This piece, by Japanese performance artist Yoko Ono, holds a myriad of stories—from a radical rethinking of what a painting could be, to her first meeting with John Lennon.
When she first began making objects in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ono was one of several artists to reconsider the medium of ‘painting’ in these post-war years. Rather than presenting her audience with a finished piece, she would provide them with the idea, the materials, and the instructions for a work, and relied on their participation to bring it into existence.
‘Painting to Hammer a Nail in’, that we’re looking at here, is based on one of these earliest ‘Instruction Paintings’, as she came to call them. Exhibited several times across the 1960s, Ono would affix a white wood panel to the gallery wall, a hammer dangling from it on a chain, and place a can of nails on a nearby chair. Accompanying these raw materials was some text, revealing how visitors should help manifest the artwork:
ACTOR VOICE: YOKO ONO:
‘Hammer a nail into a mirror, a canvas, a piece of glass, wood, or metal every morning...The painting ends when the surface is covered with nails.’
The version here in M+ dates from the late 1980s, when Ono revisited these formative works. By fabricating them in bronze she transformed the spontaneous, temporary originals into heavy, permanent objects. Crucially, each part of this process combines to make the artwork: the initial written instructions, the participatory performance in the space, and finally the rendering in bronze are all fundamental parts of the piece.
One of those original pieces would have a profound effect on the artist’s life. During a preview of the work at a London gallery in 1966, a man asked Ono if he could hammer a nail into the piece. Wanting to keep the piece untouched ahead of the official opening, she initially declined, but finally relented and agreed he could, for the price of five shillings. Having no cash on him, the man replied: ‘Well, I’ll give you an imaginary five shillings and hammer an imaginary nail in.’ Ono was impressed, later commenting: ‘I’d met a guy who plays the same game I played.’
The man was John Lennon, world-famous singer-songwriter, and the pair would go on to marry three years later.
Painting to Hammer a Nail In is a work by Yoko Ono. The work began as a short text from the Instruction for Paintings series created by the artist in 1961. She then turned the text into a participatory installation in 1966 and made this bronze version in 1988 based on the participatory piece. The work measures 29.5 centimetres high, 22.8 centimetres wide, and 9.5 centimetres deep.
The work is a sculpture made of a bronze panel that has dozens of hammered nails and dozens of nail holes on the surface. The grey panel is connected to a tack hammer with a thin metal chain. Depending on the curatorial design, the hammer may be hung at an angle on the nails on the panel or hung vertically on a wall-mounted hook next to the panel.
There are approximately sixty or seventy nails and an additional thirty or forty nail holes scattered on the panel. The nails, which are metallic brown in colour, have been hammered into the panel at different angles to different depths. The nails appear to be of various heights, and most of them are slanted or crooked. The bottom edge of the panel is installed with a metal chain that is suspended in the air. The other end of the chain is connected to a bronze hammer at the end of the handle. The hammer is of metallic brown colour, its head has a square flat end and a straight tapered end. Carved into the side of the hammer’s handle is the name of the work: ‘Painting to Hammer a Nail In’.