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The art of John Lennon

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
'John Lennon: The Collected Artwork' gathers 200 or so pieces that span the former Beatle's life

I’ve long had a thing for John Lennon’s drawings: the loopy sketches (loose, impressionistic) he made throughout his life. Quick takes, they are akin to diary entries or visual haiku. One hangs on my living room wall, a 1969 portrait of John and Yoko, beneath a banner declaring “Peace.” It’s a prized possession, familiar and yet at the same time vivid, a reminder that the moment is all we really have.

That image appears, as it should, in “John Lennon: The Collected Artwork” (Insight Editions: 204 pp., $50), edited by Scott Gutterman, which claims to be a comprehensive collection of Lennon’s visual work. I don’t know about that, but the 200 or so pieces here span his life as a creative figure, from childhood images (recognizable from the cover of his 1974 album “Walls and Bridges”) to those created just before he died.

Of these, perhaps most stirring are the drawings Lennon made during the five years, from 1975 to 1980, that he withdrew from public life. These are the house-husband years, which (or so the story goes) he spent raising his son Sean and baking bread, although we’ve long known -- through the existence of home demo recordings such as “Serve Yourself,” “Free as a Bird” and “Now and Then” -- that he was engaged in creative work.

“John Lennon: The Collected Artwork” adds another layer to this chapter, offering dozens of images from the late 1970s. In one, from 1979, a man sits in a chair, atop a cloud, looking off into the distance; “He tried to face reality,” the caption reads. In another (perhaps my favorite) called “Manhattan Diary,” Lennon sits cross-legged, drawing, while a cat curls in the foreground.

These are simple scenes, domestic scenes, in keeping with Lennon’s own sense of those years. At the same time, they open up our sense of him by offering work we have not seen before.

That’s the pleasure of “John Lennon: The Collected Artwork”: For all that it reveals an icon, it also asks that we think about him in a different way. Lennon was not a great visual artist; there’s not a lot of development in his themes or style, and the images can seem incidental or tossed off. What redeems them, though, is their intimacy, the sense that this is work he was doing for himself. That’s something we often lose sight of, the notion of creativity as process rather than as product, that idea that they joy of art emerges in the making, rather than in the release.

Lennon is in the news for other reasons this year, and not just because he would have turned 75 on Oct. 9. To help commemorate the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified in 1990, UNICEF has teamed with Yoko Ono, David Guetta and others to create the #IMAGINE Project, which began with a “global sing-along” on New Year’s Eve and is continuing as a fundraising effort to support “education, nutrition, healthcare and immunizations, clean water and sanitation, protection and emergency relief.”

This, of course, dovetails with Lennon’s legacy. “Why me?” he writes in the captions to a pair of 1978 drawings. “Why not?” Simple, yes, but with a lasting message: that responsibility begins with each of us.

Twitter: @davidulin

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