ono did make one concession to commerciality: color.

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