Joan Jonas

Joan Jonas performing Reading Dante II at The Fabric Workshop and Museum, December 11, 2010.

Joan Jonas’s reading of Dante’s fourteenth-century epic poem The Divine Comedy inspired her FWM residency project. Jonas drew on verses from all three canticles—the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise—to develop multiple iterations of her installation Reading Dante III and performance Reading Dante II. In these works, Jonas translated Dante’s vision according to her perspective in the present moment. Both the medieval era of Dante and our own time, she noted, are periods of extraordinary change.

For her installation Reading Dante III, Jonas layered many media and images to create an atmospheric environment. In the darkened gallery large-scale, white-chalk wall drawings, projected drawings, and drawings displayed on tabletops coexisted with video footage, benches, and paper lamps. In the simultaneously running videos—Reading Dante III, Street Scene Drawing, Drawing Dante, and Medical Diagrams—Dante’s verses are recited and integrated with depictions of performances and images. Jonas used a free-association method to create a personal, eccentric visual language, bringing her interpretation of Dante’s work to life while allowing her viewers to experience the resulting work without any preconceptions.

Artist Bio

Born 1936 in New York, NY. Lives and works in New York and Nova Scotia, Canada. 

A pioneer of video and performance art beginning in the 1960s, Joan Jonas has developed a unique sensibility that merges choreography, theater, drawing, and digital media to examine notions of self and the body through non-linear narratives. Jonas received a BA from Mount Holyoke College (1958), studied sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and received an MFA from Columbia University (1965). She is a professor emerita at MIT. 

Jonas’s work has been the subject of major surveys and retrospectives, including exhibitions at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands in 1979; twice at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands, first in 1983 and again in 1994; Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany in 2001; and the Queens Museum of Art, NY in 2004. Over the decades, Jonas has presented major solo exhibitions and performances, including at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN in 1974; the San Francisco Museum of Art, CA in 1976; Kunstmuseum Bern, Germany in 2004; Dia: Beacon, NY in 2005; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in 2008, as well as many group exhibitions worldwide. Her many honors for choreography, video, and visual arts include the National Endowment for the Arts; American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award for Video; Rockefeller Foundation; Guggenheim Foundation; Contemporary Art Television (CAT) Fund; Television Laboratory at WNET/13, New York; and Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD). In 2015, Jonas was selected to represent the United States in the 56th Venice Biennale with a work commissioned by the MIT List Visual Arts Center.