Jess: Making peace with the onslaught of modern life

News Section, Reviews

February 26th, 2013


(Review) O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica

The New Republic

Quiet Genius—The Work of Joseph Cornell and Jess


Originally published December 5, 2012


There was a time, not long ago, when nobody wanted to talk about the obscurity of the avant-garde. The astonishing popularity of modern art, with record crowds in the museums and ever-increasing prices in the auction houses, made any mention of the ivory tower or the artist’s garret sound like outdated romantic hooey. That was how things stood until the last year or two, when the packaging and branding of so-called cutting-edge art has become so pervasive that hardly anybody can bear the hype. A reaction has set in. Of course there have always been stalwart believers in modern art’s intimate, quietistic, enigmatic, and even obscurantist side. But I think we are seeing a significant uptick of interest in those aspects of the modernist imagination.

Hermeticism is no longer seen as such a sin. And younger artists may line up to get their hands on two new books, historical studies dedicated to the tidal pull of modern artistic self-absorption. Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels presents a wonderfully elaborate masterwork by the most famous intimist in the history of twentieth-century American art. O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica, an anthology of collages and pamphlets by the San Francisco artist Jess, who died in 2004, unearths inventions ranging from the comic to the mystic, sometimes made for friends, sometimes published in small, long out-of-print editions. Both Cornell and Jess owe a large debt to the Surrealists, especially the collages that Max Ernst made out of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century engravings. Both Cornell and Jess are American originals, highly sophisticated artists who weren’t afraid to be seen as outliers or cranks. And both publications are put together with an elegance and ingenuity that I am fairly sure would have thrilled the creators of this work. . . .

The critic and curator Michael Duncan—who probably knows as much as anybody alive about Jess and the bohemian Bay Area circle that included his life partner, the poet Robert Duncan—has gathered together works that appeared only in limited editions and in some instances have never been published before. Included are Jess’s cut-and-paste transformations of Dick Tracy cartoons as well as a homoerotic collage book, When a Young Lad Dreams of Manhood, made around 1953. O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica is wonderfully produced, with illustrations that evoke the richness of the original collages, a pocket containing a replica of O! (a pamphlet published in 1960), and a dust-jacket that unfolds to reveal a poster Jess designed for a show in 1967 on its backside. Jess had a taste for the high kitsch of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century engravings, and in some of his collages he enjoyed mixing these with halftone images from contemporary magazines and newspapers.

In a spirited and beautifully written introductory essay, Duncan writes that Jess’s “is the ultimate revisionist history, one where multifaceted elements meld into each other in a protean, alchemical Periodic Table.” His collages—which he called “paste-ups”—have a denser, thicker atmosphere than Cornell’s. If there is something of Ravel’s light touch about Cornell’s work in the Untitled Book Object, Jess can be alternately thunderous and slangy, perhaps more in the mode of a visual Charles Ives. At times, Jess seems to be rearranging the furniture in some Pre-Raphaelite hothouse nightmare. At other times, his collages of cut-and-pasted words suggest the work of a Middle American oddball high school kid.

Both Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels and O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica are portraits of artists making their own separate peace with the onslaught of modern life. They are reconfiguring standard reading matter into material that matters to them. In the process, they offer glimpses of the era’s collective unconscious, or at least what they imagine might have been their countrymen’s hidden dreams. When Jess remade the Dick Tracy cartoons, he prided himself on using only the words and images from the cartoons themselves, employing what Duncan calls “re-sequenced” and “re-lettered” images to create “allusive, disjunctive utterances [that] resemble nothing so much as the jangled prose of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake,” a favorite of Jess’s. In Cornell’s Untitled Book Object, the agricultural manual is a practical pastoral from which flights of fancy are launched. Is it any wonder Jess is an artist younger artists find illuminating? Is it any wonder Cornell’s standing remains sky-high? What Cornell and Jess suggest is that the new can come from the old, even when the old is merely old hat, the pictures from last week’s or last decade’s or last century’s popular books and magazines. How it is all transformed involves the mysteries of the modern magician, an artistic alchemy practiced in private. I am eager for the esoterica that comes after Jessoterica . . .

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