Ronald Jones (1952–2019)

Ronald Jones. Photo: Royal College of Art, London.

HOW WILL ANYONE fill the void Ronald Jones leaves behind? The spaces he created could only be inhabited by him. Ron was an interdisciplinary experimentalist, a perverse conceptualist, a virtuoso educator. He was the most charming of mythomaniacs and a quintessential American who spent almost two decades in Europe, primarily in Stockholm and London.

It was in New York in the late 1980s, however, that he gained prominence as an artist. In those days he was the “self-styled mayor of SoHo,” as one of his best friends put it, surrounded by admirers and closely connected to some of the best galleries. He gave rise to a new kind of discursive sculpture and a detached, highly intellectual mode of political art, employing reduced forms to explore historical processes. There is always an extreme tension between form and content in his work, and those who knew to dig below the beauty and elegance of his sculptures could expect to regularly confront death, pain, and human evil within. A series of amorphic, Brancusi-like bronzes from 1988, poised on classical wooden pedestals, in fact depict magnified cancer cells and the AIDS virus, and a classical paradise garden he installed in Germany in 2000, it turns out, was modeled on a garden near an Auschwitz crematorium that was first imaged by the Air Force division Jones’s father served in. He modeled a Minimalist-looking wooden relief after the floor plan of a South African police cell, where the well-known anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko was beaten to death. The work, with the typically lengthy title Untitled (Interrogation Room used for the detention of Stephen Biko from September sixth through the eighth, 1977. Room 619 of the Sanlan Building, Security Police Headquarters, Strand Street, Port Elizabeth, Cape Province, South Africa), 1987–88, is now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Ron’s Swedish adventure began the next year, with a show in 1989 at Magasin III Museum and Foundation for Contemporary Art, an institution to which he remained close over the years. Soon he was everywhere in the Swedish art world, teaching, lecturing, curating, and writing about the local scene for international magazines, including this one. In 1998, he organized what many remember as his wildest exhibition, “The Dark Side of the Moon,” in which a moon rock from NASA was juxtaposed with notes and art by visionaries such as Emanuel Swedenborg, August Strindberg, and Hilma af Klint. Ron was one of the very first champions of af Klint’s work—long before today’s ubiquitous excitement, he organized a séance, led by a well-known medium, to get in touch with the late mystic’s soul.

As a curator, Ron meticulously researched his artworks and stayed close to the facts, so close that while little space was left for fiction and fantasy in his work, in life and conversation he seemed to give in to the urge to leave realism for imaginary heights. He could be incredibly entertaining, and there was no limit to what he thought he could get away with. Did Ron really go hang gliding in the Rockies, as he often relayed? Was he once a member of the US Olympic swimming team? What was his true relationship to the CIA? We will never know for sure, but it makes no big difference now—what we remember is the laughter his tales produced. Thank you, Ron. It was such a joy!

Daniel Birnbaum is director of Acute Art and a contributing editor of Artforum.

David Neuman is chairman of Magasin III Museum and Foundation for Contemporary Art.