Taking the Performance Apart

Joan Jonas: Mirror Piece, 1969

Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Joan Jonas: Mirror Piece I, performance at Bard College, 1969

In the late 1960s, at the outset of her career, Joan Jonas would visit a gallery or loft and stare into it “until my vision blurred.” Then, she wrote in 2014, “an idea for a piece would come.” As she understood it, an artist’s job was to fill space, whether that of a room, canvas, screen, or piece of paper. The pressing question was: with what?  

Six decades later, Jonas has filled the Museum of Modern Art’s sixth floor galleries with “Good Night Good Morning,” a gratifying retrospective featuring videos, photographs, and performances as well as drawings, props, posters, notebooks, slide shows, sculptures, and installations. (The artist is having a banner year in New York. “Joan Jonas: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral,” an exhibition at the Drawing Center, which showed her works on paper, ran in tandem with MoMA’s exhibition until June 2.) Jonas has been singled out as an innovator even from a generation hellbent on expanding art’s territories. Her aim was to “develop a new language,” which she did by creating complex, multimedia works, often with herself at the center. MoMA’s retrospective, meticulously curated by Ana Janevski, tracks her evolution as an artist and captures her will of steel, her porosity before the world and its stories, and her many ways of playing with perception.  

Born in 1936 in New York City, Jonas studied art history at Mount Holyoke College and in 1965 received her MFA in sculpture from Columbia University. By then downtown New York, the seat of the American avant-garde, was teeming with artists working full-tilt to devise new forms and new means of expression. In their estimation, an artwork was more than the sum of an object and its aura. It could also be an action, a way to inhabit time, an occasion to gather, a fleeting gesture. They were propelled by a wild spirit of experimentation (and enabled by cheap rents and the advent of live/work spaces). Judson Dance Theater’s presentations of new work by choreographers like Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, with whom Jonas became great friends; the happenings of Fluxus, a loose movement led by George Maciunas, who sold Jonas the loft she still lives in today; the performances of Jack Smith, Richard Foreman, and Robert Wilson: Jonas immersed herself in it all, all to find her own way. 

Joan Jonas poster for Organic Honey's Visual Telepathy

Richard Serra/Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Joan Jonas, photographed by Richard Serra in a draft poster for a performance of Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy at LoGiudice Gallery, New York, 1972

In the beginning there was the mirror, which she deployed again and again to derange space, upend a composition, perforate an image. Her first film, Wind (1968), depicts a giddy, Judson-inspired dance piece that she shot in black-and-white 16mm on a beach on a frigid winter’s day; for it she appended cut pieces of mirror to the clothing of two performers, so that the reflected light, blinding as the snow, bounced and danced across the landscape too. Subsequent performances, made between 1969 and 1970, were playful inquiries, at once feminist and formalist, into the female body as well as the fusions, and confusions, of self and other. In Nudes with Mirrors, for instance, naked women pose with cut pieces of mirror held at a perpendicular angle to themselves, their all-too-human forms appearing symmetrical in the reflections; in Mirror Piece I, the looking glass is aimed at the audience.  

In 1970 Jonas purchased a Sony Portapak, the first affordable, portable, sync-sound video camera, which had gone on the market five years prior. With features like instant playback and the ability to transmit a live feed to a monitor, the camera set off a kaboom in the art world. Artists were now free to shoot video outside their studios, to work on location, on the fly, without much of a crew, and at a lower cost. This new tool revolutionized the value of the image. As an example: self-portraiture—a tradition both contemplative and aggrandizing—took on a creepy sheen of self-regard on tape. Now an artist could not just record, study, or project themselves but also watch themselves (with slight delay) in the process of becoming an image, rematerializing as their own double inside the screen. Vito Acconci, Nancy Holt, Bruce Nauman, and William Wegman are a few of those who placed themselves in front of the lens, playfully becoming the stars of their lo-fi spectacles.*

Joan Jonas: Mirage, 1976

Benjamin Blackwell/Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Joan Jonas performing in Mirage (1976), University Art Museum, Berkeley, California, 1980

For her part, Jonas wielded the Portapak as an instrument of self-possession. She placed herself in front of the camera, but she wasn’t as interested in being the center of attention as she was in the subject of attention, to pointing up how it’s mediated, to what or whom it’s paid, and why. In 1972 she made two of her best-known works, which were conceived and presented as both performances and videos: Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy and Vertical Roll. Organic Honey is the name Jonas gave to a doll-like, self-fascinated creature she played while wearing a plastic mask and a feathered, bejeweled headdress. Jonas was always in charge of her own image: in the first video Organic Honey performs for the camera while looking into the monitor to check and adjust her framing. In another sequence, Jonas, maskless, takes a hammer to a piece of mirror until it and her reflection are smashed to bits.


To make Vertical Roll, Jonas desynchronized the signals between camera and monitor so that a black bar scrolled upward across the screen at regular intervals, interrupting the view of her tightly framed body, like an exquisite corpse. She used the same technique in the video Two Women (1973), projected above eye level at MoMA, to puncture footage of the performers kissing, embracing. The piece asks which is taboo: the erotic, or how we perceive it. Bodies are also sites of inquiry in other works on view, such as Left Side Right Side (1972), Disturbances (1974), and Glass Puzzle (1973/2000). (Nine of her videos are available on MoMA’s website so visitors overwhelmed by the number of works can hunker down later in the quietude of their laptops or cell phones.)   


In Jonas’s practice ideas and stories are explored in one medium and another, and then perhaps another. Her artworks are at once discrete and iterative, since it is the nature of performance to stay a living, breathing, changing thing. Multiple pieces on view have dates reflecting the work’s lifespan rather than its genesis. One, The Juniper Tree (1976/1994), based on a fairy tale and conceived as a work for children, fills a gallery with paintings, costumes, props, footlights, and sounds, creating a dynamic display. Jonas once explained that her strategy was to  

take the performance apart, so it’s not based on linear time but exists in a different experience of time—the audience chooses what to look at and when. This is what interests me now, the form of the installation. This is a way of exhibiting a work that becomes a space I construct.  

She does the same for works such as Mirage (1976/1994/2005), which intercuts various footage (of Jonas drawing on a chalkboard, of a television playing back the image of her stepping through a hoop over and over again) to dizzying effect, and Lines in the Sand (2002), based on two texts by the Imagist poet H.D., which revises the well-worn story of Helen of Troy, scattering its narrative across many media, changing with each new performance, reimagined again and again. Time courses through what we’re looking at, her compositions held together at once in the shifting present and in the immobilized then.  

More quietly, the retrospective nods to Jonas’s collaborations over the years with other artists: the cinematographer and photographer Babette Mangolte; the sculptor Richard Serra (who was also her romantic partner for a time); the director Liz LeCompte and the performers Spalding Grey, Kate Valk, and Ron Vawter of the Wooster Group; the composer Jason Moran. Their presence is a reminder that the auteur is a myth in the land of performance, which is invariably the product of many minds and hands. I recalled this in the gallery that celebrates Jonas’s work as an educator, which, I confess, made me bristle at first. (Jonas is emerita in the MIT program of Art, Culture, and Technology, where she had taught since 1998.) After all, what male artist would ever mention, or be asked to mention, their role as a teacher inside a career retrospective at a major museum? Yet it acknowledges both how artists in fact earn their living and how legacies—of forms and practices—are passed down the generations outside a museum. 

Joan Jonas: Moving Off the Land II, 2019

Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Joan Jonas: Moving Off the Land II, 2019

In the last decade or so, Jonas’s eye has moved past the human self and its foibles to what is left of the natural world and its inhabitants. Works like Moving Off the Land II (2019) feature close-ups of marine life—an octopus, a seahorse, a fish. “I believe if we understand the importance of these miraculous creatures,” she said, “we can better understand ourselves and live in harmony.”  

The show’s final installation, the hypnotic Reanimation (2010/2012/2013), takes its inspiration from the Icelandic author Halldór Laxness’s dreamlike novel Under the Glacier (1968). The piece comprises four videos on four screens that face one another. In the middle sits a sculpture from which teardrop crystals hang, reflecting, refracting, and blocking the light of the projector on the floor next to it. Jonas shot the footage in Norway. It captures, among other things, images of glaciers, her shadow as she takes a walk, and a close-up of her hands making paintings in the snow—artworks that now only exist in memory and onscreen. The work is by turns dazzling and gutting. Is nature here merely to be recorded and remembered? Foregrounding both the projector itself and the magic it produces, Jonas prompts us to put human ingenuity to ever more wondrous uses. 


“Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning” is at the Museum of Modern Art through July 6. A catalogue, edited by Ana Janevski and Lilia Rocio Taboada, is published by MoMA.

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