An Exchange between Joan Jonas, Susan Howe and Jeanne Heuving



This exchange between Joan Jonas, Susan Howe, and Jeanne Heuving took place as part of a major exhibition on Joan Jonas' work at the Queens Museum of Art in New York and first appeared in the exhibition catalogue, Joan Jonas: Five Works.  It was convened by Valerie Smith, Senior Curator and Director of Exhibitions at Queens Museum, for the purposes of discussing Jonas' work as well as other subjects of interest to the three women.  Along with focusing on Jonas’ work as an artist and a performer, Jonas, Howe, and Heuving discuss the public position of women as artists; the place of iconic objects and words in works of art; the process of making art, including repetition, obsession and magic; the relationship between artistic form and wildness; the tensions between art, politics, and war; avant garde art scenes of the 1960’s and 1970’s; and H.D.'s work.  Jonas' extensive body of work spanning over four decades encompasses performance, video/ film, installation, and drawing.  Jonas and the poet Susan Howe first met as art students in the Museum School in Boston and have been close friends ever since.  Howe invited the writer and scholar Jeanne Heuving to join them in this exchange, since Jonas’ most recent performance piece, Lines in the Sand, engages H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, and at the time Heuving was researching H.D. at the Beinecke Library at Yale University.  

In the conversation, shared experiences and parallel tracks between Jonas and Howe emerge as both women veer at a young age from their formal training in the visual arts to develop cross genre, cross disciplinary, and cross media modes.  While Jonas and Howe went on to make their marks respectively in the art and literary worlds, both engage documentary modes as well as highly fanciful and imaginative scenarios. Howe comments, “One thing we share in common is that we were born on the cusp of World War II.  Childhood imagination then, even if you were an American child, encompassed such a violent world view—barked orders, bombs, swastikas, marching soldiers, newsreel shots of children being torn from their parents, such fear everywhere.”   Howe was in fact responsible for suggesting two texts important for Jonas' work, the book of fairy tales The Juniper Tree and H.D.'s Helen in Egypt.   In utilizing H.D.'s text Helen in Egypt in her Lines in the Sand, Jonas transforms her earlier female archetype, Organic Honey, an "electronic erotic seductress" into her own version of H.D.'s Helen, who according to an alternative ancient source taken up by H.D. in her Helen in Egypt never went to the Trojan War but resided in Egypt.

In a review of the exhibition, New York Times reviewer Roberta Smith commented “Anyone who is interested in the art of the last 30 years—or the next 30—should see the excellent, long overdue survey of Joan Jonas’ work . . . . Its revelations are almost guaranteed to knock you sockless.”   She later went on to single out the retrospective as one of the most important art exhibits of the year.  The exhibition just recently received First Place Award for Best Exhibition on Time Based Art from the International Association From Art Critics. Valerie Smith curated the exhibition and arranged for the 160-page exhibition catalogue.

Enter An Exchange between Joan Jonas, Susan Howe and Jeanne Heuving


Joan Jonas, An Improvisation, at Queens Museum of Art, New York, March 20, 2004 (photo by Jaishri Abichandani).

Joan Jonas was born in 1936 in New York, where she currently lives and works.  Jonas is a pioneer of video / performance art.  Her experiments and productions in the late 1960s and 1970s were essential to the formulation of the genre.  In the late 1960's, Jonas danced and performed with Tricia Brown, Lucinda Childs, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainier, and later acted with the Wooster Group.  Her work has been exhibited at major museums in the United States and Europe including The Museum of Modern Art  and The Whitney Museum of Art in New York, the University Art Museum in Berkeley, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Stadtsgalerie in Stuttgart.  She has received multiple awards, including grants from National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation.  She is on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Susan Howe was born in 1937 in Boston and resides in Guilford, Connecticut.  Howe's cross genre works were formative of experimental modes loosely grouped under the name of "language-oriented poetry" in the 1970's through the 1990's, and remain definitive for avant garde practices today.  She is the author of multiple books of poetry and scholarship, and is the recipient of many awards and honors.  Her recent works include The Midnight,Pierce-Arrow, and Frame Structures.  Her book The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History was named an "International Book of the Year" by the Times Literary Supplement.   She was elected as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2000 and was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998.  She is the Samuel P. Capen Chair in Poetry and the Humanities at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York.


Jeanne Heuving was born in 1951 in Seattle, where she currently resides.   She is a member of the editorial advisory board for HOW2 and the Subtext Collective in Seattle.  She has published the critical book Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore and the cross genre "autobiography / biography" Incapacity.  She has received awards from the Fulbright Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2003, at the time this interview was conducted, she was the H.D. Fellow at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. She is on the faculty of the University of Washington, Bothell and on the graduate faculty of the University of Washington, Seattle.


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