JOSEPH “JOE” JONES (1909–1963)
Oil on Masonite, 48 1/8 x 72 1/8 in.
Signed and dated: (at center right): Joe Jones / x24 [illeg.] Ano / 1934
RECORDED: Edward Alden Jewell, “EX-HOUSE PAINTER IN ART SHOW HERE: Canvasses by Joe Jones of St. Louis Reveal Genuineness of His Esthetic Response: ‘The New Deal’ A Subject: A Refreshing originality Marks Self-Taught Artist’s Work at the A. C. A. Gallery”, New York Times, May 22, 1935, p. 17 // Stephen Alexander, “Art: Joe Jones” New Masses, May 28, 1935, p. 9 // Lewis Mumford, “The Art Galleries: In Capitulation,” New Yorker, June 1, 1935, p. 74 // “Housepainter,” Time Magazine, June 3, 1935, p. 33 // Archibald MacLeish, "U.S. Art: 1935," Fortune XII, December 1935, p. 69 // Andrew Walker, ed., Joe Jones: Radical Painter of the American Scene, exhib. cat., (St. Louis: St. Louis Art Museum, 2011), p. 47 // Francis Booth, Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926–1939 (self-published, 2012), p. 125 illus. as “We Demand” [sic]
EXHIBITED: A.C.A Gallery, New York, May 19–June 1, 1935, Joe Jones // (possibly) A.C.A. Gallery, New York, July 14–August 31, 1935, Joe Jones
EX COLL.: the artist; private collection, until the present
Demonstration is a product of a brilliant but limited period in Jones’s early career: between the time he found Communism in the summer of 1933 and his turn to more regionalist subjects in mid-1935. These were the pictures exhibited in the first A.C.A. Gallery show, politically engaged and reflecting the positions of the American Communist Party. The closer look at the iconography of Demonstration reveals some of these. In the left foreground a poster with the familiar logo of the blue eagle, the symbol of the National Recovery Act (the original NRA) is posted to the front of a roofless abandoned worker’s home. Inside is a crude table and chair abandoned together with the remnant of a simple meal. The poster carries the slogan, bitterly ironic under the circumstances, “We Do Our Part.” In 1934, the Communist Party opposed New Deal programs, regarding them as band-aid attempts to shore up capitalism while giving government overreaching power over people tending toward fascism. (If that seems counter-intuitive now, it is worth remembering that the Nazi Party in Germany was officially named the National Socialist German Workers Party.) The NRA had the strong support of St. Louis’s municipal government, which had sponsored, in August of 1933, a massive parade through downtown St. Louis in support of the program, with the mayor leading on a chestnut horse and participation by business, civic, and military organizations. The streets were lined with spectators. Jones’s demonstration is different. The marchers carry banners urging “Workers of the World Unite,” “Fascism Means Hunger,” “Don’t Starve. Fight, and “Smash the War Makers.” This last, in 1934, also seems curious. The explanation lies in the fact that from 1929 until 1935, the Communist Party line reflected the Soviet Union fears that capitalist and fascist governments were arming to invade Russia and undo the Revolution. Given the foreign policy of the major powers in the 1920s, this was not an unreasonable fear. By 1935, however, the Russians realized that the enemy was more precisely German fascism and not the social democrats in Europe and America.
The pitiful group of hungry garbage foragers in the right foreground were also revisited in another Jones painting, also in the 1935 A.C.A. show called Garbage Eaters (now lost). At the center left, workers lean out of what appears to be factory windows, raising their fists in solidarity with the demonstrators. The moral is clear. Foraging through trash for food scraps is the alternative to seizing the initiative and demonstrating. A water tower just visible at the top right shows the letters “STEN.” This is a reference to the successful communist-led strike at the Funsten Nut Company in May 1933. That strike resulted in a stirring victory for the workers, largely African American women. The background landscape of Demonstration sketches in the chief characteristics of countryside beyond St. Louis. Corn and wheat fields and forest stretch into the distance, punctuated by farm buildings and a lone factory.
Demonstration is a picture that could only have painted in a brief window of historical time. Although Joe Jones left Herman Baron’s A.C.A Gallery for Associated American Artists (AAA) around 1942, Baron continued to consider him a friend and protégé. As with many artists, writers, and intellectuals of the 1930s who traveled in the Communist sphere, Jones gradually moved away from its ideology. By 1938, he told Joe Selby of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “My active political life is almost negligible” (“Joe Jones, Who Began as House Painter, Hailed as Promising Artist,” September 11, 1938). If there is a sharp edge to Herman Baron's observation about Jones’s aspirations for social acceptance, there is also more than a dollop of truth. Jones enjoyed early renown and success both for his social art and for his regionalist images. He embraced his Midwest identity and, like Thomas Hart Benton, enjoyed a successful career as a muralist, painting post office walls, and later, American Export Line cruise ship dining rooms. If Freda was the rabble-rousing wife of Jones’s youth, his second wife, Grace Adams Mallinckrodt, was very much the companion of his maturity. When Jones’s later career moved in the direction of magazine illustration, his work became a mainstay of conservative Luce publications like Time and Life. This was a world away from Jones’s use of fine art as polemic in paintings like Demonstration and others, which catapulted him to the forefront of the New York art scene in 1935.