Joan Jonas is a central figure in the performance art movement that began in New York in the mid-1960s. In works that examine space and perception, she mixes elements of dance, modern Western theater, and ancient Japanese theater with contemporary visual art ideas. Lilly Wei wrote in a 2004 Art in America article that Jonas is “complex, uncompromising and innovative, spurred by an eclectic and fearlessly idiosyncratic vision.”
In densely collaged narrative pieces, Jonas confronts the viewer in an enigmatic theater of self-discovery. Often performing in masks, veils, or costumes, she uses disguise and masquerade to blur the line between myth and reality. Jonas’s work is “at once mysterious and transparent, strange yet familiar in an almost universal sense,” Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times in 2003.
Jonas was born in 1936 in New York, where she currently lives and works. She received a BA in art history from Mount Holyoke College in 1958 and studied sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She earned an MFA in sculpture from Columbia University, New York, in 1965. She studied with the dancer Trisha Brown for two years.
In her performance piece Mirror Check (1970), Jonas stood nude with a small, round mirror and examined details of her body, while the audience watched from a distance of thirty feet. The audience, unable to see the reflected images, had to experience them vicariously through Jonas’s reaction. “It’s the shamanistic idea—the performer goes through the actions so that the audience can experience them also. It takes you into a space that you wouldn’t otherwise be in,” Jonas has said. She began using video in 1972 in the performance Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy. The piece features the artist wearing a headdress, mask, and gown, manipulating her image with mirrors, lights, and water into multiple refractions of disguise and transparency. That work inspired a 1979 series of etchings made at Crown Point Press titled Hurricane Series.
The first retrospective of Jonas’s work was at the Berkeley Art Museum, University of California, in 1980, and a major retrospective was presented at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1994. In 2004 the Queens Museum of Art presented “Five Works”, a large-scale exhibition of pieces that were pivotal in thirty-five years of her art. Jonas presented “The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things,” a performance piece, at Dia: Beacon in New York in 2005 and 2006. Recent solo exhibitions include those at Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (2013); Bergen Kunsthall, Norway (2011); and Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010); and the Tate Modern (2018). In 2019, the U.S. premiere of the multi-media installation, They Come to Us Without a Word debuted at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in 2019.
Jonas has been awarded fellowships and grants for choreography, video, and visual arts from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2018 she received the Kyoto Prize from the Inamori Foundation in Japan. Her work is in many museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and the Museu d’Art Contemporani, Barcelona, Spain. Since 1998, Jonas has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge and is Professor Emerita in their Program in Art, Culture, and Technology within the School of Architecture and Planning. In 2015 Jonas represented the United States at the 56th Venice Biennale. She is represented by Gavin Brown’s enterprise in New York, and Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles.
-Dana Zullo, Crown Point Press