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Joan Jonas - Biography and Legacy

American Performance Artist, Film Maker, Installation Artist

Born: 1936 - New York
Movements and Styles:
Performance Art
Video Art
Feminist Art

Biography of Joan Jonas


Joan Amerman Edwards was born in New York in 1936. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she spent most of her childhood living between Manhattan and Long Island. Jonas has said that she knew that she wanted to become an artist from around age six and that this ambition was highly encouraged by her surrounding artistic family, especially by her father who was an aspiring writer. Her mother was an avid collector of curiosities and often took the young Jonas to art galleries and to the opera. Jonas's aunt was a painter, and her stepfather a jazz musician and a magician.

Education and Early training

In 1958 Jonas received a BA from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, majoring in Art History and Sculpture. In 1965 she received an MFA from Colombia University. Throughout her studies, she taught art to children in nearby workshops, as well as in various schools in the Boston and New York area. In 1959, she married Gerald Jonas and the couple spent much of their time travelling in Europe, Canada, Japan, and touring the United States. The marriage lasted for five years, and since this separation Jonas has never remarried. During the mid-1960s, the aspiring young artist saw many inspirational performances from New York-based artists, dancers, and filmmakers; she was totally immersed in the art scene of the time and began to make her own "pieces". She was reluctant to call her work "performance" until later. At this time, she destroyed all of the sculptures that she had made previously, and began to study dance with the choreographer Trisha Brown. As a dancer, she also worked with the choreographers Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton.

Jonas was a central figure in the Performance movement of the mid-1960s, with works that merged elements of dance, theater, and different cultural props and influences gleaned from her extensive travels. She carved a space for herself examining identity and pushing boundaries: social, personal, and political. In 1971, she collaborated with Richard Serra on a nine-minute black and white film called Paul Revere. This was "a didactic work inspired by the structure of educational films using instructional cards". Jonas bought her first video camera in 1972 while she was traveling in Japan, again with Richard Serra, and shortly afterwards began making her own films and recording "performances". Indeed, the "piece" had organically grown to become the "performance" by this time. By experimenting with different characters and alter egos, in the spirit of Surrealism, Jonas examined the theme of identity always beginning with the artist herself. Organic Honey's Virtual Telepathy, a self-reflective study of female identity, was a groundbreaking work during this early period.

Mature Period

Jonas's work made throughout the 1970s was performed to some of the most influential artists of her generation, including Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Dan Graham, and Laurie Anderson. These artists were not only Jonas's friends and colleagues, but they were also fellow pioneers dedicated to pushing art forward. Interestingly, despite being a key figure within small artistic circles, during this time Jonas's work became more widely known in Europe than it did in the United States. Jonas herself has said that the 1980s, a decade all about money, was a bad time for her work and that the 1990s brought something of a new and revived vigour. Critic Douglas Crimp wrote in 1983 that her works made before the 1990s were generally "repressed, smoothed over". Indeed, Jonas's works remained relatively undiscovered while of the influence and visibility of Pop Art and Minimalism grew from strength to strength in her hometown, New York City. It wasn't until later in her career that her video performances gained recognition.

In the 1990s, Jonas's My New Theater series moved away from a dependence on her own body as the starting point and center of all of her artworks. Her initial three pieces made in this new, invented medium investigated a Cape Breton dancer and her local culture. The next series focused on a dog jumping through hoops, while Jonas drew a landscape in the foreground. In another series, also presented as a video encased inside a wooden box and fronted with objects, Jonas made a video about the act of performing and included actual stones and costumes. At this time, the artist also began to restage earlier works from her career, always adding new layers of meaning and questioning gender identity in a way that she had by this point been doing for almost 30 years.

Late Period

Since 2000, Jonas has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. In 2004, she was honored with a retrospective at the Queens Museum of Art in New York, titled Joan Jonas: Five Works; and in 2009, was awarded the Guggenheim's first annual Lifetime Achievement Award. Jonas has continued to make new video performance works, looking at fairy tales, folklore, and our relationship with nature. Many of these works depict her own dogs, appearing in her films Dog Dance (2002/2005), Beautiful Dog (2014), and Stream or Rive - Flight or Pattern (2016-2017). Jonas explains in an interview with Tate that her dogs' appearances in her work are usually spontaneous, with them running into the scene of the performance and nudging her to play; "My dog is a character. She is a comedian and a natural performer. I never ask her; she just gravitates towards the action. It's very strange; she somehow knows what to do".

In 2015 Jonas represented the United States in the 56th Venice Biennale. Her installation for the five galleries of the United States Pavilion, They Come to Us without a Word, was commissioned by the MIT List Visual Arts Centre. She also created a new video performance, with music by Jason Moran, They Come to Us without a Word II in conjunction with other installations at the Biennale. For the first time, children were the performers of a Jonas work; they each wore white paper hats or papier-mâché masks. They played a game of tug of war with a stick, or stood in front of screen with projected imagery of honeycombs and horses. When being interviewed at the Biennale, Jonas said that the children were "friends of mine. I set up a series of workshops on Saturday afternoons, but I had to have it completely organized so that they could step into something with instructions. They of course bring their own aura into the piece. I don't give them a lot of direction - I only gave them tasks. Really I like just them as they are". Indeed, the artist has been inspired and has worked with children since the very beginning of her career.

In 2018, the Tate Modern hosted a large exhibition of Jonas's works featuring performances, displays of her props and costumes, and video and installation works. Works shown ranged from early low-fi films from the '60s to recent installations dealing with climate change and issues of animal extinction. In an interview with Tate Jonas comments, "the installations we've been working on over the last two years, getting it all together. Then the performances, I've done big shows like this and then had performances later on after the opening; I've never done a show with four performances."

The Legacy of Joan Jonas

Joan Jonas is a prolific artist, who has greatly influenced the generation of performance artists to follow. She developed her own particularly fluid language and style of working, and furthermore revolutionized the practice by incorporating video and single circuit video loops into her work. Her interest in world travel, different cultures, societal roles, the behaviours of children and animals, and in the environment were in the 1960s and still today remain the most significant of themes. Jonas has influenced both Marina Abramovic and Pipilotti Rist, who share the older artist's long-standing interest in gender and sexuality. Richard Serra too credits Jonas for great involvement in the evolution of his artistic practice.

Indeed, Jonas acts as a major influence for contemporary artists working in the realms of performance and video across the globe. Ian White - whose work examines personal relationships, choreography, and theatre - is heavily inspired by Jonas. White had an exhibition in 2018 at the Camden Arts Centre, where he presented his series all about the 'absence of the performer'. Much like Jonas's My New Theater works, White sought to explore the ephemeral nature of life without the need for the artist performer to be present.

Most importantly, as a statement of Jonas's important legacy, her recent Tate exhibition was the first performance-related retrospective to be held at this major institution. It is difficult to present to audiences an art that at its very core endeavors to shows life in motion, and asserts the idea that all is transient and forever changing.

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Content compiled and written by Marley Treloar

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie

"Joan Jonas Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Marley Treloar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie
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First published on 05 Oct 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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