Joan Jonas, Doctor of Fine Arts
Joan Jonas—sculptor, video and performance artist, visionary creator of images—you represent what Emily Dickinson had in mind when she wrote, “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—.”
After graduating in 1958 from Mount Holyoke College with a degree in art history, you headed to Boston and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and then Columbia University, where you earned your master of fine arts. You began your career as a sculptor in your native New York City, and then moved into the unknown—mixing props, performance and choreography in natural and industrial environments. A long trip to Japan with artist Richard Serra flooded your brain with images from Japanese theater, dance, puppetry, and music. On that trip you also bought your first video camera. When you returned to New York, you developed your groundbreaking performance piece, “Organic Honey,” using video, monitors, mirrors, masks and you in a complex interplay of self and other.
Within a decade, you became one of the most transformational artists of your generation. Today your work continues to evolve and influence the new artists, absorbed—as you are—by perception, ritual, metaphor, and shifting identities. Over the course of your long career, your work has been presented around the world, including biennials at the Whitney Museum in New York, and in Taipei, Venice, Sydney, and São Paolo. Your solo exhibitions have been featured at Le Plateau and Jeu de Paume in Paris, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore. Your accolades have been many, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Guggenheim Museum, an American Film Institute award for independent film and video artists, and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Women must inspire other women, you said, and men and women must inspire each other. You have done just that, not only through your art, but also through your teaching as a professor of new genres and visual arts at UCLA, MIT, and at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart, Germany. The New York Times, in reviewing a recent installation of your piece, “Mirage” first conceived in 1976, said your work endures because it is constantly being reborn. “You never really know what she’s up to,” the Times wrote. We might add you continue to amaze because there is an element of danger in your art, something uncertain, nonlinear, illusive, restless, and—always startling. We see what we do not expect to see, and we are altered by that awareness.
You once wrote we must look outward to other cultures and diverse situations and take care of our collective futures. We agree. For your half century of care, creation, innovation, and imagination, and for reminding us that what we see is only part of the picture, Mount Holyoke is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa.