Critics’ Picks

Jess, The Enamord Mage: Translation #6, 1965, oil on canvas over wood, 24 1/2 x 30”.

Jess, The Enamord Mage: Translation #6, 1965, oil on canvas over wood, 24 1/2 x 30”.


“An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle”

Crocker Art Museum
216 O Street
June 9–September 1, 2013

The artist Jess and the poet Robert Duncan exchanged romantic vows in 1951, more than sixty years before the Supreme Court weighed in on marriage equality. Posthumously, the couple still inspires much of San Francisco’s creative community. Titled after a Duncan collection published in 1960, this exhibition reveals a group of creative individuals who lived and worked in the Bay Area during a romantically bohemian era of alternative lifestyles and artistic as well as social experimentation. The Jess-Duncan crowd may have crossed paths with the Beats, but their scene was more intimate, and too quirky to be codified by Life magazine. The show brings together artists including R. B. Kitaj, Edward Corbett, Wallace Berman, Lawrence Jordan, James Broughton, Llyn Foulkes, and George Herms, along with the writers Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, and Michael McClure, who each get their share of wall and vitrine space.

Overall, the artists fare better than the writers. Jess is the star of the show, and examples of his work form a strong introduction near the entrance. His paintings from the early 1950s are energized by tensions between figurative and abstract elements. There are three shining selections of the thick, gloppy, paint-by-numberish “Translation” works from 1965 here, as well as some of the intricate, mystical Pop collages from the early ’50s through the ’70s that he called “Paste-Ups,” which were sometimes inspired by Duncan (whose drawings are less compelling than his writing). Works by lesser-known artists engagingly demonstrate a sense of shared ideas. For instance, the expressive figuration of Fran Herndon and the mixed-media folksy sensibility of Nemi Frost make strong showings, as do the beefcake collages of Ernesto Edwards.