Longtime Champion of African-American Artists Kellie Jones Wins MacArthur Genius Grant

Isaac Kaplan
Sep 23, 2016 6:35PM

MacArthur fellow Kellie Jones. Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

What’s it like to get a call, pick up the phone, and realize people will be calling you a genius for the rest of your life? Just ask one of this year’s 23 MacArthur Foundation Fellows, announced on Thursday. As part of what is commonly called the “genius grant,” each of this year’s recipients—who include video artist Mary Reid Kelley, sculptor Vincent Fecteau, and art historian Kellie Jones—will receive $625,000 to use as they please. “It was pretty amazing,” Jones said of getting the call. Since then, she has decided to get a new desk with her genius grant; much more is certain to follow.

Currently a professor at Columbia University, Jones has had an illustrious career, of which the genius grant marks a continuation rather than a capstone. Among her many achievements is curating the influential exhibition “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980,” which debuted at the Hammer Museum in 2011 before traveling to MoMA PS1 and the Williams College Museum of Art. In this exhibition, as in her general practice, Jones challenged the predominantly white art-historical narrative, highlighting the impact and importance of African American artists working in L.A., including Senga Nengudi, Melvin Edwards, and David Hammons.

Before that, Jones put together more than 100 of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works—some never before seen in the U.S.—for a 2005 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Her 2005 exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, “Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980,” undid the idea that African-American artists, long treated as working primarily in figurative or representational works of art, could be excluded from the history of AbEx movements.

Attending Amherst in the years shortly after it began accepting women, Jones created her own degree: a mix of African-American studies, Spanish, Latin American studies, and fine arts. Even as she’s made a career fracturing the monolithic, white, male art-historical narrative on display in many major museums and other institutions, “I can’t say there’s really been resistance. Really, there’s just been a lot of work,” Jones said. There’s a plethora of books and scholarship on artists like Picasso and Damien Hirst. Information on more marginalized artists exists but is harder to find. For Jones, there’s a joy to the process of unearthing these stories, something she also tries to instill in her students. “You just have to dig for it, you then just have to write history yourself. And that’s an exciting prospect,” Jones said.

Resisting the idea that art history can be boxed off and treated as an isolated filed, the genius grant recipient’s exhibitions and scholarship have forcefully asserted that art should be seen as an important part of the Civil Rights struggle specifically, but also of humanity writ large. “Sometimes I think objects are our greatest evidence of history,” she told me. “In the presence of objects, I see the narration of people’s lives, and cultures, and histories. I think art, art history, and culture narrate who we are as people on this planet.”

In no small part due to the important influence of Jones’s work, younger curators are adding their voices to this narration. Curators like Jamillah James, Naima Keith, and Amanda Hunt are all doing important work to highlight the role highlight the role of African-American artists, while several of this year’s MacArthur Fellows have worked to tackle issues of race, including poet Claudia Rankine and playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. And the awards come just days before the opening of Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, a major focal point in the effort to tell the important story of race in America’s history.

Jones’s own past is evident in her work. Her connection to New York, where she grew up in the 1960s and currently lives, runs deep. Now 57, she was born in the East Village to former New Jersey poet-laureate Amiri Baraka and author Hettie Jones. Originally, Jones gravitated towards a career in diplomacy. (One reason: She thought “artists are always broke, I can’t do that.”) But she eventually embraced the pull of more creative pursuits instilled in her from an early age. “I grew up around a lot of artists, dancers, and musicians,” said Jones, who went to what is now known as Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Her friend and classmate Whitfield Lovell received a genius grant in 2007. “I’m excited that we now share that, coming from a public high school in New York.”

Today, she is working on a forthcoming book about similar variants of conceptual art that occurred in geographically disparate places in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. The work is to be titled ‘Art is an Excuse,’ Conceptual Strategies 1968–1983, and comes after her widely-praised 2011 book EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art. As part of her research fellowship at Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Jones has broadened her lens to examine other groups excluded from the art-historical canon, including Latino artists.

The projects Jones will create with the genius grant will take shape over the coming months. But generally, the award is “just making me think bigger and take more risks.” Jones said. She’s going to emphasize collaboration, with whatever she does geared towards reaching and dialoguing with others, particularly younger scholars. Building off a career she’s loved, “I just want to even have more fun, and this is going to allow this to happen,” she said.

Isaac Kaplan