Tibor de Nagy Gallery, May 22 – July 31, 2008
Jess (1923-2004) was twenty-five when he decided to become an artist, and felt, as he would later say, that he had come to art too late to learn how to draw. As
he put it:
“I didn’t start out as a child or young man to develop skills with the hand and eye. When I was twenty-eight and becoming an artist, I no longer had the ability to learn these things. What my mind wanted to see happen would require skills I could not possibly use. Therefore, I had to use images that had already been made for me.”
His response to what he considered a deficiency in his own ability was an ingenious redefining of collage; and it runs through his paintings, paste-ups, and drawings, particularly the final version of “Narkissos” (1991), which was done as preparation for a painting he never began. Jess was under considerable internal pressure to force the hand to catch up with the mind and eye. In 1948, when he was working on plutonium production at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Washington, he had a devastating and guilt-producing “dream” in which he envisioned the earth being destroyed by nuclear weapons in the year 1975. Shortly afterwards he changed his name from Burgess Collins to Jess, and enrolled at the California School of Arts, where he studied with Clyfford Still, Edward Corbett, and Hassell Smith, all of whom were committed to abstraction and spontaneous gesture.
In 1949, Jess met the poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988), who was infamous (or famous) for his 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society,” and they began a lifelong relationship, exchanging vows on New Year’s Day in 1951. It was Duncan who gave Jess a copy of Max Ernst’s seminal collage book, Une semaine de bonté (1934), which influenced his approach to both methods (“paste-up” is his word for collage) and materials (the use of found images). However, in contrast to Ernst, who basically added a few elements to a pre-existing coherent pictorial image, Jess used literally hundreds (and even thousands) of images to make a dense visual concoction, what he called a “flux-image,” that hints at but never becomes a unified pictorial space. He atomized his materials, exploding them into thousands of discrete pieces that he patiently joined together in a swirling world of multiple perspectives, associations, and mise-en-scénes. There are apocalyptic premonitions running throughout his paste-ups of the Fifties and Sixties, a sense the world is detonating and the pieces are about to fly apart. But instead of trying to keep up with a world increasingly addicted to speed, he slowed everything down to a snail’s pace.
This exhibition—his first in New York since 1994, when a large selection of his work was at the Whitney Museum of American Art—included paintings and paste-ups from all periods in Jess’s career, starting with a paste-up from 1952-53 and concluding with one made in 1993. The majority of the other works was done between 1954 and ’64, including examples from his three series of paintings, Imaginary Portraits, Translations, and Salvages. It is in the Translations—which Jess worked on from 1959 to ’76—that he defined his project as a “self initiatory quest” into the realm of painting, where the imagination and the real could be transformed and united. By embarking on this quest, Jess acknowledges that he is a Romantic artist who explicitly rejects the rational as well as all models of progress, particularly when applied to art. He didn’t want to deny his feeling for Odilon Redon. Richard Dadd, Edward Lear, and the Pre-Raphaelites. At the same time, he rejects the “I” or egocentric gesture. He is a conduit, and this understanding of the artist becomes evident in his Translations, all of which were derived from black-and-white reproductions of photographs, engravings, Egyptian wall paintings, illustrated books and letters, and cartoons.
In the paintings previous to the Translations, and this includes Imaginary Portraits, Jess reveals himself to be an awkward painter who seems to be holding the paintbrush with a baseball glove. One has only to compare A Meeting ground: Imaginary Portrait #11: Chester Vielalba and Robert Steinberg (1954) to Ex. 1 – Laying a Standard: Translation #1 (1959) to grasp what Jess did to overcome his ineptitude. In the earlier painting, there is loose brushwork and an attempt to draw in paint. In the later painting, which was derived from an illustration in a science magazine, Jess applies paint as if it were bits of clay to clearly defined areas, which he delineated in advance, possibly with the help of a projector. There is no attempt to blend or mix the paint, a feature the Translations share with “paint by numbers” kits. The difference is in the color and the insistent physicality of his topographical surfaces. Jess has slowed down the speed of spontaneous gesture. As in mosaics, he fills in areas section by section. As the title of the first Translation tells us, he is establishing a standard that he must continue to fulfill in order to complete his quest. The first paintings in the series are of scientific instruments (recalling his work on nuclear fission), which he recontextualizes through color, focus, and materiality, so that they become things you imagine finding in an alchemist’s laboratory. The crusty roughness of the paint’s surface and its sudden shifts in tonality and color are mesmerizing and strange. It’s as if the oil paint’s suddenly become a material vision, while, at the same time, transforming the sight into a rough, craggy substance.
Originally, Jess conceived of the Translations as consisting of twenty-six paintings. In each painting, he either used a source that combined image and text, such as George Herriman’s comic strips and John Uri Lloyd’s Etidorpha (1895), a strange occult novel with illustrations by J. Augustus Knapp, or he combined images with found text from Plato and Homer to Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. Like Duncan, he was keenly interested in the mythopoeic—the production of myths—and wherever they might be found, from Homer and Dante to the long running television soap, Dark Shadows, and the fifty-five novels of L. Frank Baum, best known as the author of The Wizard of Oz. Eventually, there were thirty-two Translations, each of which was a test of his abilities and imagination to translate the given into a painting (a hallucination). The viewer has only to read the illustrated letter that is the source of In Praise Of Sir Edward: Translation # 7 (1965), to sense how much he was haunted by what he felt were his deficits: “given up drawing—I cannot learn…” At the bottom of the painting, “I am certain I shall never…”
The Translations enabled Jess to return to his first love, Romantic painting and its fairytale innocence, and to incorporate collage into his process. Done on top of his own earlier paintings, as well as ones he bought in junk shops, Salvages (which he started around the time he finished the Translations) are, as their collective title tells us, the saving of damaged or rejected materials, both the actual painting and the imagery laid over it. The surface of the found or recycled painting became the springboard for the artist’s associative powers to bring together disparate images, which he painstakingly copied in paint.
In 1984, Jess effectively stopped painting to take care of Robert Duncan who had suffered kidney failure and required constant care until he died. The last time I saw Jess was in the mid 1990s. He showed me an unfinished painting, which was derived from a photograph of men who had worked on the transcontinental railroad. They were holding up a sign, “Go No Further.” Jess said he was going to listen to that message.
Rather than becoming a careerist who wanted to be recognized by mainstream culture, Jess became part of a “coterie” of artists and poets in the Bay area. This is what he has in common with the poet Frank O’ Hara. More importantly, his reinvention of collage, his refusal to become fashionably modernist, and his determination to articulate a non-rational, alternative worldview of our ongoing madness anticipates the work of Justine Kurland, Hillary Harkness, and Amy Cutler. Duncan was right when he said that what Jess loved most was “the truth of nonsense.” That’s a place mainstream culture is not likely to ever want to go to, much less visit for very long. All of these views can become a distraction, however, a road to complacent self-congratulation for those claiming to not care about the mainstream. It is as a painter that Jess should be known and celebrated, not as a collagist, illustrator of poetry books and literary magazines, author of a handful of poems, hermetic figure, or a member of a coterie. For although his oeuvre—I am thinking of the Translations and Salvages—probably consists of less than seventy-five paintings, they suggest how much can be done, and has yet to be done, in paint.