Dia Beacon presents Joan Jonas’s most magnificent installation to date—and throws in a picnic lunch

Arts foundation in upstate New York is showing three of its newest acquisitions: large-scale multimedia works that span 30 years of the artist's career

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

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

To call Joan Jonas a video or performance artist is unfair. Try it on her and be met with a withering stare. Those labels—in most accounts accurately preceded by the word “pioneering”—limit both the scope of work she has made over five decades and its practice. “I prefer just artist,” she will tell you.

Certainly, Jonas has used cameras, props, costumes, lights, music, dance and her dog in presentations that involve rituals performed on a stage or filmed in remote locations around the world, including underwater, incorporating all of these elements into sculptural installations that have defined the form from the start. Let’s not discount her thousands of drawings (some made live in front of an audience) or, perhaps more importantly, her instinct for collaboration.

It was never more clear that “treasured” has become the proper description for Jonas than on 16 October, when the Dia Art Foundation feted the artist and her most magnificent installation to date with a picnic lunch on Dia’s Beacon campus.

Since it opened in a former box-printing factory on the Hudson River in 2003, Dia Beacon has been the ultimate setting for monumentally scaled work from the 1960s and 70s. There, weighty, seemingly inexpressive paeans to minimalist or post-minimalist fabrications by the likes of Richard Serra, Joseph Beuys, Donald Judd and Fred Sandback come across as utterly levitational. The only flaw was that, except for an outdoor sound piece by Louise Lawler, transformative works of the period by equally groundbreaking and possibly more radical female artists never made the cut.

Since becoming Dia’s director in 2014, Jessica Morgan has been working hard to rectify that embarrassment by acquiring the generally more handcrafted work of such artists as Nancy Holt, Michelle Stuart and Dorothea Rockburne, among others. The latest fruits of her labours are three works by Jonas—two from the 1970s and one that began as a commission in 2004—now on view in a cavernous, lower-level space that even the artist finds magical.

After Mirage (Cones/May Windows) (1976) installed at Dia Beacon Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, Courtesy of Dia Art Foundation; © Joan Jonas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the viewing experience, one that was further enhanced by an exquisite performance on the day of the fundraiser by two of Jonas’s recent collaborators, the jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran and the vocalist Kate Fenner. Staged in the gallery housing Warhol’s Shadows paintings, it drew a rapt audience of a few hundred artists, curators, patrons and critics that included Thelma Golden, Alanna Heiss, Haim Steinbach, Dominique Lévy, Pat Steir, Lorna Simpson, Stuart Comer and Chrissie Iles, the Whitney Museum curator sharing the gift of the piece to both institutions by collectors Kevin R. Brine and Jessica E. Smith.

The music derived from Jonas’s 2004 commission, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, which she based on a lecture by the German art historian Aby Warburg, inspired by his 1920s travels through the American southwest. Jonas’s gloriously reconfigured installation incorporates a number of colour videos projected on suspended screens large and small, as well as props and drawings she made for its original performance at Beacon in 2005 and 2006. She capped off the live performance with some impressive, Sufi-style twirling around Ozu, her eager mini poodle. “I nearly fell over,” the 85-year-old artist confessed the following day. It looked more like she was floating on air.

Her other two pieces in the show, Stage Sets and After Mirage (Cones/May Windows), both 1976 installations, are just as uplifting to the spirit, and together they form a landscape of the mind as gorgeous as the one outside. In their drama, they are somewhat reminiscent of work by Jannis Kounellis, only fresher.

“I was thinking of pools of light,” Jonas told me, when I asked how she imagined the show’s installation. That’s exactly how it looks—pinpoints of light on a map of a 50-year career that this exhibition brings into focus with more clarity than any before it. It took five weeks to install and left Jonas just as energised as the audience who came to celebrate her. “It was pure pleasure,” she said. Amen to that.

Joan Jonas, until 14 February 2022, Dia Beacon, New York