Meet One of America’s Most Elusive Artists

JOAN JONAS, 87, perched on a stool in a room behind the scenes at MoMA, was immediately recognizable as the artist she had been — compact, tense, intense — when she emerged as a figure in New York’s downtown scene in the late 1960s. In an essay published many years later, the composer Alvin Curran recalled Jonas’s stature in that environment: “On the streets, children cry out, ‘Here comes Joan Jonas,’” he wrote, adding that some even wanted to be what she was when they grew up: a performance artist.

Jonas — who prefers to be described as a visual artist, given the range of her work — has been a figure of fascination since 1968, when she started experimenting in 16-millimeter film with a short called “Wind,” featuring human figures struggling against the gales on a seashore, their enigmatic movements competing with the power of the elements themselves. Nature, the human form, the mysteries of rites and myth — all of it has featured prominently in the work of Jonas, who has, in the past 50 or so years, evolved, gone (briefly) underappreciated and resurged, all the while innovating, even as her recursive body of work kept referring back to itself. This month, she’s finally receiving a hometown retrospective at MoMA, a tribute on a scale she’s already had in cities such as Milan, London and Munich.

“You’re coming, right?” said Jonas, speaking into a cellphone at the museum in late December. There was a hint of tension in her voice — a curator from Europe on the other end of the line had better be coming — and her face relaxed upon hearing a reassurance. It was important to her that he, and many others in her world, see this collection of her work, its totality and its range.

Jonas in character for the performance “Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy” (1972).Credit…© Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Richard Serra © 2024 Richard Serra/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Jonas is at least as influential and groundbreaking as her near contemporary Marina Abramović, 77, but has somehow never achieved quite the same name recognition. Whereas Abramović’s work is confrontational and direct — in her 2010 MoMA show, “The Artist Is Present,” the performance artist sat in a chair for hours a day as visitors lined up to sit across from her — Jonas’s work is, by contrast, multilayered, elusive, evocative and difficult to articulate concisely, if at all. Within one exhibition — “They Come to Us Without a Word,” her triumphant work representing the United States at the 2015 Venice Biennale — Jonas combined audio recordings of ghost stories from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia; video imagery of herself (masked, Druid-like, as she draws on a chalkboard); and various representations of bees and birds — all of it a celebration of a natural world both haunting and defamiliarizing. Mirrored glass made in Venice’s Murano for the installation invoked some of her earliest works, in which she used mirrors in her performances to show fractured images of the audience to itself.

The exhibit at MoMA opens, appropriately enough, with “Wind,” then moves more or less chronologically, taking the viewer quickly to Jonas’s iconic 1972 work “Vertical Roll.” On a screen, images of Jonas in the garb of a belly dancer or wearing a headdress or various other costumes appear on a monitor fleetingly, seemingly trapped in squares that keep rolling downward, as if demanding those watching to be conscious of the effort of perception. “Vertical Roll” takes a technical glitch familiar to TV watchers at the time — a problem with what was called the vertical hold — and turns it into art, relying on an elaborate setup of cameras and monitors. Jonas accompanies the images with the sharp, synchronized sound of wooden blocks colliding, a noise jolting enough to hold the threat of violence. It might also be heard as the sound of centuries of female iconography being smashed by this innovative art form. One watches the video, mesmerized, and later, the sound of those blocks echoes for hours: I heard it in the cracking of an egg, the banging of a fork against a bowl, the familiar rendered alien, worthy of being recorded and examined.

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