Before she lived at 87 Christopher Street, multimedia artist Yoko Ono organized downtown Manhattan’s first loft events, the Chambers Street Loft Series, in what is now called TriBeCa (the triangle below Canal Street).
In the wake of her Chambers Street Loft Series, Yoko Ono became associated with Fluxus, an irreverent 1960s art movement whose informal leader was a Lithuanian immigrant named George Maciunas (others, such as Bibbe Hansen’s father, Al Hansen, were also deeply involved in the movement). “Fluxus was the furthermost experimental group of its time,” Ono recalled. “Anyone doing experimental work was aware of us and took ideas from us and made them commercial. Their stuff was selling but ours was too far-out to sell.” Preferring to work in a conceptual mode, Fluxus artists produced few physical works that could be sold within the established art market. Nevertheless, the people involved in Fluxus made a significant material impact in the way in which they reshaped SoHo. “The Fluxus artists changed the New York downtown,” Jonas Mekas observed. “George Maciunas claimed that his one work of art is SoHo, transforming the downtown of New York.” Maciunas, an old family friend of Mekas, was a force of nature who helped turn that neighborhood into an artists’ colony (one of his Fluxhouse Cooperative buildings, at 80 Wooster Street, was home to Mekas’s Film-Makers’ Cinematheque). “If the Fluxus group took part in the trend toward environmental art,” Sharon Zukin wrote, “then the changing factory district of SoHo was the environment that it both mined and mimed.”
From Chapter 8 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Lisa Jane Persky’s family bounced around several apartments downtown until, in 1965, she moved with her mother, stepfather, and three young siblings into 87 Christopher Street—a five-floor walkup tenement building where Harry Koutoukas lived for a half century. Located about four blocks south of Jane Jacobs’s residence, it was one of those areas that may very well have been razed to make room for a large housing development if Robert Moses had had his way. Yoko Ono was also living there with her husband, jazz musician Tony Cox. On the evening the family was supposed to move in, Persky stood on the old hexagonal subway tile in the building’s entrance, then walked up the stairs past the metal mailboxes. “We got there about 9:30,” recalled Jane Holley Wilson, Lisa’s mother, “but we couldn’t get into apartment number ten, which we were supposed to move in to, so we knocked and Tony Cox came to the door.” Cox served as the building’s superintendent, along with Ono, who had recently given birth to their daughter, Kyoko. Because they were already living in the apartment Lisa’s family had been promised, Tony put them downstairs, in apartment number one. “I’ll give you the key to your apartment,” Cox said, “but first I want to show you my wife and kid.” The eleven-year-old Persky followed her mother into the apartment, where she saw a pull-down bed with a woman lying facedown with black hair spread out across the white sheets. “It was quite a moment,” Persky recalled, “the baby lying in the bed, and Yoko, black hair spread out. But I didn’t know who Yoko Ono was. I certainly did not understand that as a kid, so I was like, ‘Okay, we saw that. Can we get in our apartment now?’”
It didn’t take long for Lisa Jane Persky to figure out that Yoko Ono wasn’t a typical building superintendent. “Yoko was definitely doing Happenings and Fluxus art–type things,” Persky said, recalling an event Ono held on the rooftop of their building, Morning Piece. “She was always really interesting. I was fascinated by her. She gets the shit end of the stick a lot, but I think she is a miracle of womanhood.” The busy artist sometimes dropped off Kyoko for Lisa and her mother to babysit, telling them she would be back by eleven o’clock that night—though occasionally Ono would return much later. “She would also wait for my mother to leave and then say, ‘You take the baby,’ ” Persky said, “and it was just total nonsense. There were a lot of things about her that were interesting.” While living at 87 Christopher Street, Ono and Cox struggled a great deal in their marriage. “She and Tony had big fights,” Jane Holley Wilson recalled. “It could get uncomfortable.” The couple lived in the apartment next door to Harry Koutoukas, and Ono became good friends with him after having a terrible argument with Cox, who slammed the door and left. “Silence,” Ono recalled. “Then I heard somebody knocking on my door very quietly. That was Harry. He invited me for tea at his apartment. He made tea, never mentioning what he obviously heard through the paper-thin wall. He was very considerate. I have never forgotten that afternoon—and how sweet Harry was.”
After Yoko Ono married John Lennon, she kept one foot grounded in the mainstream and one in underground culture—in late 1971, for example, the couple appeared on the popular network TV program The Dick Cavett Show as well as at the Eighth Annual Avant Garde Festival of New York. They both mixed art and politics with a healthy sense of humor during events such as 1969’s Bed-In for Peace, when the couple leveraged their celebrity status to spread an antiwar message. Lennon and Ono invited reporters to cover their weeklong stint in bed, but if media outlets wanted to cover this entertaining spectacle, they also had to broadcast the couple’s political opinions as well. This Happening was an extension of the work Ono had done for a decade, but many still thought of her as just a glorified Beatle groupie—despite the fact that Lennon and Ono met at her art opening, since the Chambers Street Series. “I could have been killed because of my sense of humor,” she said, chuckling. “I have to be very careful.” Yoko was referring, in part, to the sorts of “ugly bitch” verbal assaults she endured after meeting Lennon. In the face of the racism, sexism, and pure unadulterated hatred, this trickster figure responded by laughing and screaming at the world.
By the mid-1960s, Yoko Ono had collaborated with John Cage, Ornette Coleman, and other prominent composers and musicians, as well as important visual artists, dancers, and poets. She eventually moved on to more established venues such as Carnegie Recital Hall and London’s Indica Gallery, but it wasn’t always easy. “I feel that even in the avant-garde world, what I was doing was seen as a little bit out of line,” she said. “They had their own set of rules, you know? ‘You can’t do that! You can’t do certain things!’ ” For Ono’s Cut Piece in 1964, the audience was invited to cut off bits of her clothes until nothing remained. She sat onstage with her legs folded in a traditional Japanese pose of feminine submissiveness, embodying the kind of vulnerability women experienced in Asian and American societies. “That was a frightening experience,” she recalled, “and a bit embarrassing. It was something that I insisted on—in the Zen tradition of doing the thing that is most embarrassing for you to do, and seeing what you come up with, and how you deal with it.” Ono entered the underground film world in 1966 with Bottoms, a brazen but playfully cheeky work featuring several naked buttocks and no recognizable narrative. After she met John Lennon, they baffled audiences by crawling into a large sack and staying inside for long stretches of time. She called it “bagism.” Yoko’s absurdist sensibility was also on display in her conceptual piece Questionnaire, 1966 Spring, which included lines such as “Happenings were first invented by Greek gods” and “The word ‘manila envelope’ comes from a deeply-rooted racial prejudice.” Her Do It Yourself Fluxfest Presents Yoko Ono and Dance Co. instructed its audience to “Face the wall and imagine throughout the year banging your head against it: A) Slowly until the wall collapses B) Violently until your head is gone.”
Multimedia artist Yoko Ono organized downtown Manhattan’s first loft events, the Chambers Street Loft Series, in what is now called TriBeCa (the triangle below Canal Street). This area was her home base from the late 1950s until she moved in the mid-1960s into the same West Village building where Harry Koutoukas lived. Unlike more traditional venues that limited the length of individual pieces, Ono’s series had no such limitations, which helped change the course of modern composition by opening up new possibilities that were free from temporal constraints. The wide-open spaces in Ono’s industrial loft also created interesting spatial opportunities for the artists who participated in the Chambers Street Loft Series. John Cage and pianist David Tudor attended the first performance on a snowy day in December 1960—along with Dadaists Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, a kind of avant-garde passing of the torch. “I met John Cage towards the end of the fifties through Stefan Wolpe,” Ono recalled. “What Cage gave me was confidence, that the direction I was going in was not crazy. It was accepted in the world called the avant-garde. . . . It was a great feeling to know that there was a whole school of artists and musicians who gathered in New York at the time, who were each in his or her own way revolutionary.” This was an epiphany, for Ono had spent much of her life up to that point feeling as though she didn’t belong. She studied philosophy at Gakushuin University in Tokyo and, later, composition at Sarah Lawrence College, but found both educational experiences constraining, so she forged her own path in downtown New York.
In 1959, the Judson Gallery was founded in the church’s basement at 239 Thompson Street, which displayed work by Pop and conceptual artists Robert Rauschenberg, Yoko Ono, Claes Oldenburg, and Red Grooms—and was home to several Happenings. Happenings were often unpredictable and provocative, like Carolee Schneemann’s 1964 performance piece Meat Joy, which featured nude performers who played with paint, sausage, and raw chickens, and was presented at Judson Gallery. The seeds of Happenings were planted in the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, when John Cage and his peers began developing mixed-media spectacles that emphasized live performance. Allan Kaprow, Dick Higgins, and Al Hansen were early Happenings innovators who attended Cage’s influential, consciousness-raising class at the New School for Social Research in 1958. Kaprow started out as a Jackson Pollock–inspired action painter, then began incorporating aluminum foil and other matter. Like many artists who became part of 1960s avant-garde art movements, he developed an expanded approach to painting, composition, poetry, and, eventually, performance. Kaprow’s classmate Al Hansen also performed Happenings at Judson Gallery—such as his 1964 piece, Oogadooga—and in 1965 was the first to publish a book about the subject, A Primer of Happenings and Time/Space Art. However, his idiosyncratic nature doomed any possibility of a “career” in art.
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Andy Warhol’s early cinematic experiments in time, such as Sleep and Empire, were also explored in the music of minimalist composer La Monte Young, who moved to the city in 1960 and became involved in Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street Loft Series and the Fluxus art movement. Just as Warhol and other 1960s underground filmmakers expanded the temporal possibilities of film, Young and his collaborators did the same with music and sound—stretching out notes for hours at a time, creating elongated drones. Warhol, Young, and Jack Smith were at the center of a swirling vortex of collaborative activity that touched many areas of downtown life and art. The Flaming Creatures soundtrack, for instance, was assembled by Tony Conrad, who performed in Young’s group the Theatre of Eternal Music alongside Factory custodian Billy Name and future Velvet Underground member John Cale. Warhol also commissioned Young to produce droning sounds to accompany his silent films when they were screened at the 1967 New York Film Festival, and he worked with Jack Smith on several other projects.
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Being an Off-Off-Broadway playwright and performer certainly did not pay the bills, and Harry Koutoukas never held a real job, but he survived with a little help from his friends—and various patrons that he juggled. “More or less, they were women who had money who needed a walker,” Agosto Machado said. “You know, that term for a gay male who escorts a lady to functions, so she won’t be alone. They really thought he was so unique and unusual and talented.” Koutoukas also wrote many chamber plays that were performed in candlelight in the apartments of wealthy uptown patrons who were dazzled by his wit and wordplay. “Now and then, Yoko Ono might give him a call,” Machado continued, “but it didn’t mean automatically she’s going to help him out, though she often would.” Harry also had a patron, Angela Boone, who ran the restaurant Pennyfeathers near his apartment. After discovering he was a playwright, she set him up at a little round table and would introduce him as the house playwright. “Harry would always come in,” his friend Bruce Eyster recalled, “and he would have all this food and then say, ‘Oh, put it on my bill.’ Until Angela died, he sent me to go over there and say, ‘Harry needs two sandwiches, roast beef.’ And she’d say, ‘Okay,’ and she would make it and send it over.” Despite the speed demons and drug-fueled craziness that nearly killed him, Koutoukas beat the grim odds and lived into his seventies, spending a full half century in a building he called home—with his trusty deceased: return to sender stamp ready when the bills piled up in his mailbox.
From Chapter 29 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore