PRINT March 2000


In 1951 Jess made The Mouse’s Tale, the first of his large collages, or “paste-ups,” as he calls them. Only a few years before, he had been a radio-chemist working on the production of plutonium for the US government. He abandoned science and rational method when he dreamed the world would come to an end in 1975. The nude in The Mouse’s Tale crouches on contradictory perspectives of a chemical refinery.

Jess’s marriage to the poet Robert Duncan also began in 1951, and it lasted until Duncan’s death in 1988. Their household made a world, and Jess dispensed with large parts of the world outside. Art was a kind of exalted play that demanded unalloyed sincerity and concentration. Unwilling to be distracted, he discarded his family along with his last name, declined to attend his own openings, and spent years—even decades—on a single work.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art acquired The Mouse’s Tale in 1976, so I’ve been looking at it for twenty-four years. The collage always arouses me, with its dual dramas legible from different reading distances. First I see the large nude silhouette with its skeletal head and ample butt, fingers splayed in terror. Then I see the abundant nakedness, more suggestive because the eye discovers and coaxes each body out of a shrubbery of more nakedness. The composite nude (like an Arcimboldo or a Surrealist mannequin) confuses life and death, an uncanny effect that Jess complicates by using photographs of living people. They are both fiction and flesh, “characters” who, away from the camera, age and die with us, or before us. Jess puts a strange pressure on the images to be, at once, scraps of paper and actual depths to fall into.

How long can I track naked little men in an artwork in a museum before I seem subnormal to the guards and to myself? I’m amazed that Jess at mid-century could accept at face value the innocence and delight of those Physique Pictorial-style photos, the childlike wonder hitched to adult sexuality. He dropped two snapshots of himself—the young beat with a goatee—in this animal-cracker soup of “homoeros,” along with a Navajo woman, a minister, a panther.

I was grateful for this startled naked figure whose third dimension is always in danger of being canceled by the myriad perspectives of the men who make him up. Caught in his confrontation with some greater power, he turns away from the viewer, perhaps in self-horror, perhaps unaware that his body is a swarm of Lilliputian exhibitionists, tireless multipliers of sexual urge. It was 1976; I had a ticket to the orgy, but that freedom did not eliminate the pervasive fear.

Beside the nude stands a monkey gallows. Surveying the world, a cat/lion, symbol of empire, is the knot of the rope as well as judge and jury. If the man is found guilty, he’ll be hanged by a rope of clowns. Do these soft old spirits say, Your death is a joke? The gray universe is already condemned, already hanging in the gaudy noose. If the man is a mouse, then his tail restates the proposition of that universe, Lewis Carroll’s calligram, the squiggle-shaped “Mouse’s Tale” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Fury said to the mouse, That he met in the house, ‘Let us both go to law; I will prosecute you.—Come, I’ll take no denial: We must have the trial; For really this morning I’ve nothing to do.’ Said the mouse to the cur, ‘Such a trial, dear sir, With no jury or judge, would be wasting our breath.’ ‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,’ said cunning old Fury; ‘I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death.’”

In 1951, Jess was still assimilating the influences of his teachers Clyfford Still and David Park. He discovered fantasies in his own “nonobjective” paintings (and in Still’s work). He would entertain these scenes for a while, then perhaps paint them out. That is, abstract paintings are romantic environments, vistas of aspiration that generate story along with profound mood. Does that seem obvious in retrospect?

I’m a writer who learned from visual art, and Jess is an artist who learned from literature. In the ’50s, he solved the exact puzzle I was working on in the late ’70s—how to tell a story that also knows itself as writing, at once “a made-up thing and a depth in which by being is,” as Robert Duncan said. Jess declined to recognize a dichotomy between abstraction and representation or to take sides in a debate that fueled Bay Area art and writing for decades. His solution was pastiche and appropriation—a material-based aesthetics that narrates through the mystery and authenticity of salvaged images.

It would be a mistake to take the two gouache background fields for granted. They are the matrix for the colorless world of the nude: Images are drawn out of them with the addition of white or gray. The universe he dreads is the universe that makes him, a crucible of imagemaking. If that contradicts without altering the playful eros of the work, then we are exactly in Jess’s terrain.

Maybe some of the nude’s anxiety derives from Jess’s own horror vacui. Henceforth the paste-ups will be so densely layered with images that they convey the kind of wonder found in Victorian fairy paintings like Richard Dadd’s—a wonder based on abundance and meticulousness, as though the artist performs a slow task in a fairy tale, say, counting grains of sand:

Once there was a mouse vulnerable yet something that—

The chopped-off tail crawls in sweeping motions.

Once there was a mouse that turns you into a homosexual.

Ocular criminal in a gray universe, Fury the cat trapped our citizens in a quaking body.

An itsy-bitsy mousy called LIBIDO made of nothing—gray and white scraps.