ART LIMITED MAGAZINE
We need our rediscoveries, even if they haven’t been forgotten. Among the latest art world figures to merit such deserving rediscovery is Jess (1923-2004), a Long Beach-born one-time chemist who switched to art after helping to build the first atomic bombs. Jess was active in the Bay Area for half a century, treasured by a few but known to many more. The current reassessment of his work, spearheaded by Los Angeles-based historian-critic Michael Duncan, does not save Jess from obscurity; he needs no such saving. Prominent among the platforms currently examining his work and career are the new exhibition “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan and Their Circle,” at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (June 9 — September 1, 2013), co-curated by Michael Duncan; the recent publication “O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica” by Siglio Press, edited by Michael Duncan; and the exhibition’s own meaty catalogue. In all these efforts, Duncan, co-curator Christopher Wagstaff, and their colleagues unpack Jess with evident relish and attentiveness, placing him in the history of American and modern art–even as his work dances around and tries to elude their, and our, grasp. Of course, that is part of its charm–the playfulness not simply of Jess’s art, but of the spirit that birthed it.
If Jess did not labor in obscurity, he worked and behaved as if he did, which was part and parcel of his charm. The portrait Duncan et al. paint with Jess’s art and biography is of a retiring yet self-possessed fellow, shy in public but hardly so in private, whose mind was a veritable briar patch of free associations and whose hands were that mind’s expert extensions. He sought the approval of his friends–as well he should, given their own poetic standards–but not of the art world; even so, his art paralleled and even anticipated so much of his time’s art.
Although based in California his whole life, Jess (born Burgess Collins) had a solid reputation in New York for much of his career, back when a New York reputation was what an artist strove for. Far more important to him, though, was his own circle of artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creative types, an orbit of elective affinities particular to Beat-era San Francisco but broadly influential in its day. As a result, Jess was no stranger to the art world’s personalities or to its impact on his career; it just didn’t concern him as much as it may have concerned the people around him.
Those people celebrated him and treasured his art and the spirit in which it was made. But it was in many ways an art that resisted the artistic mainstream, heady and recondite in its poetry, lyricism, and often-ribald humor. It was an art of free association, indulgent babble, and cultural transgression, a private art that scavenged the public sphere. “Jess’s art,” writes Duncan in the catalogue, “was about the retrieval of images from a culture overflowing with them”–in other words, a kind of Pop Art. But, whereas the prevailing aesthetic, even ethos, of Pop was blank and at least seemingly non-judgmental, coolly assessing the burgeoning consumer age behind formalist stratagems, Jess’s Pop was a delirious wallow in the charms of “low” as well as “high” visual culture, conflating the antique (photolithographs) with the latter-day (comic strips), the purely graphic with the verbal (notably in collaged segments from books and newspapers), and the mythic with the banal.