CAMBRIDGE — When Joan Jonas, 77, started out as an artist in the intimate melee of New York’s downtown art scene in the late 1960s, she was making work for an audience made up largely of acquaintances and fellow artists. “It was basically a small group of sympathetic friends, exchanging ideas,” she said. “There might have been 10 people. Or 50. Sometimes maybe a hundred.”
Times change. At the 56th Venice Biennale next year, Jonas’s most recent work — so recent that it’s still in the process of being conceived — will likely be seen by an audience of half a million people.
On Wednesday, Jonas was announced as the artist who will officially represent the United States in its national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The Biennale, widely regarded as the world’s most important exhibition of contemporary art, runs May 9 to Nov. 22, 2015.
An acclaimed pioneer of video and performance art, Jonas lives in New York City but has taught performance and three-dimensional art since 1998 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is a professor emerita.
She was proposed for the role by Paul Ha, director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge since late 2011. It’s a coup for MIT and the List, which gets to present Jonas’s exhibition, and for visual art in the Boston area. “Only one city gets to do this every two years,” said Ha.
That city, Boston, has not been known in the past for embracing avant-garde art. The List’s success in backing Jonas, says Liz Munsell, assistant curator for contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, “highlights all the groundwork” Boston-area museums have been doing over the past few years in the field of contemporary art.
Munsell says Jonas “is the most deserving artist that I could think of to take on this incredibly prominent position. It’s certainly been a long time coming.” She describes the artist’s work as an exploration “of mythology and cultural archetypes often related to the feminine.”
The MFA, she adds, will be staging a recent work by Jonas called “Reanimation,” which will involve live performance from Jonas herself, in November. “Reanimation” was inspired by the novel “Under the Glacier” by the Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness. It was developed at MIT, and its themes (spirituality in nature and climate change, among others) will reemerge, in forms yet to be determined, in Venice.
In person, Jonas comes across as generous but self-contained, with a bright yet slightly guarded smile and a well-fortified interior life. Not inclined to hyperbole, she speaks simply and unpretentiously about her work.
“All my work is about the present,” she said Thursday in an interview in the List offices. “I don’t take a period piece and try to reproduce it. And I never overtly address political situations. But since my work is about the present, politics is part of it.”
Through her career, Jonas has grappled inventively with big themes across a variety of media, from drawing and dance to video, sculpture, and theater. The very unpredictability of her methods can catch viewers off-guard. Surprise and simplicity combine to create a kind of intrigue that quickly switches into reverie and enchantment.
An avowed feminist, she has often used mirrors to trigger a poetic consideration of female identity (she was inspired to use them by the writings of Jorge Luis Borges). And in the 1970s, she created an alter ego, Organic Honey, in order to explore further the territory of selfhood and eroticism from a woman’s perspective.
When she started out, Jonas said in a 2009 interview, video art “wasn’t dominated by men . . . like the other forms, painting and sculpture, so it gave women a voice.” She has since developed a layered, poetic language of projections laid one over the other, often with chalk drawings captured in real time, and with Jonas’s own body playing a central part in the work.
“From very early on,” explains the MFA’s Munsell, “Joan has been weaving together different genres, collapsing distinctions” between drawing, performance and video art. Today’s artists, she says, tend to take Jonas’s breakthroughs for granted. But to this day, she says, “Joan is more contemporary than most artists of much younger generations.”
Jonas is an inveterate traveler, attracted powerfully to open landscapes. Although her work veers toward universal themes that cross cultures, from ritual, myth, and nature to epic narratives of world literature and the mysteries of human identity, she likes to deal with these themes using humble, everyday objects: toy marbles, tchotchkes, chalk and blackboards.
Over the past couple of decades, Jonas has had ample opportunity to get accustomed to bigger audiences for her work. She has been the subject of exhibitions at Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and in 2009, she was awarded the Guggenheim’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
That same year she also exhibited for the first (and only other) time at the Venice Biennale, not in the US national pavilion but in the separate international group show. And she has exhibited six times at Documenta, a major forum for contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany. She will be the sixth female artist to represent the United States at Venice since 1990.
Jonas studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the late ’50s. Her training there, she told the Globe, was “very traditional.” She made sculptures in a variety of media, including clay, glass, and plaster.
In the late ’60s, living in downtown Manhattan, she found herself yearning to be, as she put it, “in unknown territory.” Emerging from a scene that staged “happenings” and live performance, she became one of the earliest artists to incorporate video into her performances.
Today, she uses digital cameras and sometimes color. But her work is not as technically elaborate as that of recent stars of video art, like Matthew Barney, Mika Rottenberg, or Ryan Trecartin. Describing herself as “an old-fashioned video artist,” she says: “I work the way I’ve always worked.”
When Ha arrived at MIT and learned that Jonas was there, he immediately thought she would be the perfect person to propose for the US Pavilion. Her art, he says, is based in storytelling.
“She creates these intense, temporary moments of connectedness. Her work is about mythmaking and narrative and enchantment,” he said.
It was only after Ha put her name forward that he learned that she had been proposed for the US Pavilion twice previously, narrowly missing out each time. As a result, Jonas was initially reluctant to go through the process again.
Now that she has been selected, “I just feel incredibly happy for her,” said Ha, who will be the pavilion’s commissioner, in charge of logistics and fund-raising; he will team up with Jonas’s former MIT colleague (now based in Singapore), Ute Meta Bauer, as curator, helping Jonas to realize the work.
For the US Pavilion’s five, linked galleries, Jonas will create new works that combine video, sound, drawings, and other objects. But as for specifics, we’ll have to wait and see.
She has been focused until now on a major retrospective of her work to be presented next year at Hangar Bicocca, a contemporary art museum in Milan.
Jonas says she never discusses work she has yet to make. But her work tends to pick up stories and themes she has addressed in earlier works.
Jonas will visit the site in Venice in June. She is known for tailoring the presentation of her work to the spaces in which she exhibits. For Venice, Ha says, “she has a loose idea of what she wants to do, and at the same time she has no idea what she wants to do!”Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.