The American multimedia artist Joan Jonas has been at the vanguard of interdisciplinary art forms for over five decades. Born in New York in 1936 and emerging from the vibrant New York art world of the late 1960s, Jonas was an early adopter of video technology and performance, creating category-defying works that refused both disciplinary constraints and the constraints of linear space-time relations. Jonas’s visionary pieces, which draw from her ceaseless experimentation across a variety of media, use video, performance, drawing, sound, and sculpture to engage with ritual, representation, narrative, movement, space, perspective, and temporality. Since the 1960s, Jonas has explored notions of viewership and subjectivity in their most immediate forms by engaging the camera, the performer, and her spectators with ceaseless experimentation. Jonas’s early artworks explore the parameters of video as a technology, medium, and form. Such pieces include seminal choreographies, performances, and videos such as Wind (1968), Songdelay (1973), Mirror Pieces I and II (1968–70), Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy (1972), and Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll (1972), which was followed by a series of works that became part of the black-and-white series such as Funnel (1974), Tunnel (1974), Twilight (1975), and the performance Mirage (1976). In these early works, Jonas begins to engage with her signature prop—the mirror. Jonas, who collects vintage and found objects, also uses masks, sticks, chalk, marbles, bells, and ephemeral materials like shadows and ice cubes in her work. Significantly, Jonas engages her own body—and as time goes on, her performers—as something between dancer and sculpture. Whether naked, elaborately costumed and masked, in neutral work clothes, or dressing gowns, Jonas performs both on camera and in front of a live audience. Using monitors and live feeds, Jonas’s prescient engagement of video as a medium within performance art has influenced generations of artists and makes her a central, emblematic figure in the visual arts.
Building on her interest in projection, the transmutability of images, and the editing of scores and sonic narrations, from the early 1980s onwards Jonas increasingly created works that drew on myth, fairy tales, and storytelling. Deriving materials from a range of literary and musical sources that include medieval Irish poetry, Icelandic sagas, fairy tales, and contemporary news reports, Jonas continued her exploration of the female psyche by working through various stories about female archetypes. These performances and videos frequently included complex audio tracks that combined edited recordings with live spoken verse, amplifying Jonas’s role as narrator and editor. Much as she collects objects, Jonas has used the sounds of spoons against mirrors, dogs barking, folk songs, the blues, bird calls, deer calls, and sleigh bells in her audio tracks. Her subject matter is drawn from a range of stories and include the dreams that are recounted in Volcano Saga (1984–95), which are based on Icelandic myths that were first written down in the 13th century as well as her use of science fiction and live music in artworks such as Double Lunar Dogs (1980–84) or her first work to deal with topical, contemporary subjects by mixing complex narrative elements with surreal cuts and juxtapositions as she did in, He Saw Her Burning (1982–83).
From the early 1990s onwards, Jonas has been bringing this wide range of media together, a practice that includes revisiting and adapting elements of her earlier artworks and performances to create installations that engage the viewer on multisensory levels. These immersive, layered artworks present a compendium of references through sight, sound, and movement to create sensory installations and illusions in space. In doing so, Jonas creates experiences for collective viewing and interpretation that demand our time and attention, and refuse to settle into a linear or progressive modality, eschewing either of these in order to experiment with temporality and representation in a category-defying way. This later body of work, which is ongoing, began with pieces such as Revolted by the Thought of Known Places… Sweeney Astray (1992/1994), Lines in the Sand (2002), and The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2004–06). Ever since, Jonas has been in a process of developing her theatrical, narrative works, experimenting with projected images to shift traditional modes of storytelling and investigate objects, gestures, and landscape by creating immersive environments. As a part of this process, Jonas moves back and forth between the role of director and performer, continuing to adapt found text, objects, and sound with layered sequences, editing, and performative ritual enactments. Her most recent artworks including Reading Dante (2007–10), Reanimation (2010–13), They Come to Us Without A Word (2015), and Moving off the Land (2019–20) continue to engage temporal, ephemeral, and changeable elements to explore perceptual phenomena and the relationships between people, animals, and the landscapes that we inhabit.
Artistic Milieu and Influences
Jonas began developing her radical practice within the context of the artistic and social circles in downtown Manhattan in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Her peers, friends, and significant interlocutors over the years have included Simone Forti, Pat Steir, Richard Serra, Susan Rothenberg, and Susan Howe, among many others. Jonas cites Jonas Mekas as an important early supporter of her work and the film programming at Anthology Film Archives as an essential part of her artistic development. She attended Judson Dance Theater performances in the early 1960s and later took workshops led by Trisha Brown, where she developed her first performance works. Another formative influence on Jonas’s performance practice was her frequent attendance at performances by Jack Smith in the early 1970s. The program of video artists at Leo Castelli gallery, shaped by curator Joyce Nereaux, provided important early opportunities for Jonas to see video work. St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery was (and remains) an important venue for viewing and presenting performance works for Jonas.
Outside of New York, Jonas has spent a significant amount of time in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, where the landscape as well as local folk artists, storytelling, music, and dance traditions have continued to be of great importance for her work. Jonas often references a trip she took to Japan with Richard Serra in 1970 where she purchased her first Sony Portapack camera as uniquely influential on the development of her work and the beginning of her ongoing interest in Noh and Butoh.
Education and Teaching
Jonas began her lifelong artistic engagement by studying art history at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, graduating with a B.A. in 1958. From there, Jonas traveled in Europe before returning to the United States to study sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Columbia University where she received an M.F.A. in 1965.
Professor Emerita in the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology, Jonas taught in Cambridge from 1998 to 2014. From 1995 to 2000 Jonas was the professor for sculpture at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart and she served on the advisory committee at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. Students included Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Carlos Amorales, Rosa Barba, Jill Magid, Sung Hwan Kim, and Pia Lindman.
Exhibitions and Awards
Jonas has exhibited, screened, and performed her work at numerous museums and in large-scale group exhibitions throughout the world. Significantly, Jonas presented performances and installations at dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany six times since 1972 (2012, 2002, 1987, 1982, 1977, 1972) or (dOCUMENTA V, VI, VII, VIII, XI, XIII) Further noteworthy exhibitions include Taipei Biennial (2014); Venice Biennale, 53rd edition (2009); Biennale of Sydney, 16th edition (2008); Yokohama Triennale (2008); and Bienal de São Paulo, 28th edition (2008). Jonas’s work was the subject of a major retrospective at the Tate Modern in London (2018), which was organized with Haus der Kunst in Munich, in partnership with the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto (2019). She has presented numerous exhibitions including significant retrospectives at Malmö Konsthall, Malmo, Sweden (2015); Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan (2014); Queens Museum, New York (2003); Galerie der Stadt Stuttgart (2000); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1994); and University Art Museum (now UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive), Berkeley (1980) and solo exhibitions at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore (2016); DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art (now Phi Foundation for Contemporary Art), Montreal (2016); CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco (2014); The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2009); and Le Plateau and Jeu de Paume, Paris (2005).
Among her many accolades, Jonas represented the United States at the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale (2015) where she was awarded a prestigious “Special Mention” by the International Jury of the Biennale. In 2018, Jonas was a recipient of the distinguished Kyoto Prize for Art from the Inamori Foundation in Japan, which acknowledges global achievement and contributions to humanity.
Gallery Representation and Distribution
Joan Jonas’s video works are distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) in New York, a longstanding relationship that dates to the late 1970s or early 1980s. Jonas’s videos were previously distributed by Castelli-Sonnabend Videotapes and Films beginning in 1974. Her work is currently (as of March 2021) represented in New York by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise/Barbara Gladstone; in Los Angeles by Rosamund Felsen Gallery; in Milan by Galleria Raffaella Cortese; in Rome by Galleria Alessandra Bonomo; in London by Amanda Wilkinson Gallery; and in Tokyo by Wako Works of Art. In the 1990s, Jonas’s work was represented by Pat Hearn Gallery, New York, and then by Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris and New York from 2005 to 2014.
Cohen, Lisa. “Joan Jonas: All at Once.” New York Times T Magazine, April 5, 2015, 101. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/t-magazine/joan-jonas-reanimation-venice-biennale.html
Crimp, Douglas, ed. Joan Jonas Scripts and Descriptions: 1968–1982. Berkeley: University Art Museum, University of California; Eindhoven: Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, 1983.
Farber, Jane, ed. Joan Jonas: They Come to Us Without A Word. Cambridge, MA: MIT List Visual Arts Center; New York: Gregory R. Miller, New York; and Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2015.
Mignot, Dorine, ed. Joan Jonas: Works 1968–1994. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1994.
Simon, Joan, and Joan Jonas, eds. In the Shadow a Shadow: The Work of Joan Jonas. New York: Gregory R. Miller & Co., 2015.