BY Jörg Heiser in Profiles | 16 AUG 19

The World of Ronald Jones (1952–2019): His Most Original Writing for frieze

For the artist, critic and teacher, who died last week at the age of 67, every ordinary thing held meaning in disguise

BY Jörg Heiser in Profiles | 16 AUG 19

Portrait: Ronald Jones. Courtesy: Royal College of Art, London

The first time I met Ronald Jones was in 1999. He had just arrived in Stockholm, Sweden, to start his residency at IASPIS studio programme. It was immediately clear he was not your textbook contemporary artist: simultaneously, and in equal measures (if there can be equality amongst concurrently pursued passions) he was a critic, writer, teacher, design theoretician and self-professed interdisciplinarian. Later, he would lead The Experience Design Group at Stockholm’s Konstfack. He also taught at numerous other art schools and universities (including Columbia, Harvard, Pasadena Art Center, Yale, University of Paris). Until his passing last Friday at the age of 67, he was Senior Tutor in Service Design at London’s Royal College of Art.

I had first come across Ronald Jones the writer in the late 1980s, early 1990s, in the pages of artscribe, and Wolkenkratzer, two art magazines that eventually folded. How wonderful that our first Stockholm encounter would soon lead to me having the pleasure of working with him on his frequent contributions to this magazine in the following years (Jones’ writing appeared in frieze from the mid-1990s up until his last article, in 2018; he also wrote for other major publications, including Artforum and Art and America).

The son of a US Air Force officer, Ron was, as many ‘army brats’ are, used to a vagabond style of living. He rebelled as much against discipline – in both senses of the word – as he was able to muster it when necessary. With his hornrims and slicked back hair, he had the air of an architect, yet as soon as he joined or started a conversation, any cliché of reserve associated with that profession gave way to the delighted giggles of a science whizz kid, or the enthusiasm of a captain at sea telling their favourite yarn.

Ronald Jones, Cosmic Garden, 2000. Courtesy: Bildarchiv Hamburg

The first thing he did at his Stockholm studio was to set up a Märklin model railway. That is not to say he wasn’t serious about what he did. In fact he could quickly persuade you that a model railway, for instance, had a way of enhancing your perception and cognition. Through his eyes, it certainly did. Maybe this was one of his fundamental philosophies: art, technology, culture and politics are spheres in which the most ordinary things should be observed, and talked about, as if they were radically alien findings from outer space – but not to deny their ordinariness and effect on real life, but on the contrary, to fully grasp that effect.

Ron’s conceptual artworks exemplified that approach of unravelling the untold, unheard-of story behind the seemingly conventional (art) object. This took effect with shocking clarity when I encountered a public art commission he realized in Hamburg, Germany, in 2000. His Cosmic Garden (2000), a small park situated between Hamburg’s main station and the city’s Arts and Craft Museum, was following a precise baroque pattern – based on aerial photographs taken in August 1944, showing exactly such a garden situated in front of the crematorium of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The photos had been taken by the very Air Force division in which Jones’s father served.

Ronald Jones and David Hammons, ‘Enemy of the Stars’, 2017, exhibition view, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Courtesy: the artists and KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin

In 2017, Ron’s work as a conceptual artist was honoured in the form of an exhibition at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, curated by artist Jason Dodge (who had studied with Jones) and Krist Gruijthuijsen (KW’s director). The show was an eye-opener for anyone who thought they knew the kind of (neo-)conceptual art practice that involves objects that at first seem purely opaque or banal or both, yet – through a title, description or textual element – become decoded and charged with meaning (think of the work of Cerith Wyn Evans, Danh Vo, or Nina Beier). One might associate this approach with art from the 1990s and after, but the exhibition showed that, in fact, Ron had perfected this approach in the 1980s. A series of sculptures from 1988, for example, look at first like variations on the well-known aesthetics of early modernist sculpture in the vein of Hans Arp or Constantin Brâncuși, with amorphic bronzes placed on wooden pedestal elements. But a title description in brackets – Untitled (DNA Fragment from Human Chromosome 13 carrying Mutant Rb Genes also known as Malignant Oncogenes which trigger rapid Cancer Tumorigenesis) – reveals the form to be the magnified representation of cells related to cancer. Another work does something similar in relation to the HIV virus.

Now you might take this, and possibly the Cosmic Garden as well, as a form of frivolous fascination with misery and atrocity. Yet this was exactly Ron’s question to himself and to the viewer: what is it exactly that camouflages the abysses of history and humankind in our everyday lives? Not surprisingly, this and related questions are central motifs in his art-critical writing, as the following small selection from his pieces published in frieze makes clear.

Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz, Mahnmal gegen Faschismus (Monument against Facism), 1986 - 93. Steel column with lead coating, 12 x 1 x 1 m. Courtesy: the artists

  • Ronald Jones on ‘Dark Tourism’, first published in Issue 129 (March 2010): ‘As medieval pilgrims once visited shrines to religious martyrs, today dark tourism is the invitation to explore sites of suffering and death perhaps out of a mix of reverence and voyeurism.’
  • In this thinkpiece on artists that have put processes of ‘dying’ on display, from July 2008, Jones includes the following hilarious passage: ‘The art world has not travelled far from the point when Robert Morris closed his 1970 solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art to protest the Vietnam War. Imagine the scene. In the Oval Office Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman delicately approaches Richard Nixon:

Haldeman: Mr. President, more bad news. Robert Morris has just closed his exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art to protest the war.
Nixon: Morris is a son-of-a-bitch. I don’t need this now. What are our contingency plans? We knew this was a possibility. Is there any chance he’ll reconsider and re-open the exhibition? Get him on the phone!
Haldeman: I knew you would want to talk with him. He’s on line two Mr. President.’

Robert Pincus-Witten by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, New York, 1981. Courtesy: the photographer and Wetterling Gallery, Stockholm

  • In this obituary published on 2 February 2018, Jones paid tribute to his colleague and friend, the American critic, art historian and teacher Robert Pincus-Witten.
  • This piece from January 2009 starts with the following sentence: ‘In 1981 the art critic Robert Pincus-Witten differentiated for the first time between two kinds of Conceptual art: between what he called ontological Conceptualism and epistemological Conceptualism.’ Further down, Jones writes: ‘The customization of epistemological Conceptualism represents the most significant paradigm shift in living memory, as design professions migrate from myopic design assignments – design me a toaster – towards conceiving the intangible commodities that feed the experience economy – design me a system.’
  • Among Jones’s core fields of expertise were ‘systems thinking’ and ‘experience design’. In this thinkpiece, published in May 2011, he traces how the US Army has been adopting design methods stemming from the creative disciplines: ‘... change emanates not from things, but from the way things are done. It remains to be asked: what for?’

Scientists from RAND meeting to discuss post-nuclear strategy at the house of Albert Wohlstetter (centre foreground), 1958. Courtesy: Time & Life Pictures/ Getty Images; photograph: Leonard McCombe. 

  • With Jones, an exhibition review never really was ‘just’ a review but a thinkpiece or short essay in disguise. This is an example from September 1996, taking the exhibition ‘Hautes Coutures’ as a cue to think about the strange, fraught relationship between couturiers and artists.
  • Or take this review from June 2003, which opens with the following sentence: ‘The evening that Tony Matelli’s recent show “Total Torpor” opened, the United States Air Force dropped its first 4,500-pound GBU-37 bomb, the so-called ‘bunker-buster’, on a Baghdad target.’
  • And finally, another piece that goes to the core of Jones’s convictions, passions and, not least, research: an assessment, in May 2009, of the basic conundrums of the then-recent trend of ‘artistic research’ or ‘practice-based research’, containing many observations and thoughts that today, ten years on, still ring relevant, and true.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.