IT WOULD BE DISINGENUOUS to say that Joan Jonas is not a performance artist, but I don't think of her that way. When she started in the 1960s, she sought bare land for building; these neighborhoods expanded around her only much later. She goes outside, generally.
Jonas's newest work, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, 2005, was commissioned by Dia:Beacon, and premiered there last year, with a reprise this past October. It tells stories, it's representational, but, as with many aspects of her work, this is deceptive. Not cunningly so, but in the way of distances: You're fooled easiest if you're impatient to get someplace particular. Jonas works with distance, she knows all about it. Mirrors, masks, fairy tales, knots: These themes, recurrent in her work over the years, seem both entirely familiar and fully symbolic, and thus somehow reassuringly close at hand. But while an artist works with what's at hand, what's manipulable, that doesn't mean the audience can grasp these things, though it may seem so. Watching from the audience, you might nod at something you think is feminine, or feminist, maybe both. Look to the use, not the meaning. Jonas has a care for tools, she draws ideas tight, condensed for best use. Such compression can be brutal: When she draws for an audience, in real time, it cuts through the heart of performance and drawing alike.
Abstraction is rare in the art world, unless you're talking about abstract pictures, but sometimes a whole way of working is abstracted. Why do some artistic forms stay outside, stubbornly resisting the sweep of commerce, industry, art world? Poetry, say, or experimental theater and dance, "underground" film. The work isn't easily represented, it's hard to get the picture, there's no "Stand back, let me get a look at you!" An artist like Jonas, who brings such resistant forms to an audience that prizes the image above all else had better address translation. Like it or not, the audience will translate what it sees, wresting ideas from abstraction, bending them from use to meaning. Jonas's work allows for generous translation, but you'll have to perform it yourself. She can bring you to understand that the term "performance art" is a kind of translation.
I WAS FIRST DRAWN to Aby Warburg when I read Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America, in which the German art historian describes his trip in 1895 to the Southwest desert, where he visited with the Hopi. I went to that area as well, in the '60s, and my experiences there have stayed in the back of my mind all these years--seeing the Hopi snake dance profoundly affected me--though I've never referred to them directly in my work. This points to another affinity I felt with Warburg: It wasn't until thirty years after his journey to the desert, while recovering at a Swiss sanatorium after a breakdown, that he could actually talk about his involvement with the Hopi.
I also felt close to Warburg's way of thinking about culture and art history. One reason Warburg waited decades to write about the Hopi was that his contemporaries perhaps wouldn't have been receptive to what he was thinking about--the links between Hopi ceremony and Renaissance ideas of spectacle, for example. Methodologically, Warburg was less concerned with traditional linear progression in art than with a cross-cultural, paralleling approach. He actually considered himself to be a cultural historian. This category, however, didn't really exist at that point. Contemporary anthropologists like Franz Boas, whom Warburg met, were working in a similar fashion in the late nineteenth century, but they hadn't related their research to art history as Warburg had. …