Tara McDowell’s The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess
A look at the radical domesticity of the artistic duo’s lives and art.
The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess
(MIT Press, 2019)
In the history of radical acts, propositions that once seemed boldly transgressive or bravely subversive may today read as conservative, or as falling on the subdued side of recuperating tradition. Tara McDowell observes just this about the marriage vows exchanged by poet Robert Duncan and the artist Jess in 1951 in San Francisco, cautioning the reader to appreciate how far the two had ventured outside of what society permitted them as gay men and a homosexual couple living together at the time. Duncan, for his part, did not shy away from the political statement he could make by living his life truthfully, obtaining a discharge from the draft for his homosexuality in 1941 and then declaring it again in the landmark 1944 essay “The Homosexual in Society.” As McDowell tells us in The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess, a rich study of the couple’s life and work, the two established a household at 1724 Baker Street soon after their vows and celebrated this new home with a party doubling as an opening reception for an exhibition of paintings by Lyn Brown Brockway installed in the house.
McDowell enters into this household—a term for the creative, domestic space that she also uses as a byword for the couple’s romantic-artistic relationship as they moved from house to house and city to city—to observe how it offered an alternative queer domestic model to the traditional one that dominated American life in the 1950s and how, in turn, it gave the couple a space and model for making their art. After travels in Europe and a stay at Black Mountain College, the couple settled for good in San Francisco, in a Victorian home built in the 1890s that Duncan purchased in 1967, and where they lived until Duncan and Jess’s deaths in 1988 and 2004. The decor and the couple’s use of the rooms and spaces made their house, in McDowell’s words, “the physical manifestation of the household, that imaginary site that was also carefully formed and maintained.”
Duncan and Jess transformed the benignly bourgeois domestic space into a political one with their appropriation of (not always monogamous) marriage and made that newly imagined domesticity the grounds for the work of artistic creation. In one of the rooms, dubbed the Gertrude Stein Room, a roll-up window blind depicted the images of Stein and Alice B. Toklas as kitschified queer icons. Another room held all the French-language books in their library. The second floor housed Jess’s studio, packed with archived ephemera that he would draw on for his collages and paintings; Duncan’s office occupied the third floor. Jess’s portrait of Duncan, The Enamord Mage (1965), the sixth painting in the artist’s “Translation” series, shows Duncan in their home with a variety of household objects—a hanging stained glass light fixture, a candlestick sculpted in the form of an angel, a small collection of mystical texts including volumes of the Zohar—with a rich, earthy palette that heightens the packed density of the scene and the image’s shallow construction of space. The collection of objects was essential to the notion of this household, allowing the mystically and mythically inclined couple to create their own myth and romance that aligned their domestic collection with the strategies of collecting and collaging images and text in their artwork.
After laying out the terms of the “queer interior” of Duncan and Jess’s household, McDowell mines their only collaborative artwork, Caesar’s Gate (first edition 1955; composed in stages 1949–72), for what it reveals by extension of how they maintained the created space of the household. McDowell conceives of the couple’s approach to the household through a series of spatial and architectural metaphors. Composed during a stay in Majorca, Caesar’s Gate is comprised of poems by Duncan and “paste-ups” Jess made in reaction using images collaged together from Life magazine advertisements and editorials, followed by additional poems by Duncan in a later edition as a reaction to Jess’s images. Duncan’s original poems, which the poet considered juvenilia, capture a kind of dreamlike, sleepless agony that he retrospectively saw as necessary to overcome in order to create the loving household with Jess, calling the “desolation and grandeur” of this earlier period in his life a “dream landscape of a homosexual projection.” In keeping with the inflections of a surrealist photomontage tradition, Jess’s images rely on topsy-turvy depictions of space and human forms cum hybrid cyborg or statuesque figures. In a collage accompanying Duncan’s “Sunday” (one of Duncan’s poems written after Jess’s collage), John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, sits at a worktable in his office, his head replaced by a totemic bust, holding a collaged umbrella. McDowell describes this specific collaborative moment in the history of Duncan and Jess’s careers as a gate opening onto the “fields” of their later works, explicitly for Duncan within the open field of mid-century poetics, or what he called the “made place” of the poem in “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” (1960). It is this conception of a “made place,” arrived at after struggling through the desolate grandeur of their younger lives, that grants to both Duncan and Jess the permission of artistic creation that mirrors, in Duncan’s poetics, the conception of the couple’s household.
In the book’s final chapter, McDowell returns to the political to place the couple’s individual and shared drives to create new mythologies and lineages in the context of the atomic age. Jess had worked on the Manhattan Project as a young scientist, and images of the nuclear threat and apocalypse recur in work by the two throughout the Vietnam War period. McDowell connects the appropriation of images and language in works by the two from this period to the collector, a domestic figure par excellence, already imagined in the Enamord Mage painting, who houses the collection in the made place of the household. In McDowell’s reading, Jess operated in a mode of salvaging, or in a related spatial metaphor “congealing,” these images into his art, while Duncan relied on a mode of witnessing, or “spreading,” appropriated voices into the field of his poems. The term associated with Jess takes subtle precedence in McDowell’s description as she concludes that the couple both salvaged materials to refashion them into a vision of a new world. In doing so, McDowell writes, “Duncan and Jess, each in his own way, confront the difficult question of how to unprofane homosexuality, how to make the balance of joy and fear a positive, productive driver of eros, as opposed to a frighteningly fragile dream of freedom.” Amidst the instability of the 20th century, the household fashioned ahead of its time by the couple grants the stability to live and to create.