Thursday, April 15, 2010

Yoko Ono Collects Rare Books: The Booktryst Interview

by Stephen J. Gertz

I had lunch with Yoko Ono during the 2010 New York Antiquarian Book Fair.

That’s a sentence I figured I’d have about as much chance of writing as, “I accept the nomination of my party for President of the United States,” but with less probability of actual realization.

At the Fair on Saturday, I noticed Yoko Ono quietly walking the aisles. I thought, I must talk to her about rare books. And immediately I thought, Gertz, you do not have the nuts to approach her. And I was right.

Forty minutes later I was starving and, anxious to have my wallet gutted, walked over to the food concession. Buying a ham and cheese sandwich that, by its price, apparently had a 24k slice of Black Forest gold within, I looked around for someplace to sit down. Only one spot available: a chair at the table that Ms. Ono and her companion were sitting at, along with a stranger.

"John Lennon was a lover 
and a collector of old books"

I asked the stranger if the seat was taken and, answered in the negative, parked myself, kept my head down, and ate.

I’m 6’2”, 190 lbs., and not easily rattled. Yoko Ono, in contrast, is quite petite yet carries a huge rattle. She remains, at age 77, remarkably attractive; all in black with black-banded white fedora set at jaunty angle, she cut quite a dashing figure, with panache to spare. I was smitten. As soon as I could compose myself, I initiated a conversation.

Ms. Ono could not have been more gracious, and we chatted about rare books and the Book Fair for the next twenty minutes. I asked if I could pose a few questions for a formal interview via email, and she agreed.


BP: How long have you been collecting rare books?

YO: My father was my influence. John Lennon was a lover and a collector of old books, as well. He was an avid reader, which is not known so much.

BP: What are your areas of collecting interest?

YO: Rare books, of course. I won't mention more than that, since I wish not to be flooded with letters from book dealers letting me know their findings. I like to find the books myself, by going to shops of old books and book fairs.

"I'm very happy that there are book fairs"

BP: Do you have any books in your collection that, from your perspective, really standout? Why? Your prize favorites?

YO: Again, I wish to not answer this question for the same reason as the above.

BP: Rumor is that you acquired some very interesting books while at the Fair. Can you tell Booktryst about them? What was it about the books that attracted you?

YO: Just something that attracted me. With very special books, I must fall in love with them to consider acquiring them. They could be very expensive, you know. I don't take that lightly.

BP: How often do you attend rare book fairs? Why? (This may seem an elementary question with self-evident answers but Why bother with book fairs has become an ongoing question within the trade as book fair attendance has dropped). I'm curious what your take is.

YO: I'm very happy that there are book fairs now. It's a nice way to experience the books of the whole world just by walking through the richly shining corridors of books. For the buyers of rare books, it is heaven! For the ones who just want to window shop, it is less intimidating than going into a shop of antique books and facing the owner of the shop, who is usually a bespectacled, intelligent looking expert of books.

BP: You began your career as a conceptual and performance artist, with roots in Fluxus, and with John Cage as a major influence. These art forms are, by nature, visual media. With the rise of visual media in the Sixites, text-based media, i.e. books, have been overshadowed and are consumed less - or so it seems. While print-on-page certainly has visual elements, do you see a conflict between visual and text-based media, the visual word vs the text word?

YO: Calligraphy is a very developed visual art in Asia. That is where I come from.
"in the beginning was the word, 
and the word was... with love."

Grapefruit. First edition, limited to 500 copies. 
Tokyo - Bellport, NY: Wunternaum Press, 1964. 

BP: In 1964, you produced Grapefruit, one of the seminal artists books to emerge from the second half of the 20th century, a volume that influential art critic, David Bourdon, considered "one of the monuments of conceptual art..." It was an "event score," providing instructions for a journey by the artist and reader, in the spirit of Cage's "chance music" - a score suggesting action-performance possibilities rather than a specific, concrete performance to be replicated. Do you have any plans to create other artist books?

YO: Well, I still keep writing new art scores whenever there is a need for it.

BP: The event scores in Grapefruit read as zen poetry. Was that intentional or a felicitous by-product?

YO: I think it is the influence I received from the form of Haiku. 

Ceiling Piece (Yes), 1966.
Text on paper, glass, metal frame, metal chain,
magnifying glass, painted ladder.
Installation at Japan Society Gallery, New York. Photo by
Sheldan C. Collins. Collection of the artist © YOKO ONO.

BP: With Ceiling Piece (Yes) (1966) you invited the viewer to become seeker, climb a ladder, and be rewarded at the top with a single word: Yes. (I believe it was an installation of Ceiling Piece that introduced your future husband, John Lennon, to your work, yes? - oops, there's that word!) With Instructions for Photographs words are, as in Grapefruit, used as tools to lead into a visual landscape in the imagination. Do words lead you to the visual or is it the other way around? I sense a large, informal (or is it?) religiosity in your work. In the beginning, it is still The Word?

YO: Well, let's say in the beginning was the word, and the word was... with love.

BP: You published Grapefruit through your own imprint, Wunternaum Press. Fine and small press books have a major place in the collecting world yet the general public has little awareness of their existence. Did you/do you have any other plans for Wunternaum? Can you comment upon artists books in general and, if so inclined, in particular?

YO: It's great that more and more artists are publishing their own books. In terms of artists' books, they become much more interesting than when they are edited by non-artists.  

BP: The Internet has raised many issues about artists' and writers' copyrights. One of the more provocative scores in Grapefruit appears to lay out your feelings about property rights of the creator:

Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals."

Forty-six years later, do you still feel the same way?

YO: I was exploring more possibilities of art as its form and stated as such. The birth of the Appropriation Art movement gives justice to my then statement. 

"I am very thankful for book fairs"

BP: Simon and Schuster's 2000 reissue of Grapefruit contains, at the end, a collection of your writings. Do you have any plans to publish your writings in a separate edition?

YO: I did give birth to a book called ACORNS, which was only printed and performed by people as a 100 day event on internet.

BP: What is the future of books? Do book fairs still matter?

YO: Again, I am very thankful for book fairs. For a shy person like me, it does give a space to stroll around and window shop the various book shops in one space, in one afternoon.

I think there will be many people who will develop the taste and love for going to such an event. It is exciting in a way you probably don't expect when you just hear the word "Book Fair." Well, to me it is just as exciting as sitting in the dark of the theatre and watch a horror film!  This experience is not horror. But it's just as exciting!

yoko ono April 2010 nyc.

There are no copies of the first (limited) edition of Grapefruit currently being offered in the marketplace. ABPC reports no copies at auction within the last thirty-five years. OCLC/KVK report only four copies in institutional holdings worldwide: At MOMA, U.C. - San Diego, Northwestern University, and the Library of Congress. What this tells us that all remaining copies are being closely held by private collectors. The book is exceedingly scarce in the marketplace.

Of Related Interest:

Paul McCartney's Handwritten Lyrics To "Lovely Rita" Offered At $175,000.

Extraordinary John Lennon Letter To Eric Clapton: Join My New Band!

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