“The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit,” Theodor Adorno once wrote. “They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged.” The current exhibition at the Tate Modern in London devoted to the unclassifiable American artist Joan Jonas, 81, is an occasion for thinking again about late works—and especially in ways that Adorno could not have done in 1937, when he was writing about Beethoven’s late style.
That’s because Jonas does strange things with time. More than the objects she makes or finds, more than the moving and still images she creates with a camera or by her incessant practice of drawing, more than the bodies (her own or those of others) that appear in live or recorded performances, more than the words and sounds that accompany them, time itself seems to be the main material Jonas works with, manipulating it as a sculptor might mold, tear, and recombine bits of clay. “I deal with space in a very physical and a conscious way,” she says in a conversation reprinted in the exhibition’s catalog. “In video and film and performance, time accompanies that. How long to move from here to there? How long does it last? Give it time. Flash an image—a memory. I work with time, but I don’t plan ahead of time. I juxtapose different times, curious about how they’re going to affect each other.”
When what we experience as the present is always a palimpsest of other times—of recurrent pasts and emergent futures—can time really be the linear sequence we imagine? If linearity is only one aspect of time as we experience it, and time’s simultaneity is just as significant, then we should be wary of parsing an artist’s oeuvre into early and late phases, or at least careful that we’re not looking for earliness and lateness in the wrong places. Memory puts the presentness of the present into question as much as it does the pastness of the past, and so does forgetting. What’s lost when memory is suppressed is the knowledge captured by William Faulkner’s famous observation that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It remains with us, however elusively, like the ghosts that pass through so many of the stories that inspire Jonas.
Perhaps it is the case that Jonas has been making her late work all along, or that the work she was doing in the late 1960s and early to mid-’70s might, according to Adorno’s formulation, be later than her art of more recent decades. Jonas’s chronologically early works are the ones that are expressionless and distant yet somehow ravaged. They are the ones in which the artist’s subjectivity is revealed mainly by what Adorno calls “the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance of art. Of the works themselves it leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher, only through the blank spaces from which it has disengaged itself.”