Two weeks ago, while the United States was marking its 239th birthday, The Museum of Modern Art was celebrating the 51st birthday of Yoko Ono’s iconic artist’s book Grapefruit (1964), a compendium of her instruction-based artwork. The book holds special significance for the Museum, as it was one of the first works by Ono acquired by MoMA, and it is currently on view in the exhibition Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971. To celebrate the work’s significance, the moma.org homepage greets visitors with a different instruction from Grapefruit every day throughout the exhibition’s run.Ono self-published Grapefruit on July 4, 1964, symbolically associating it with the concepts of freedom and independence. The work itself is democratic in spirit, from its conception to its production. Grapefruit is a collection of instructions composed between 1953 and 1964 and bound together in the form of an artist’s book. The texts range from the possible to the improbable, often relying on the viewer’s imagination to complete the instruction. For example, Smell Piece II (1962 winter) asks the viewer to “Send a smell to the moon.” Whereas City Piece (1963 autumn) gives the more literal instruction: ‘Step in all the puddles in the city.” The idea that an open-ended instruction constituted an artwork was a radical notion at the time; it questioned the authority of the artist as the sole creator of a work and challenged the idea that a material art object was the necessary product of the creative process. If realizing the instruction “Polish an orange” was art, then what wasn’t? Ono created a work that existed solely as a collection of ideas to be imagined and potential actions to be realized. It is a work for the people, to be realized by the people.
Ono’s production of the work was also populist in nature: she made Grapefruit small and pocket-sized so that it could be easily carried, and printed on inexpensive paper to keep the costs low and enable its distribution to a wide and diverse audience. The intention was to create a book that could be incorporated into one’s daily life and serve as a readily available source of creative inspiration, whose instructions could be enacted whenever, wherever, and by anyone.Grapefruit entered the Museum’s Library collection in 1979. Former Library director Clive Philpot recognized the significance of this work as an artist’s book—an inexpensive publication conceived, written, and designed or illustrated by an artist and published in a large or unlimited edition so that it would be affordable to a broad audience. The artist’s book was a format favored by many artists in the 1960s and 1970s who sought to circumvent the traditional gallery system and make their work more directly accessible to viewers.
The Museum now owns multiple copies of the original Grapefruit imprint, all of which are on view in One Woman Show alongside one of the original typescripts—a typewritten manuscript that preceded the 1964 publication. The curators decided to frame the 151 pages of the typescript and display them in a single, continuous row (see image at top), enabling viewers to engage with each instruction as an individual artwork while also viewing them in relationship to the larger whole—and to the other works in the exhibition that reflect Ono’s desire to encourage her audiences to involve themselves directly with her art. From material objects (Painting to Be Stepped On, 1961), to performances (Cut Piece, 1964), to films (Match Piece or No. 1, 1966), Grapefruit has had a resounding influence on Yoko Ono’s work and continues to resonate with viewers today.
Editor’s note: a special-edition facsimile of the Museum’s first-edition copy of Grapefruit is currently available at momastore.org.