Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Joe (Joseph John) Jones was a painter, illustrator, & lithographer. Self taught, he quit school at age fifteen to work as a house painter with his father. This blog will contain only the artist's activist, Depression era paintings, and once again, the blog format allows little room for the depictions of murals, I am sorry for that limitation.
Winning his first award in 1931, Jones gained the attention of local St. Louis patrons who financed his travel to the artists' colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He began winning awards at age 22 in 1931, with his early paintings which are typical Midwestern Regionalist works of farmers & fields.
His paintings run the gamut from strong social protest to sheer exuberant beauty, & the wheat fields of the Midwest stirred his passions as much as striking workers in the height of the Depression.
A 1930s political activist, Jones organized art classes for unemployed youngsters, which he held in the old St. Louis courthouse in 1934. He alienated his local supporters by announcing that he had joined the Communist Party, so Jones signed up for the Public Works of Art Project in 1934.
When St. Louis grew uncomfortable for him in 1935, he left to pursue his art career in New York. In 1935, he held his first exhibition in New York, which was acclaimed by poet & critic Archibald Macleish: "There is more scope, more vitality, & more promise as well as more mastery, than most artists a decade his senior."
In 1937, he was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship to create a pictorial record of conditions in the dust bowl. That same year, his work was included in a major exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, PA.
In 1937, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had acquired at least one Joe Jones paintng as part of 85 paintings of living American artists. In 1938, Jones was included in Maryland's first exhibition of "Labor in Art" at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Through the period of the WPA, Jones was awarded 5 major mural commissions. As a result, he created murals for the post offices at Seneca, Kansas, Men & Wheat (1940); Anthony, Kansas, Turning a Corner (1939); Hutchinson, Kansas; Magnolia, Arkansas; & Charleston, Missouri.
During World War II, Jones worked as a war artist for Life magazine. Because Jones addressed major political & social issues in so many of his paintings, he is often called a Social Realist as well as a Regionalist. His style changed in the late 1940s, to minimal & non-representational.
By 1951, for a new show in New York, TIME was reporting the "angry man calms down." The paintings on exhibit showed "delicately colored, wiry-lined pictures of beaches, towns, & harbors... without a park of sorrow or anger in them."
Jones, 42 years old, did not want to "sit on top of a reputation," had lost interest in Communism, & removed "class war" from his paintings. He became interested in delicate lines & low-toned colors, a reaction against "the preoccupation with light & shade that has victimized Western art since the Renaissance." By this time, he saw paintings as "space, not objects" & sought humanism not in subject but "of the line."
Jones was living in Morristown, New Jersey, at the time of this show. He worked as an instructor at St. Bernards School for Boys, Ralston, NJ, while painting commissions in his "softer Japanese-like style" for Standard Oil of New Jersey as well as magazine covers for TIME. Jones died in 1963, at the age of 54 of a heart attack in Morristown.