Kellie Jones

Left: Cover of Kellie Jones’s EyeMinded (2011). Right: Kellie Jones (foreground) and Lisa Jones in an exhibition by Ed Ruda at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 1969.

Kellie Jones is an associate professor in the art history department at Columbia University. Her book EyeMinded: Living And Writing Contemporary Art, was recently published by Duke University Press and offers a selection of her essays and art writing from 1985–2006. In addition to an introduction in which Jones recounts growing up around artists and art on the Lower East Side, EyeMinded includes commissioned texts from Jones’s parents—poets Amiri Baraka and Hettie Jones—her sister, Lisa Jones, and her husband, Guthrie Ramsey. Kellie Jones is also the curator of “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980,” which will open at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in October 2011.

THE TITLE EYEMINDED comes from a Martin Puryear essay I wrote. It was a word I discovered that means visual thinking, and I thought, “Yeah, that kind of describes the whole project.” Actually my mother was the one who helped me with its subtitle—“Living and Writing Contemporary Art”—the gerund form making things exciting, keeping everything in the present.

I wanted EyeMinded to show that academic routes aren’t the only way to understand art: what it means to you, what artists are doing. It wasn’t by accident that I ended up in my field. Art was everywhere during my childhood, and that gave me a really unique perspective. As I see it, one can grow up appreciating and understanding art without the trappings of art history.

Just as important, the spaces I describe were much more diverse than history tends to tell us. There are people, Americans, who grew up part of a world—the New York art world in the 1960s and ’70s, the world that we write about now—who are nonetheless usually erased from these histories. That has to do with why I love a photo you can find in my book, a photo of my sister and me—these African-American kids—running around in Paula Cooper Gallery.

But even taking race and gender out of the equation, I just wanted to represent as a curator. I realized that no one ever writes about the curators; it’s as if shows just spring up on their own. When people talk about, say, Puryear and his appearance at the São Paulo Bienal, do they say who curated it? (Me!) Sometimes it seems like the only curators you ever really hear about historically are Walter Hopps and Harald Szeemann.

In this book, my essays are framed by pieces written by my father, mother, sister, and husband. At first they couldn’t understand why I wanted them to be part of it. They said, “You have all that writing, why do you need ours?” And I said to them, “Essays are essays. But being able to include the frame of your perspective—that’s really part of why I did the book.”

My family appears in many books—including their own. Both of my parents have written their memoirs, and they’d always said, “You’re next!” Growing up, my sister and I were always aware of being in the public eye. We had the sense that there’s a public life, and then there’s a private life that you don’t share. My husband was the one who really helped me see that people will interpret your life anyway, so you might as well take control of that process. At the same time, people can so easily discount your voice, or take you to task for your writing. So I guess I wanted to prove that, no matter what you think about what I write, I have been there. My book is evidence of that.