Born Burgess Collins in Long Beach, California, the artist who chose to identify simply as Jess enrolled in the California School of the Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) in 1949. In San Francisco, Jess met his lover and life partner, the poet Robert Duncan. The two artists helped to craft a buzzing, experimental post-war Bay Area art scene, forming the influential King Ubu Gallery with painter Harry Jacobus in 1952. Later reconceived as Six Gallery, the space was a central intersection for Beat art and poetry in the 1950s. It was here, in 1955, that Allen Ginsberg first presented his poem Howl.
Jess is best known for his intricate collages, which incorporate themes of mysticism, chemistry, seduction, and aesthetics. Open-Mouthed but Relaxed (1952) is one of the artist’s earliest collaged works. The evocative word Beauty dominates the frame. Central to Jess’s project was the subjective role of the viewer in drawing associations between words and images, allowing the work to speak multiply at a social-historical moment when categories were typically understood as fixed. Clichéd phrases such as if it’s unexpected, expect it are pulled from advertising and pasted alongside works of poetry and the words real, Zen, stop, and go. The provocative title has a sexual undertone but could easily have been taken from a work of literature or poetry; media such as these formed the majority of Jess’s source material.
Jess’s The Truth and Life of Myth (1969) was originally intended as the cover of the 1973 paperback edition of Duncan’s autobiography by the same title, first published as a clothbound volume in 1968. Jess’s collage was not ultimately used for the project and wasn’t published until 1986, when it appeared as the frontispiece to Robert J. Bertholf’s Robert Duncan: A Descriptive Bibliography. The juxtaposition of mythology, religion, and spirituality is typical of Jess’s imagery, and the intricate composition evidences his artistic maturity. A significant figure in the exhibition, Jess evidences through his work the important link between visual art and poetry in 1960s America.
Jess (b. 1923, Long Beach, CA; d. 2004, San Francisco, CA) received his BS from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena (1948). During World War II, he served in the United States Army at the Atomic Energy Laboratory, and held a small role in the production of plutonium for the Manhattan Project. Jess soon abandoned his scientific career due to a nightmare about nuclear holocaust, and attended what is now called the San Francisco Art Institute, California (1949). Along with his longtime partner, poet Robert Duncan, Jess became a key member of the 1950s Beat generation. Jess, Duncan, and painter Harry Jacobus opened the King Ubu Gallery (1952), renamed the Six Gallery by poet Jack Spicer, which became a significant venue for alternative art. Jess is best known for his “paste-ups,” i.e., elaborate collages composed of magazine, poster, and illustration clippings. Jess became publicly known after his work was included in influential museum exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1961, 1965) and at the Oakland Museum of Art, California (1963). His first notable retrospective opened at the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York (1993) and traveled to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Other recent solo and retrospective exhibitions were held at Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco (2005, 2008), and at the San Jose Museum of Art, California (2007), which traveled to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Wisconsin; the Pasadena Museum of California Art; Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas, Austin; Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College, Portland, Oregon; The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City; and the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois. The Jess Estate is represented by Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.
Maddie Phinney Biography
Maddie Phinney is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She received her MA from the University at Buffalo, New York (2014) and is currently Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Visual Studies. Her work centers on the art of identity and its critical reception, with particular attention paid to the politics of the AIDS epidemic in the US. Her writing has appeared in artcritical, V Magazine, Bomb, Nukta Art and others.