Kelli Jones ’81
Photographs by Beth Perkins

Some people stumble across their profession through serendipitous encounters with crucial ideas or mentors. But others seem to have been on target right from the start. A child of two bohemian writers, Kellie Jones ’81 grew up surrounded by painters, poets and performers. Arriving at Amherst in 1977, she was surprised by how remote the world of art was to her fellow students. “Nobody had ever met a living artist,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Really? Wow!’ Because all the artists I knew were living.”

Indeed, many were living close by. In Jones’ childhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, one favorite hangout was the loft studio of abstract expressionist Al Loving. The first African-American painter ever to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Loving specialized in geometrical forms, and his studio was a magical, Alice-in-Wonderland place for Jones. Her sister, playwright and Village Voice writer Lisa Jones, recalls Kellie standing mesmerized before one of Loving’s canvases; she wondered what her sister was seeing in it. “She was Alice,” Lisa has written. “She went inside the paintings and came back to tell.”

A trailblazing curator and art historian, Jones last fall had her journey rewarded with a MacArthur Fellowship. The “genius grants”—which carry a stipend of $625,000—are given yearly to around 25 Americans for extraordinary creativity in a wide range of fields. In its citation, the MacArthur Foundation praised Jones for “deepening our understanding of contemporary art of the African Diaspora and securing its place in the canons of modern and contemporary art.” Citing her writings and museum exhibits, it lauded her efforts to introduce black artists to wide audiences: “Jones is writing the history of African-American art and redefining the contours of American art history.”

Those efforts trace to her time at Amherst, where, in Jones’ own words, she was “out to change the world.” Prime on her agenda was the disconnect between official art history and the reality of a world populated with black and brown artists. At Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art, she’d been surrounded by diverse people studying and practicing the arts, yet the only dark-skinned people in the art history taught there were ancient Egyptians and Mayans. Jones undertook to change that. At Amherst, she crafted an interdisciplinary major in black studies, Latin American studies and fine arts—“I was my own department,” she says—working with faculty members including Jim Maraniss, Andrea Rushing, and Asa Davis. “Amherst allowed me to take a lot of knowledge I already had as a child, knowledge I took for granted, and make it into a study.” In college Jones created a field she’s been working in ever since.

The highlights of her career—whether her award-winning contribution to the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, her Now Dig This! exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles or her 2011 book, EyeMinded—disclose an abiding preoccupation with works of art, and with ways of thinking about them, that reframe and reshape traditions. “Kellie doesn’t preach, exactly,” says Kathy Halbreich, associate director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “But with humor, research and conviction, she has taught a lot of us to see what traditional art history overlooked or repressed.” Her graduate school mentor at Yale, renowned historian Robert Farris Thompson, exclaims over her accomplishments. “What makes Kellie special as a literary and art-historical force,” he says, “is her genius for expanding the geographic horizons of our field.”

I went to New York to meet up with Jones and spend an afternoon doing what she loves to do— looking at art and talking about it. She was still a bit stunned by the MacArthur. When the call came to her home in Brooklyn, she didn’t recognize the Chicago number, she told me; she picked up only because her husband has family in Chicago, and she worried something might have happened. But, no, it was MacArthur calling. “They have the jury right there on the speaker phone. They read you the citation. I was freaking out. What they’re really saying is, ‘This is what you mean to the world.’ It was very emotional.”

Kellie doesn't preach exactly. But with humor, research and conviction, she has taught a lot of us to see what traditional art history overlooked or repressed.

We met at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the vibrant repository of African-American art where Jones began her career back in 1980, as a summer intern; she returned a year later as a curatorial assistant. Her first assignment was at the Adam Clayton Powell Building across 125th Street, a state office building with a small art collection, for which Jones acted as caretaker. She soon began branching out: a show of sculpture by women, in a tiny Lower East Side storefront space that she had to front her own money to secure; an exhibit called In the Tropics, at an art center in the Bronx.

We roamed the galleries of the Studio Museum for an hour or so. Jones is a tiny woman with a rich and ready laugh and a completely unpretentious way of talking, even on such topics as the influence of Masaccio and other Renaissance masters on Romare Bearden’s paintings of African-American Southern folkways. “There’s no one like Kellie,” says Dana Liss, a former graduate student of Jones’ at Columbia University, who now works at the Studio Museum. “In class she just keeps dropping these dazzling little gems. She doesn’t hit you over the head with it. But it’s like there’s a master’s thesis in every sentence.”

The works we looked at demarcated the broad range of Jones’ interests. Some were overtly political, like Composition Study for Trash, a 1971 collage and painting by Benny Andrews, portraying a globe with the outline of the United States on it, Lady Liberty sitting on top and three black men in chains inside. Others were abstract paintings by such artists as Loving, Norman Lewis and Jack Whitten. Many formed part of a 2006 exhibition Jones curated at the museum, Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980. We paused before a 1978 work by Whitten, Khee 1, a 6-foot square in subtle tones of gray, beige and green, with closely traced horizontal lines. Whitten, Jones explained, had been a pioneer of experimenting with acrylic, and had gotten his paints from Bocour Artist Colors, purveyor of paint to Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning. “Lenny Bocour was famous for trading with artists—paint for artwork. He used the dialogue with them to perfect his product.”

I was struck by how intimately Jones knows these artists. Whitten, like Al Loving, was a downtown neighbor, and as a teenager Jones was the Whitten family au pair; one summer she accompanied them to Greece, and was present when the artist worked on the Greek alphabet series that included the painting we were admiring. Her essay for the Energy/Experimentation catalog observes that Whitten’s paintings were inspired by two weeks of going to hear John Coltrane at a Brooklyn nightclub. Coltrane told the painter he equated his music to sheets of sound that came at him in waves; Whitten transferred the trope to his own painting, conceptualizing his works as “a sheet of light passing.” In her essay Jones drew on such observations to place these artists in the context of 20th-century American modernism, challenging the view that African-American art of the ’60s and ’70s was primarily representational and political.

David Hammons
UNTITLED, 1976, in an example of the “body prints” with which David Hammons made his name. Jones’ interest in Hammons led to one of her most ambitious projects. Credit: The Studio Museum in Harlem, Gift of Glenn Ligon 2016.17. Photo: Adam Reich

In one corner hung a work by Los Angeles artist David Hammons, whom Jones met in 1980 at the Studio Museum. Hammons became a renegade darling of the art world, but he was not yet a household name in 1986, when Jones snagged a lengthy interview with him for REALLIFE Magazine, eliciting an incisive appraisal of his own art, along with some irascible witticisms (“I can’t stand art, actually. I’ve never ever liked art, ever.”). The piece we were looking at, Jones explained, was an example of the “body prints” with which Hammons made his name in the 1960s. She described the technique. “He greases his body up, leans on a piece of paper or board, jumps off, then sprinkles pigment on it, and the pigment stays in the oil-infused areas. In this one, it looks like he’s actually drawn on it as well.” The artist’s face appears in a shadowy field of blacks and grays with pastel overlays traced with a wire-mesh grid that creates a cage-like effect. That and the absence of eyes—just round holes—lend an eerie, haunted look.

“This is fabulous,” Jones said. “His earlier body prints were more didactic. By this time, 1976, he’s getting all free with it. He’s really free.”

Hammons eventually became a found-object artist, trolling city streets for his whimsical compilations. The results include his “bottle trees”—emptied bottles of Wild Irish Rose (“the cheapest wine you can get,” Jones said) slipped over branches in wintertime Harlem. Or Greasy Bags and Barbecue Bones, a gallery show Jones describes as “composed of discarded brown paper bags, sparerib bones, glitter, hair and grease.” For Jones—typically—such works aren’t merely enjoyable but tilt at something larger. “By identifying and repossessing particularly negative, stereotyped, dirty, rejected symbols and signs through reconstituted objects,” she writes in an essay for a recent Hammons retrospective, “the artist retools judgments concerning beauty and, in a sense, refigures aesthetics.”  

Hammons’ art resonates deeply with Jones’ sensibility and priorities. Not least is how the artist repurposes everyday objects in ways that convey personal and cultural history. “Picking bottles up off the ground and elevating them was a way of making art,” Jones told me, “but also of saying that people’s lips had touched them, and so they have spirit in them.” She enthuses over how Hammons has reached beyond museum and gallery, citing his wry boast that his outdoor installations are seen by “15 times the annual attendance of the Metropolitan Museum.” Above all she lauds his effort to reclaim the stereotyped and ignored. In praising Hammons’ mission, Jones implicitly describes her own. The artist refigures aesthetics; the art historian reframes traditions.

That challenge has been both intellectual and very personal. For Jones, starting out as an aspiring curator, tradition meant scrutiny at the door; the art world was a white world, and viewed her skeptically. “You’d go for an interview—museum jobs, gallery jobs—and people would look at you as if to say, ‘What are you going to do here?’” African-American museum directors, curators and tenured art historians were few. And over much of the 20th century, African-American artists had been routinely neglected. In 1968, Jones told me, when MoMA mounted an exhibition titled In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., it did not actually include any black artists, until protests forced a change.

In those years the art world was taking what Jones calls “wobbly baby steps” toward diversity. Museums, responding to public pressure, began buying works by more artists of color. But there was a token aspect to these acquisitions. “They buy them, they show them once and that’s it,” she explained. “Forty years later they’re sitting in storage at the Met, at MoMA, at the Los Angeles County Museum.”

Part of Jones’ effort has been to direct attention to resources already present. And part has been to expand the range of what gets written about, shown, noticed and taught in the art world—even what gets thought about as art. This expansion has been a steady focus of her writings, beginning in the 1980s—from her exploration of Hammons’ works incorporating African-American hair, to her assessment of Howardena Pindell’s use of string, glitter and perfume in paintings addressing racism and sexism.

Jones’ interest in Hammons, and in shedding light on “underknown” artists, led to one of her most ambitious projects, 2011’s Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980, at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The show traces to her long-ago interview with Hammons, who recounted leaving his Midwestern hometown in 1963 and heading for L.A., where he joined a community of creative people, many of them artists of color—and many unfamiliar to Jones. “There was a larger story that I thought was fascinating,” Jones told me. The 20th century had seen a great migration of African-Americans to Los Angeles, far less well known than the one to Chicago and the North, and it had spawned artistic communities that were barely on the radar for many art historians.

Her first idea was to do a book, and in 2007 she began research. In L.A. she ran into a friend, Gary Garrels, then chief curator at the Hammer. “When I told him I was researching a book on African-American artists in Los Angeles, he said, ‘Oh. Are you going to do a show?’ I said, ‘When I finish my book.’ He called me up two weeks later and said, ‘Hey, are you finished with that book yet?’” Garrels invited Jones to join in a project of the Getty Research Institute highlighting the art history of Southern California. It was an offer Jones couldn’t refuse. Instead of book first, it would be show first.

Jones worked on the exhibition for three years. The challenge of assembling it was immense. “You’re talking about a show of work from the ’60s to the ’80s. If you’re working with living artists, you have to contact them. Do they have any of those pieces? If they’ve sold them, you have to track down the collectors. Some of the works are in public institutions. Others, you can’t find.”

The scavenger hunt proved frustrating at times, but in the end, Now Dig This! presented the work of nearly 40 artists, including original works by sculptors Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger. Jones emphasized the exhibition’s range—African-American artists, but Asian, Latino and white artists too. “Art is a really open place for intercultural, interracial dialogue. I wanted to honor that.”

Critics were ecstatic. The show traveled to other venues and last year went online, via a digital archive—an important point for Jones, who prioritizes making art accessible to more people. Now Dig This! has become a curator’s dream, the show that never ends.

Kelli Jones ’81

Partway through her career Jones went to Yale and got a Ph.D. in art history, and since 2006 she has been a professor at Columbia. Teaching, research, writing and curating all feed each other, allowing her to be what she calls “a de-institutionalized curator” and giving her more freedom to do the projects she chooses.

An array of those projects is contained in her remarkable book EyeMinded. Scholarly but also deeply personal, it shows the particular way Jones conceives, or reconceives, the undertaking of art history. EyeMinded was not so much written as curated, an assemblage of reviews, interviews, essays, photographs—and, most interesting of all, essays by Jones’ parents, sister and husband. “Since birth,” Jones writes in the book’s introduction, “I have been in a constant dialogue about culture with my family.” EyeMinded is a product of that dialogue, a novel kind of family album.

It certainly helps that the family consists of highly accomplished writers, beginning with Jones’ father, the poet and activist Amiri Baraka. Baraka, who began his career as LeRoi Jones and died in 2014, was known for his fiery espousal of black nationalism, and his commentary in EyeMinded calls on art to “smash what aspects of bourgeois, racist society it confronts”—then offers a tender poem written long ago for his infant daughter.

A contribution from Jones’ mother, the poet and memoirist Hettie Jones, praises Kellie’s ability “to see and offer to others ways of seeing,” and includes her own 1998 poem “In the Eye of the Beholder,” imagining the world her young daughter “sees ... through / her shining / black eyes.”

Jones’ husband, musicologist Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., contributes an essay placing free jazz in the context of race politics and radicalism of the ’60s and ’70s—and, on a personal note, recalls meeting his future wife at a book event, seeing “la femme petite with a robust burst of curls,” whom he came to love for her ability to “think hard, write clearly, [and] speak with conviction.” Lisa Jones’ commentary kids her big sister for having listened to Earth, Wind & Fire “more than anyone is humanly capable of, at high volume.”

As for Jones’ own writing, in EyeMinded she shows her academic chops, glossing Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of Foucault’s discussion of archive, and using words obscure enough (“actant,” “scopic,” “diremption”) to send a reader scurrying to the dictionary. But elsewhere she sounds more like a lively critic aiming at a general audience. She begins her Hammons essay by speculating that “Maybe, as Calvin Reid has written, David Hammons is just a ‘hip junk dealer,’ who specializes in the exotic, such as doll shoes, snowballs and elephant dung. Maybe his being an artist is just a myth, perpetuated by journalists hot for an intriguing story.” And she habitually brings helpful perspectives to the art she discusses, as when she puts Lorna Simpson’s photography in the context of film noir and German Expressionism.

EyeMinded reveals how insistently Jones is drawn to any artist who challenges accepted traditions. Mary Schmidt Campbell, now president of Spelman College in Atlanta, was Jones’ first boss at the Studio Museum, and notes that an exhibition for her was “always an occasion to rethink the art and its relationship to other art and to the world.” Jones’ favorite metaphor of praise is that an artist “breaks the frame.” It isn’t hard to understand why, since those accepted modes and traditions, those set frames, were what kept artists of color out of the picture. A Huffington Post piece published after the MacArthur award sums up this emphasis: “Jones has devoted her life to challenging the oversimplified and whitewashed mainstream narratives of art history, incorporating artists of color into the canon and the conversation.”

Finishing our tour of the Studio Museum, we paused before a series of photographs on the Black Cowboy. Curated by Amanda Hunt, the exhibit perfectly illustrates Jones’ emphasis on acts of historical and cultural correction, whereby motifs that have had little place in the prevailing imagination—like the black cowboy—are reinscribed into the dominant myth. As Hunt’s notes observe, half of all cowhands in Texas in the 1880s were black. The exhibit’s tantalizing images confound and conflate categories—like Ron Tarver’s photo of two African-American boys playing basketball as a horse waits patiently nearby.

Restoring such figures as the black cowboy to our cultural imagination presents the prospect, as Jones writes in EyeMinded, “of American culture lived in its full glory, its untidy inconsistency and ambiguities.”

Kelli Jones ’81
KELLIE JONES (foreground) skips through the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City with her sister, Lisa Jones, in 1969. Painting are by Edwin Ruda. Photo courtesy of Kellie Jones

For a late lunch we walked east on 125th Street to Red Rooster, the bustling Harlem mainstay owned by chef Marcus Samuelsson. Jones loves dining—“Life is short,” she said with a laugh, “and food is good.” She ordered a chicken Caesar salad, then scanned the drink specials. “Gotta have the Obamatini!”

Jones is a big admirer of Barack Obama. She discusses his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, in her own book, and his life in some ways resembles hers: both of them born to a black father and white mother, and with a childhood in the 1960s, when being biracial was an anomaly to be either scorned or merely simplified into blackness. Like the ex-president, Jones guarded her precocious intelligence with an instinct for inwardness and privacy and honed her powers of observation.

I wondered about her family and what it was like to grow up, in her sister’s words, as children of “our mom, the boho Jew ... and our father, Amiri, who was to our young eyes the poet King of Afro-America.” I’d been reading her mother’s memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, with its scenes of 1950s bohemian life (Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky dancing naked in her living room, Willem de Kooning handing her a rose in a bar). The memoir also describes the pain Hettie experienced as a Jewish woman shunned by her parents for marrying a black man who ultimately abandoned her, along with the integrationist hopes of his own early bohemianism, to espouse an increasingly ardent black nationalism.

Their marriage was undertaken in defiance of racial separateness, and in the end fell prey to it; the couple divorced when Kellie was 6, her father moving back to Newark, N.J., to promote African-American cultural initiatives, take a new name and start a new family. (Jones’ half-brother, Ras Baraka, is the current mayor of Newark.) Jones recalled being 10 and participating in her father’s 1969 play, Slave Ship, at his cultural center in Newark, Spirit House. “We kids were actually part of the soundtrack. We were the people on the slave ship. We had to sit there in the dark and moan and cry.” Baraka was given to incendiary statements, and at times a touch of fond exasperation creeps into Jones’ voice when she talks about him. But her father, she insists, “remains a great artist.”

In EyeMinded, Lisa Jones wrote about “Kellie’s journey to make sense of who she is culturally and racially.” I asked Kellie if she thinks of herself as a black person. Of course, she said. And as a white person? She smiled. “Not so much. I don’t consider myself white because the world doesn’t consider me that.” She mused aloud about the challenge of divided identity—black, white, Christian, African, Jewish—in a family that one year celebrated Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa all in a row. “In this century you can be all of those things. At that time, it was harder, but we did it. We did it fiercely.”

We ate, taking in the scene at Red Rooster, a space festooned with objets d’art; Jones remarked on a quilt by Sanford Biggers and a photo of a funeral-procession installation by Ebony Patterson. Red Rooster is a place where African-American art diverts your eye as an Ethiopian-Swedish celebrity chef serves his take on American Southern comfort food and Ella Fitzgerald croons “Frosty the Snowman.” The rich complexity of the African Diaspora, enacted in a restaurant. Jones smiled, looking around. “Didn’t Bono say, ‘America is a great idea’?” she mused aloud. “I love that idea.”

Jones talks approvingly about how her field has evolved. “Mainstream American museums are hiring more diverse people,” she says. She mentioned a former Studio Museum curator, Lauren Haynes, a specialist in 20th-century African-American art, recently hired as curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges, the huge new museum in Arkansas underwritten by the Walmart fortune. Similarly, where African-American art history was once largely restricted to historically black colleges and universities, now it is taught widely.

As her MacArthur citation notes, Jones herself has played an important role in bringing this shift about, both through her own work and via the cadre of enthusiastic disciples she has trained. As for introducing artists of color to wider audiences, her shows in recent years have become mass happenings. Forty thousand people came in the last weekend of her 2005 show on Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brooklyn Museum, and 75,000 visited her 2014 show Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.

With her new book, South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, coming out in April, Jones told me she plans to use the MacArthur grant to ponder her “next chapter.” “I’m really interested in collaborating with younger curators and scholars, because the world is in their hands. They’re the energy.” She pointed out a fact she’d learned while staging Witness: the average age of members in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had been 20. “Every generation takes things to a certain point, and then someone else does. I’m eager to think about that next generation. What are they doing that I haven’t seen?”

In “Art in the Family,” the autobiographical essay that opens EyeMinded, Jones evokes a childhood “lived in worlds different but exciting, full of things to learn, understand, enjoy, dance and listen to, see and live for,” and describes how it shaped an understanding of “life as fun but life as a mission.” And the mission, as she has pursued it all these years? “To write oneself back into history, as a continual action, as a responsibility not just to oneself but also to community.”

EyeMinded includes a photo of Jones at age 10, taken in the Paula Cooper Gallery in Manhattan—a light-skinned black girl with an Afro and knitted poncho. She wears a look that could be read as one of quiet confidence, with a touch of insouciance. It is a lovely image of childhood freedom. I asked if she remembered that day, and she said not specifically, but she recalled that kind of day—days spent with one or another of her parents, running in and out of galleries and museums. She treasures that ease and its significance, both then and now, for a young African-American—“my comfort with those spaces, that I owned them as a person, as a human.”

Her exhibitions are mass happenings. Forty thousand people came in the last weekend of her show on Basquiat, and 75,000 visited her show on 1960s art and civil rights.

Her adult life has made her aware how alien and even intimidating the art world is to many. “When I teach intro art classes, and we have museum visits, there are always students who ask, ‘What do we wear?’ Because they’re not familiar with that space. In that picture I’m wearing a poncho that my mother or my babysitter made me. I’m skipping through there. It’s like, Yeah, this is my space!’”

Art, memory, history. To write oneself back into it, as a person, as a class of persons. To own a cultural space. Jones has thought a lot about the perils of writing and publishing in a world where “people can easily discount your voice.” That’s why it was important to forge ahead. “I wanted to prove,” she has said of EyeMinded, “that no matter what you think about what I write, I have been there. My book is evidence of that.”

Jones has dedicated her career to enriching and emboldening American culture by extending its boundaries. She has done so speaking in her own voice, but also on behalf of the black artist, black cowboy, black citizen, black slave—all the generations of black and brown people, undoing their mass erasure and restoring to them that fundamental statement of presence: I was there. The girl in the photo, grown up, looking beyond the frame toward what was kept out of the picture and out of the story, and bringing it back in, through a career of sharply focused seeing and saying. It seems to be what she was intended for. “There were early signs,” her mother writes, “that she had the kind of eyes necessary to accomplish what she has done.”

The task of emboldening American culture has its funny side, too. Lisa Jones tells a story about Kellie one afternoon a few years ago, dressing in what her husband calls her “saucy-kitten” outfit—high boots, purple coat, zebra-print scarf—and heading out to teach her Western art-history survey course at Columbia. As Lisa tells it, she teased her sister, “You’re dressing like that?” —only to have Kellie “turn around slowly so I can get a better look, as if to say, ‘This is the canon, baby!’”