Joe Jones is a common name, appropriate for an artist who spent his career championing the common man and woman. Joe Jones: Painter of the American Scene, on view Oct. 10 through Jan. 2 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, investigates how Jones’ work was influenced by his time in St. Louis, his passionate commitment to social causes and his staunch identification with the working class. Four years in the making, the show is curated by Andrew Walker, assistant director for curatorial affairs and curator of American art, and Janeen Turk, senior curatorial assistant.
“Jones achieved national acclaim in the 1930s for paintings that exposed the heart of the American struggle during the Great Depression—urban and rural, black and white, rich and poor,” Walker says. “Our show is the first retrospective exhibition devoted to his role as an American artist and social critic. We’ve also been able to recover and restore lesser-known works that show the range and quality of his work.”
Born in 1909, Jones worked during a time of economic and social strife not unlike today. “The show relates to what’s going on in our society since the economic downturn, but we didn’t know that when we started putting it together,” Walker says. “We focus on the defining years of his career, 1930 to 1942, when he emerged as a major artist.” The exhibition features more than 80 paintings, mural studies, drawing and prints from both public and private collections, including that of the Jones family.
Jones, who kept a studio here even after he moved to New York in 1937, came from working class roots. “He lived a lot of places around town, including the Greater Ville neighborhood and a houseboat on the river,” Turk says. “St. Louis embraced him—in fact, a local arts patron helped him get his first show in New York.” Adds Walker, “He debated the great issues of the day with the bohemian crowd at the Blue Lantern Inn on Washington Avenue—artists, writers, activists and wealthy liberals who supported social causes. His radicalism blossomed, and he joined the Communist Party in 1933.”
Familiar St. Louis sights, including Forest Park and the Mississippi River, inspired many of Jones’ early landscapes. “He started as a modernist, but developed into a social realist as his political fervor increased,” Turk explains. Highlights of the exhibit include St. Louis Riverfront, an early work that shows the Eads Bridge; Struggle in the South, a restored mural segment that depicts lynching; and Our American Farm, one of many works depicting the aftermath of the Dust Bowl storms that ravaged the prairies during the ‘30s.
In the late ‘30s, Jones produced many murals of Midwestern harvests. “But these works aren’t dreamy and idealized—they reveal his intense interest in and solidarity with the laborers,” Turk says. “In Threshing No. 1, which shows a wheat harvest in St. Charles, a worker clenches his fist amid the abundance. Though his work never degenerated into mere propaganda, he always promoted the cause of an empowered, racially integrated proletariat,” Walker says.
The exhibition coincides with the first American Arts Experience—St. Louis, through Oct. 17, a series of area-wide shows by renowned American artists and performers. “Jones has earned his place among the most important American artists,” Walker says, “and we’re pleased to bring into the light a painter who has been too long in the shadows.”