Ben Lerner on Jess: “A romantic faith in the power of the imagination”

News Section, Reviews

June 25th, 2013

 

(Review) O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica

ART IN AMERICA

Cut-Up Artist

BEN LERNER

Originally published December 2012

 

THE ARTIST KNOWN SIMPLY as “Jess” simultaneously abandoned his scientific career (he had played a small role in the Manhattan Project) and his surname in 1949, when he enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Shortly thereafter he met the poet Robert Duncan, who became his lifelong partner, and with whom he shared both a romantic faith in the powers of the imagination and a commitment to the possibilities of a collage esthetic.

Siglio Press’s beautiful O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica, assembled long after the artist’s 2004 death by Michael Duncan, art critic, curator and Art in America’s corresponding editor from Los Angeles—who also contributes an introductory essay—is a wonderful publication, both because it presents some of the artist’s most rarely seen work and because Jess’s art involves an ongoing investigation of textuality. His text-heavy collages, concrete poems and détourné comic strips blur the boundary between reading and seeing, and his collage books, two of which are reproduced here in full, explore the book as a unit of visual composition. As a result, this volume ultimately feels more like a work by Jess than a sampling compiled by others—which is high praise for its editor.

Jess’s art is often as playful as the title of the book suggests, but it’s rarely merely satirical: even when his collages combine, say, mainstream magazine images of country clubbers with men from the risqué “physique magazines” of the ’50s and ’60s, the effect is of a deftly achieved and emotionally charged artistic unity, not the easy absurdity one might expect.