The Beatles were getting very near the end when John Lennon, in league with his wife, Yoko Ono, turned his attention to climbing another creative ladder — this time as a visual artist.
Early in 1970, he made his gallery debut with "Bag One," a collection of 15 lithographs — a handwritten poem and 14 drawings, eight of them sexually explicit — that celebrated his love for Ono and were drawn around the time of their nuptials in 1969.
Ono had made her name as a conceptual artist before meeting Lennon in 1966 at one of her London shows. An alumnus of the Liverpool College of Art who'd included some of his drawings in two mid-1960s books of poems and stories, Lennon eventually decided to try to make his own way in the gallery world.
Now "Bag One," his most ballyhooed visual creation, is returning to L.A. One of the 345 sets he signed — full, intact editions are now considered rarities — will be displayed Friday through Sunday in a former brassiere shop at the Westfield Century City mall (the erotic prints will be in an area limited to viewers 18 and older). The show also includes prints of more than 100 other Lennon drawings that Ono has authorized for sale in limited editions that began appearing in 1986.
The initial 1970 asking price for "Bag One" was $1,200 for a set (including a white leather carrying bag signed by Lennon). The website of Peter Harrington, a London rare book dealer, recently offered a complete edition for 85,000 pounds, or about $130,000.
When "Bag One" first went on display in L.A., at Graphic Arts Gallery in March 1970, Los Angeles Times critic William Wilson wrote that "the drawings are often skillful, witty and tender.… One likes them but remains grateful Lennon is a musician."
The current L.A. show is part of Ono's long campaign to fulfill her husband's dream of showing his work in galleries (although it's not unusual nowadays for exhibitions to take place in hotel ballrooms or shopping malls) while catering to fans attracted by his career as an indispensable rocker.
"I'm just showing what he would have wanted to show," Ono said in a recent phone interview.
When she and Lennon moved to New York in the early 1970s, Ono recalled, he had approached art galleries about exhibiting his work, but was rebuffed. She said one dealer suggested that he bring his guitar and entertain at the opening of another artist's show. "He didn't go for that. It was almost a joke, or an insult."
To exhibit and sell her husband's art after his murder in 1980, Ono, who is now 80, set up a company called Bag One Arts. Besides issuing limited-edition prints, she has licensed Lennon's artwork to product manufacturers and retailers who've placed the images on clothing and other consumer items. .
Asked whether she thinks her husband's legacy as an artist will continue after she's no longer able to promote it, Ono said, "I think his artwork does give incredible pleasure and joy to people. If they want it, it will go on for a longer time. I'm not really trying to push it."
One credential that Ono and Lennon's authorized U.S. dealers have claimed for the former Beatle's art is exaggerated: the assertion, found on official sales websites and repeated in a press release for the coming L.A. show, that a set of his "Bag One" lithographs is in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Responding to a recent Times inquiry after "Bag One" failed to turn up in a search of its online collection archive, MOMA spokeswoman Margaret Doyle said the work has never been part of its permanent collection. She said the "Bag One" set donated in 1970 by a New York art dealer went into a less prestigious "research collection" — supplementary archival materials the museum makes available to curators and scholars. Doyle said there's no record of "Bag One" ever having been shown at the museum.
"The Art of John Lennon," Westfield Century City, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free.