By Madeline Bocaro
Yoko Ono had her first brilliant idea at age four. It was her very first art piece. She recalls standing in the garden with her mother.
“When I was about 4 years old, I had all these ideas…Why don’t you just take one seed from a fruit and another seed from another fruit, and halve it and put it together and bury it? It might grow something really strange.” Yoko asked her playmate to write down this idea “and that’s the kind of thing that was going on, from the beginning: I had decided that whenever I get an idea I have to show it to the world.”
– Yoko Ono interview, MoMA 2015
Yoko titled her book Grapefruit, a hybrid of lemon and orange. Yoko thought of herself as a hybrid – feeling the cultural differences of being born and raised in Japan, and having lived in the USA. In 1961, Ono had presented a performance at Carnegie Recital Hall called A Grapefruit in The World of Park: A Piece for Strawberries and Violin.
Pre-dating her concise, profound and sometimes cryptically bizarre revelations on Twitter (on which she now has millions of followers) Yoko wrote her ‘instructional’ book – evocative of haiku – Grapefruit in 1952 at age nineteen. It was originally self-published in Japan in an edition of 500 copies on July 4, 1964 under the imprint of Wunternaum Press (which was resurrected in 2003 for Ono’s book Spare Room).
“Idea” is what the artist gives, like a stone thrown into the water for ripples to be made. Idea is the air or sun, anybody can use it and fill themselves according to their own size and shape of his body…. Instruction painting makes it possible to explore the invisible, the world beyond the existing concept of time and space. And then sometimes later, the instructions themselves will disappear and be properly forgotten.” – Y.O.
Yoko decided upon July 4th as Grapefruit’s publication date, as the book was her personal Declaration of Independence from the narrow definition an ‘artist’ at the time. The cover was white, with the title simply hand-written on the front. When Yoko received copies of Grapefruit from the printer, she and her then husband Tony Cox sold the book on the streets of Tokyo out of fruit crates. She ended up giving away most of them.
The book has five sections;
Music, Painting, Event, Poetry and Object. There are dedications to Yoko’s colleagues including John Cage, La Monte Young, Nam June Paik, Isamu Noguchi and Peggy Guggenheim and documentation regarding Ono’s recent exhibitions and performances. There is also a sales list of Yoko’s objects (although some are intangible).
The MUSIC section includes instruction to simply listen; to a heartbeat, to the sound of the earth turning, to the sound of the underground water, or to talk every day into a telephone that echoes back your own voice.
Yoko Ono is an artist who rarely uses actual paint. Yoko paints with nature, with parts of herself and mostly with her mind. Grapefruit consists of wise and whimsical thoughts for others to imagine or enact.
Instead of creating art with paint on canvas, most of Ono’s work is suggestive, taking place in the imagination.
“I have always believed in unfinished work. I got that from Schubert, you know, the ‘Unfinished Symphony’.” – y.o.
Yoko offers simple suggestions, (some perplexing, some possible, some impossible) evoking different images and emotions in each reader’s mind. Her succinct writings are inspired by Haiku poetry. Greatly misunderstood, Yoko wrote Grapefruit on the verge of going insane.
At Sarah Lawrence I was often very desperate and many of the Grapefruit pieces were written for my sake, to save me. They were my therapy in a way.
– y.o. Vogue Dec. 1971
Grapefruit was like a cure for myself without knowing it.
It was like saying, ‘Please accept me, I am mad.’
Those instructions are like that –
a real need to do something to act out your madness.
As long as you are behaving properly, you don’t realize your madness and you go crazy.”
– To Jonathan Cott, Yoko Ono and Her Sixteen-Track Voice,
Rolling Stone March 18, 1971
Use your blood to paint.
Keep painting until you faint. (a)
Keep painting until you die. (b)
Draw a line with yourself.
Go on drawing until you disappear.
When they first met in November 1966, Ono sent Lennon a copy, which he kept on his night table. He was alternately exasperated or delighted by Grapefruit. The book’s introduction is by John Lennon (“Hi! My name is John Lennon. I’d like you to meet Yoko Ono…”).
Yoko wrote a brief foreword instructing us to burn after reading, (because it’s going against nature to go back) and John also wrote the afterword…
Yoko: Burn this book after you’ve read it
John: This is the greatest book I’ve ever burned.
Grapefruit is a book of doing things. It’s not adjective or noun, but verb. That’s why it’s better than the Bible. To understand the pieces, you must do them. Even doing them in your mind is making a step part of the way along the road to better communication with yourself. Grapefruit is a book for your experience, not mine I have given instructions, now the experience part of it is down to the reader. That’s why I said, ‘read it and burn it’, because if you read and do there will be no reason to go back to the book. You will know and understand.
– Yoko Ono, International Times 1971
John joined Yoko for a book signing in London. An instruction from Grapefruit inspired his song ‘Imagine’ (1971). In 2017 Yoko was awarded credit as co-writer of ‘Imagine’ based upon audio tapes of John saying that she inspired it.
Actually, that should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song because a lot of it—the lyric and the concept—came from Yoko. But those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book. There’s a whole pile of pieces about ‘Imagine this’ and ‘Imagine’ that’…”
– John Lennon
Imagine the clouds dripping.
Dig a hole in your garden to
put them in.
Painting To Be Stepped On instructs placement of a canvas or painting on the ground. This has a dual meaning. It is Yoko opposing the idea of ‘high art’, but it also represents Fumie, a ‘stepping painting’ used to identify Christians vs. non-Christians in 15th Century Japan. (Most Christians were steadfast and did not step on the portrait of Christ although they would certainly be crucified).
This piece illustrates Yoko’s disdain for the containment of art in museums:
COLLECTING PIECE II
Break a contemporary museum into pieces
with the means you have chosen. Collect
the pieces and put them together again
EVENT pieces include instructions to fly, draw a map to get lost, to watch the sun until it becomes square, and to take on a mannerism from a different animal each day and make it your own. There are sky events which involve watching the sky.
The POETRY section features her Touch Poems.
Elements of nature are prevalent, especially the sun and moon,
wind, air and water…
TUNAFISH SANDWICH PIECE
Imagine one thousand suns in the
sky at the same time.
Let them shine for one hour.
Then, let them gradually melt
into the sky.
Make one tunafish sandwich and eat.
Steal a moon on the water with a bucket.
Keep stealing until no moon is seen on
There are ‘paintings’ for the wind, to see the skies (by drilling holes into a canvas) and for evening light to go through. Some of Yoko’s instructions became performance pieces, such as Cut Piece and Painting to Hammer a Nail which was shown at her Indica gallery exhibit in 1966 where she met John, who did not carry any cash.
Do you still have the imaginary five shillings that John gave you to hammer the nail in?
Yoko: Yes it’s still sitting in my mind, without having ever been used.
– Y.O. – Twitter Q&A February 2014
In a LETTER to Ivan Karp, Yoko asks him to “Imagine the ‘nail painting’ hanging in the Museum of Modern Art…”, which it actually did in the future (summer 2015) during Yoko Ono – One Woman Show!
One of the conceptual objects on Yoko’s 1965 Architectural Works Sales List is underwear to make you high – for women. Another is a house made of light, “A house constructed of light from prisms, which exists in accordance with the changes in the day.” At the start of their relationship, John Lennon asked her to build one in his garden. Yoko explained that it was purely conceptual, but said, “I’m convinced that one day, it could be built, but I don’t know how to do it.” The light house became a reality in 2007 as Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland, a tribute to John.
“You see, with Yoko’s and my album[s], we’re both looking at the same thing from different sides of the table. Mine is literate, hers is revolutionary.”
– John Lennon to Jonathan Cott, Rolling Stone 1971
TAPE PIECE III
Take a tape of the sound of the snow
This should be done in the evening.
Do not listen to the tape.
Cut it and use it as strings to tie gifts with.
Make a gift wrapper, if you wish, using
the same process with a phonosheet
Another Snow Piece from summer 1963 is the basis for her song ‘Snow is Falling All the Time’ which became ‘Listen the Snow is Falling’ (the B-side of ‘Give Peace a Chance’).
“I think doing all the instructions in Grapefruit is better than thumbing through all those ancient books like I Ching. If you want to prove our find out something, do it in the things around you like the air and the water and things like that. You can get off on Grapefruit equally as well as the I Ching or the Bible”
– John Lennon, International Times 1971
One of my favorite pieces presciently mentions East and West, predicting John and Yoko’s meeting and their eternal union…
DRINKING PIECE FOR ORCHESTRA
Imagine letting a goldfish swim across
Let it swim from the West to the East
Drink a liter of water
Imagine letting a goldfish swim across
Let it swim from the East to the West
Secret Piece (written in 1953 at age 19 just before moving to New York) is perhaps most important of all. It became the basis of her work. Yoko’s text version of the score was written above the musical notation soon afterwards, and included in Grapefruit.
Birdsong was Yoko’s first inspiration. As a young child, one of her school assignments was to translate the sounds of a symphony of birds into musical notation. She realized that it was impossible. At first, Yoko thought it was her own shortcoming. She soon determined that there was a limitation in the way that we scored music – which lost its intricate beauty. This is the frustration behind all of Yoko’s work: the material world cannot replicate the purity of an idea. To solve this problem, Yoko’s scores combine musical notation with instructions. The score of Secret Piece has the handwritten instruction,
“with the accompaniment of the birds singing at dawn”
“I loved listening to the birds singing in the morning. Beautiful complicated sounds a bird can make which you can’t copy – it seemed so perfect and I thought, ‘Why try to do something like that when a bird can do it effortlessly? So I began to compose music which wasn’t complete – with instructions like: This should be played with birds singing in the garden’. From there I began to question the whole thing of composition and instruction.”
– Yoko, Vogue December 1971
There are also six imaginary FILM scripts and a 13-Days Do-It-Yourself Dance Festival. Recaps of 13 of Yoko’s performances, include Cut Piece in which she invited the audience to cut away pieces of her clothing.
There are now several Grapefruit editions. The second edition was by Simon & Schuster (1970) with eighty more instruction pieces and two additional sections, Film and Dance. The book ends with a collection of Ono’s writings including To the Wesleyan People, 1966. Paperback versions were printed by Sphere and Touchstone. The book was published in London and Frankfurt.
Grapefruit was out of print for thirty years. The cover graphic on the Sphere edition (which Ono did not particularly like) refers to Yoko Ono’s film Bottoms, (Film No. 4) starring 365 naked bottoms in 1966. It was reprinted by Simon & Schuster in 2000.
The Spanish version, published in 2006 was called Pomelo. Ediciones de la Flor. Buenos Aires, Argentina. Pomelo was reprinted in a limited edition in 2016 to coincide with her exhibit Dream Come True.
Grapefruit II was planned for 1966. It was to contain 150 new pieces including “touch poems”. A sequel to Grapefruit was not published until July 2013. It was another book of instructional poems (this time accompanied by of her drawings) called Acorn. While promoting Acorn in the summer of 2013,
“It’s a kind of reading material for the future, because you don’t have to read ten paragraphs. The book explains the universe in a few short lines.”
“It’s nearly 50 years ago that my book of conceptual instructions Grapefruit was first published. In these pages I’m picking up where I left off. After each day of sharing the instructions you should feel free to question, discuss and/or report what your mind tells you. I’m just planting the seeds. Have fun.”
—Yoko Ono, from the introduction to Acorn
In 2015 to coincide with Yoko Ono One Woman Show, New York’s Museum of Modern Art published an exact replica of the 1964 first edition of Grapefruit in a slipcase (550 copies. 500 unsigned, unnumbered, 50 copies signed and numbered by the artist).
As a main feature, MoMA displayed Yoko’s original typed pages from Grapefruit (some with handwritten notes) around the perimeter of the gallery. This gave us the true feeling of being immersed in a book!
Another instruction painting from Grapefruit, Voice Piece for Soprano (1961) was performed live by Yoko at MoMA as well in the summer of 2010. A microphone connected to high volume speakers was left for participants to recreate the piece intermittently.
VOICE PIECE FOR SOPRANO
- against the wind
- against the wall
- against the sky
Yoko’s original 1964 Grapefruit manuscript sold for $485,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2015. It is housed in a stainless steel box. There are 151 white Japanese “Apollo” postcards with Yoko’s hand-written additions and annotations in ink, along with a title card with an Ono-penned note to the publisher that reads: “There are more pieces of this period that I can send you by next mail which I would like to include in the book.” The publisher was George Maciunas.
In 2009 the manuscript was exhibited for the first time, at the Stendahl Gallery in Chelsea, London.
Read more here:
Watch Yoko reading from Grapefruit: