During Joan Jonas’s 2017 residency at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the pioneering 82-year-old video and performance artist found herself attracted to animals. She photographed real and mythological critters she found on furnishings, textiles and sculptures throughout the museum, its archives, and conservation lab.
And these images inspired her loose, brushy sketche of a big blue fish reproduced as “Blue to Blue,” a giant broadside hung on the museum’s façade, and 55 drawings featured in the exhibition “I Know Why They Left” in the museum’s Fenway Gallery.
“Finding all those animals was amazing,” Jonas says in a museum press release. “There were many more that I didn’t draw. But what I learned in the process was how important animals were, not just to humans, but also to artists representing the human scenes in everyday life. Animals have always been part of our lives and that was interesting to see. I knew that, but at the Gardner it was very evident at every level.”
Jonas, a professor emerita from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who splits her time between New York and Nova Scotia, was born in Manhattan in 1936. After studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Columbia University, she moved to SoHo in 1968 and became immersed in New York’s downtown scene.
Her husband at the time, Gerry Jonas, knew Henry Geldzahler, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first curator of contemporary art, from Yale. Geldzahler would call New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin with updates on what was happening and Trillin would pass the reconnaissance on to the Jonases.
“I saw [Claes] Oldenburg’s happenings and dances by Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, and Trisha Brown, and also pieces by [Robert] Rauschenberg,” Jonas told Interview magazine in 2014. “I saw this collaboration between dancers and visual artists. What attracted me was that you could be a visual artist and do something time-based.”
Beginning in the late 1960s, she abandoned her sculptures and began fashioning her own performances, often involving people wearing or carrying mirrors. For her 1970 performance “Mirror Check,” she inspected her naked body with a hand mirror. She was one of the first artists to incorporate live video feeds into their work. In “Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy” (1972), she wore feathered head-dress as she explored eroticism and narcissism, in part watching herself in a video fed from live camera, as the audience watched her perform live as well as on video.
With “Jones Beach Piece” in 1970, performers acted out choreography and signals a quarter mile from the audience. “Performers stood at different distances from the audience and clapped blocks of wood together over their heads. The farther away, the greater the sound delay,” Jonas told Interview.
“I related performance to the structure of film and music, and to the rituals of other cultures,” Jonas told Interview.
From the downtown lofts of Soho, Jonas’s stature has grown. She represented the US in the 2015 Venice Biennale and last year she was the subject of a major solo exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, which is now touring.
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