‘Failure Was Around the Corner’: Why Joan Jonas, at Age 85, is Still Looking For New Ways to Perform and Spaces to Inhabit

With a MoMA retrospective on the horizon, the 85-year-old performance and video artist is finally claiming center stage.

Portrait of Joan Jonas. Photo: Don Stahl.

For more than six decades, the artist Joan Jonas, now 85, has been gathering images, phrases, and sounds—sometimes from writers or other artists, sometimes from nature or cultural rituals—and absorbs them into her own body, where they stir her to  move or dance or draw. The resulting performances, videos, and live drawings broke ground when she debuted them in New York in the 1960s, mostly to a small group of artist peers, including Pat Steir, Richard Serra, and Gordon Matta-Clark.

In recent years, Jonas has been dancing the circuit of international exhibitions: She’s shown at Documenta at least five times, the Venice Biennale twice, including as the representative for the U.S. in its national pavilion in 2015. She’s had retrospectives at Milan’s HangarBicocca, Tate Modern, and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam.

Institutions in the U.S. have been a bit slower to catch on, but they now seem to be rapidly making up for lost time. Last month, the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York, turned over its basement level to show two of Jonas’s installations from 1976, Stage Sets and After Mirage (Cones/May Windows), as well as a multimedia reprisal of a performance she staged at the museum in 2004, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things. And coming up in 2024, Jonas will be the subject of a large-scale retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

We spoke with the artist about her latest exhibitions, how she finds inspiration in literature, and the relationship between narcissism and performance.

Joan Jonas, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2004). © Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

Joan Jonas, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2004). © Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

The two older works in the Dia show are both from 1976, when you started translating your performances into installations. What significance do these pieces, which were once used as stages, carry for you?

Space is one of my main concerns and elements, so all my work is constructed in relation to a certain space. When I began performing, I already had a background in sculpture and I had to define the space to perform in. So, from the very beginning I made situations. Stage sets are a kind of coming together of elements. The row of chairs was from a piece called Organic Honey; I found one chair in a basement and I had it copied then that became part of the piece. The cones are part of earlier work, the hoop I use in many pieces, and the whole construction of the receding paper walls and the hoop and goalposts is from an earlier performance called Funnel, in which I performed in that space. It’s the first time that I actually made a piece like that to be seen with no video or no performance, just itself as a kind of sculpture.

You’ve been going to Nova Scotia every summer for decades and that landscape has informed much of your work. But these past two years, you haven’t been able to travel to Canada because of the pandemic. Have you found new places to work locally?

The first summer that I spent here, I made a big effort to go to the beach, out in Long Island, during the full moon. And so I made a little piece that I put in the Shanghai Biennale. I did a big drawing installation and I made a video out of that performance on the beach. I’m not going outside the way I usually do to work, or in my studio up there. But now I’m thinking, where in New York can I find [that space]? Because actually, when I began in New York in the late ’60s, early ’70s, I did perform outside. And New York was rougher and wasn’t so built up. It wasn’t so slick. For me, it was much more interesting and inspiring. Now of course, we’ve lost that. But I think there are places I’m interested in, that I want to visit now in New York, to use this landscape.

What kinds of places?

The beach again, but also nearby in the Pine Barrens. Maybe even the streets, like I did in the ’70s, when I got a guy with a video camera and brought Pat Steir with me, and we went down to lower Wall Street at night and performed in the street. I brought my tin and paper cones and we just improvised. It was a beautiful landscape, you know, the steam and passersby. You can’t do that now in the same way. You can’t just go out in the street and do whatever you feel like doing. Maybe the pandemic will bring it back? I don’t know.

Joan Jonas, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2004). © Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

Joan Jonas, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2004). © Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

What was it about that landscape that you gravitated toward?

The roughness, it was beautiful. I just saw a performance by Kevin Beasley in the street, which was good and reminded me of those days, the way he was using instruments, the metal, and the mics. I liked it very much.

I guess it was the kind of openness and I can only use the word “roughness.” It wasn’t a shiny indoor space. There weren’t all these glass buildings then. New York was really more beautiful than now. But there’s still places, of course—maybe I just don’t have the same energy. I’m much older.

In the early ‘70s, late ‘60s it was a smaller art community. Most of us were below 14th Street. Everybody knew each other, and so when I was going to do a performance outdoors, I would just get in touch with all my friends and they would come and be in it and work with me. It wasn’t a collaboration, but they would come and be part of the performance that I would direct. There were other artists, like Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Gooden.

What brought you to that space, the piers, where you performed Songdelay with Matta-Clark and the others?

That was recorded on the Lower West Side, in those empty lots. It was amazing. It was a huge outdoor area where the factory buildings had just recently been torn down so there were maybe 10 empty lots. We were beside the river, and there was a big audience on the roof of a building on Greenwich Street, actually the roof from Richard Serra’s building, and they watched the performance from there. I had done a piece in Canada where the audience was standing on top of a cliff looking down. So I was interested in points of view, and also working outdoors.

I had done a piece in Nova Scotia from overhead, so when I did the piece down there, it was like the overhead view and distance. I don’t think you can find that kind of distance anymore. Maybe you can and I just haven’t looked.

You know we produced our own work. At the beginning, I made my own posters. We went around and put them up. There was no money for that.


Joan Jonas, Volcano Saga (1985) Performing Garage, New York (1987).
Courtesy Yvon Lambert.

What do you feel when you perform? Are you thinking about what you’re doing or are you lost in the moment?

It varies, of course, but if I put a costume on, I feel like I can move differently. I feel my presence in a different way. And certainly, in the early works, I did research relating to rituals and other cultures, not imitating them, but thinking of myself as part of a ritual, and I can only say that it transforms my sense of what or who I am. I play roles, and I dress up. I have several pairs of dark glasses that disguise me. They’re kind of a mask, and I move differently with the mask.

Is it because you don’t want to see the audience or you don’t want them to see you? 

Because I don’t want to see the audience. I don’t want to look into their eyes. I can look toward them, but I don’t want to make eye contact or see who’s in the audience. I want to separate myself. It makes me feel freer, because I’m not thinking about “Oh, who’s there?” And definitely, when you’re performing, you’re in another zone. Time is different. It goes by like a flash—when you’re doing it well, not when you’re doing it badly.

Joan Jonas, They Come to Us without a Word II (2015). Performance at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, Venice, Italy, 2015. Photo by Moira Ricci. © 2017 Joan Jonas: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York : DACS, London.

You’re an improvisational performer in some ways, and in recent years you’ve collaborated with an improvisational musician, jazz composer and pianist Jason Moran. Did working with him teach you anything new about improvisation or sound?

It was wonderful to work with Jason. Improvisation is something everybody uses to work toward something. Whenever I start working on something, I start by improvising, then I settle down and by the time I either record or perform or do anything with the piece, it’s all set. I don’t improvise at all during an actual live performance. Working with Jason, I relaxed a little bit. Whenever we settled on a certain sequence of motifs, we would work with them over and over again, the same way, except that each time he played them, he would play them slightly differently. But you would always recognize those motifs. I have instruments that I bring, bells and rattles and so on, and we did a duet in which I improvised with my instruments with his playing live. I’ve never done that before live. It was a wonderful freeing experience.

You not only translate your own past videos and performances into new ones, but you also do it with other artists’ work, including the German art historian Aby Warburg and the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness. What is it about a text that strikes you, not just as a great work of art, but as something you can alchemize into your own practice?

Just on a very basic level, if something draws me, that’s beautiful. Or, on the other hand, if it’s something that’s important. At one point, I did a piece based on Dante’s Divine Comedy because it’s such a beautiful text and I was dying to read it. And I just thought, this is a good way to read. It’s so obscure to us Americans, but the Italians spend three years reading it. I had Okwui Enwezor’s daughter read it for a piece, she was 10, and I called it Reading Dante, because I wanted to show that anybody can read Dante.

I began with poetry, with Borges. The way he talks about mirrors inspired me to use mirrors, and also to quote him. And then the way James Joyce uses myth as metaphor to illustrate or represent a character, that idea influenced me quite a bit. And then after working with poetry and Borges, the fairy tale forms of storytelling intrigued me.

Joan Jonas, Mirror Check (1970). Photo: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Given how intertwined you are with your work, I wonder if being a performer has in turn shaped your personal life in some way, like how you approach interactions with others socially, or how you talk during interviews? 

Well, I’ve always enjoyed athletics, but I’m not a professional. I think it helps my physicality in relation to performing. When I perform, I have to be in a good physical condition. I can’t just step into something without preparing a bit physically, and being in what I think is the right shape, so that I can move freely. And then I often find a character by dressing up in different ways. Or I define my character by dressing up in costumes. But I have to step from my everyday life into the life of whatever the space of the performance is. That’s why I make those stage sets, so I can step into them and be in a different world. It’s a tough question.

Maybe it’s more of an observation than a question. I’m thinking about how you have such a strong presence about you, and I wonder if it’s from having done so much performance to your life.

Well I tell you what, I built my self-confidence up. I didn’t always have that. I used to get terrible stage fright. I had no experience theatrically. I never studied theater or anything. Teaching helped me too, getting up in front of groups, and giving lectures. So all those things together changed my relationship as the performer and as a presence to the public. It altered my relationship for the better. I made me more confident, and I can act more freely and improvise.

How did you get through that stage fright in the early days? And why did you even go into performance if you had it?

I was very drawn to performance. The minute I did it, for the first time, I was drawn to it, to find the work by using my body in relation to space and objects. The way I would arrive at that would be total improvisation, picking up an object and working with it. I was just simply drawn to it, irresistibly. I like to perform, I like to be in front of an audience. But it was scary in the beginning, and that’s one of the reasons I used masks at the very beginning. It hid my presence. I didn’t want to be Joan Jonas, I wanted to be a character, or anonymous. Just by putting on a pair of glasses, you can alter your persona.

That must have been particularly stressful in those days, when you were performing truly avant-garde works that might have looked completely new and strange to many audiences.

It was very exciting because everyone realized that we were in new territories. But yeah, scary. Failure was around the corner. Sometimes I would do a piece and it was simply bad, and that’s kind of humiliating. Everybody has that experience, every performer.

Once I talked to Yvonne Rainer about it and we shared the fact that we’re both very shy people. I think often shy people are performers because you can hide behind your identity on the stage. And you don’t talk to people directly. You have a distance and indirect way of relating to them.

When I did my first video performances I looked in the camera and and the audience saw me looking at them, but I was looking in the camera. So that was the whole idea of working at that time.

So it’s a way to have the stage without necessarily being at the center somehow. It’s so interesting because we usually think of the actor as being a stereotypically narcissistic figure.

Well, narcissism was something I played with directly because there was such an anathema against narcissism during the time of minimalism.

What was the relationship between narcissism and minimalism?

There were certain people who were really against narcissism. The dancers were really against romanticism and narcissism, I’d say, and there was a kind of anti-story. They didn’t want to tell a story, so the movements were very basic movements, and there was simply a desire to get away from narcissism. I think it has to do with the history of dance. You could say that Martha Graham was very narcissistic, and ballet is a kind of narcissism.

And so I played with that, in relation to the video camera, and looking at myself by looking in the mirror. It also came up when I did the mirror pieces, people would be uneasy when they saw themselves in those mirrors, and I played on that. It makes people uncomfortable to be caught looking at themselves in the mirror.

Portrait of Joan Jonas. Photo: Don Stahl.

Portrait of Joan Jonas. Photo: Don Stahl.

I read somewhere that you don’t like being called a performance artist?

Those terms were not invented by me, they’re invited by curators actually. I think Willoughby Sharp was the one who first said “performance art.” I just didn’t like the term at the beginning. I’ve accepted it now. But if you just say, “performance artist” to the general public, what do they think? I would rather be called an artist, because that’s what I am. And performance is one of my main mediums, but I also make videos, I make drawings. So is that performance art? No. Not everything is performance art. But it’s very hard to shake that term.

Where are you at in planning for the 2024 MoMA retrospective? Can you tell me anything about what will be included?

I’ll definitely include photographs, and not just snapshots, but really good photographs by professionals who have over the years photographed my work. I will include videos of performances. But I think most of it will be installations, which in idea relate to the one at Dia Beacon. So it’ll be a series of installations and single-channel video works and drawings. I don’t know yet which ones, but it’s quite a big show. It’s the top floor of MoMA.

Will you make anything new for it?

Probably. I don’t know what that’s gonna be yet. Over the years when I have these shows I always try to make something new because otherwise you get totally lost in your past and what you’ve done before. And I like to keep myself alive by doing a new work in relation to that situation.

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