Joan Jonas Biography

Born Joan Amerman Edwards on July 13, 1936, in New York City, Jonas attended several colleges throughout her life; at Mount Holyoke College she received her BFA in Art History and Sculpture, at Columbia University she received her MFA in Sculpture, and she also studied more sculpture and drawing at Boston Museum College. Jonas was particularly interested in Giacometti, Egyptian, Minoan, Romanesque, early Italian Renaissance, and Mannerist art. In between teaching art to children in workshops and schools in Boston and New York, she married Gerald Jonas in 1959.

During this period in her life Jonas consistently traveled, whether it was Europe, the Near East, Nova Scotia, or more simply the United States. It wasn't until 1964, that Jonas saw inspirational performances and works by New York artists, dancers, filmmakers, and composers. From 1968 on Jonas began doing indoor and outdoor performances. She worked as a figurative sculptor, modeling mythological heroes like Icarus, and then studied dance with Trisha Brown for two years.

In 1971, distance, and ongoing concerns seemed to be the subject of the performance piece Mirror Check. In it Jonas stood naked with a small round hand mirror, and examined details of her body, while the audience looked on from a distance of thirty feet. The spectator, unable to see the reflected images had to experience them vicariously through the performer's reaction to the experience. That year she also collaborated with Richard Serra on a nine-minute black and white film, Paul Revere, "a didactic work inspired by the structure of the educational film using instructional cards."

Aside from performances, Jonas used the Rover video system to produce video works that had little to do with her public representations. Duet (1972), one of her first tapes, shows her face close-up as she barks and howls like a dog. In Leftside, Rightside (1972), seven minute black and white videotape Jonas explores the confines of video space. In 1972, partially as a result of her other video experience, her live performances became more complex, more theatrical. She started using rich costumes, and masks.

Hence in 1973, Jonas made Vertical Roll, a twenty minute black and white tape; which shows Jonas masked and naked, with her head to the horizontal to the bottom of the roll (of the tape). It seems as if she were repeatedly being pulled down and out of the picture (for more information on this particular film, see Critical Essay). Once Jonas had easy access to a dependable video system, she began to experiment widely with different perceptual effects, such as live scale vs. TV scale. She continued to make many tapes throughout the 1970's; in 1973 alone she made Two Women, Barking, and Three Returns. And in 1974, she was just as busy making Disturbances, Glass Puzzle, and Merlo (for a complete list, see List of Works).

In all her works video was used as a prop, rather than providing a central focus, the video element was just one of the many objects Jonas used to activate space. In fact all the magic and ritualistic content, which was underscored by her jewel studded costumes, scarves, kimonos, and exotic masks, seemed to further distance Jonas from her audience. Reinforcing this idea by stating, "my pieces are about my communication with myself." Because of this concern, coupled with her sculptural and theatrical vision Jonas, more than other dancers who have used video merely as a tool to document their dance, has succeeded in building up a strong body of performance video work. And because of this Jonas has been awarded many grants and fellowships, and in 1981 received an International Video Art Festival prize in Tokyo for Upside Down and Backwards.

Compiled By: Dawn Ambrose (2001) from "Joan Jonas Scripts and Descriptions," Video Art

Joan Jonas