PRINT April 2004



FOR DECADES, Jess seldom left the run-down Victorian house in San Francisco’s Inner Mission District that he shared for thirty years with the late poet Robert Duncan. He didn’t like to be with a lot of people and once told me that it horrified him that he might at some point be the subject of someone’s attention. Jess had fewer shows and probably fewer articles written about him than anyone of his generation whose work is similarly represented in many of the finest museums in the country. In addition to his innate shyness, the radical infrequency of his exhibitions had a lot to do with the fact that his works are so dense with meaning and material that each one took inordinate amounts of time to make. He used to talk about “indwelling,” which for Jess could mean years pondering the formation of a single work.

Well, at a certain point, Jess, who died in January at age eighty, went so far inward that he became naturally magnetic; his authenticity such that he didn’t need promotion. Over five decades, a family of writers, poets, curators, and collectors talked among themselves of Jess’s importance, purchasing his works when they could and secreting his address and phone number, passing it carefully along only to those deemed protective of his indwelling sense. He was both ultimate outsider and legendary insider.

Jess has often been explained as a West Coast Joseph Cornell, but that is too easy. Not even American Surrealist eccentricity could explain an imagery that was the result of one of the most interesting biographies of postwar American art. It was in 1948 that Jess had what he referred to simply as “the dream”—an intensely real, Technicolor vision of the earth being destroyed in the year 1975 through nuclear Armageddon. Certainly he wasn’t the only one who thought this a possibility following the bombing of Hiroshima (which, as it happens, had occurred on August 6, 1945, the same date as this superstitious artist’s twenty-second birthday). At the time of his dream, Jess was employed by General Electric Laboratories on their Hanford Project in Washington State, involved with plutonium production. He had previously been drafted into the army to work on the Manhattan Project, helping develop the weapon that would eventually level that Japanese city.

Six months after his dream, the radio chemist and Sunday painter quit his job at GE and went south to become an artist and find, as he put it, “an antidote to the scientific method.” He enrolled at Cal Berkeley on the GI Bill, and when the evaluators saw the extent of his scientific background in his application and his desire now to study art, they asked him to undergo psychological testing. He eventually ended up at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he was exposed to the teachings of Clyfford Still, Hassel Smith, David Park, Edward Corbett, and Ad Reinhardt, among others. He would learn about abstraction and various interpretations of the sublime from some of the best, but he would not follow the path of so many second- and third-generation abstract mannerists. Jess was an imagemaker and storyteller whose ambition was to redeem the high European tradition of mythic subject matter and symbolism. He would do so using images from the unlikely matrix of his neighborhood thrift stores and used bookshops.

The house that he and Duncan shared was a literary Merzbau of disparate imaginations, engaging an incredible range of visual and literary culture, from Gnostic texts and Greek poetry to collections of Harper’s Bazaar, Life magazine, and Scientific American. Among his prized possessions were various editions of the Oz books, including a first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its immediate sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904). Other treasures included an early edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and many books by Carroll’s lesser-known friend George MacDonald, such as The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and Curdie (1883). The third floor of the house seemed the spookiest, containing a library of science fiction and neglected romantic literature, including the books of Mary Butts. A great-granddaughter of Thomas Butts, the patron of William Blake, she wrote stories that interwove ancient myth and ritual with a deeply felt spirituality that invariably verged on the surreal and supernatural.

Jess was particularly taken by authors who could evoke a foggy landscape where everything—animate and inanimate—reverberates with spirit and conscience and where trails are never quite clearly marked but invariably lead to narrative surprises and apparitions. In the children’s stories that Jess and Duncan loved and would discuss for hours over breakfast, no element could be taken as benign. Everything had mythic implications. As Duncan once said, “You can’t take a piss in this house without getting hit with a myth.” It is that offbeat, as opposed to Beat, literature that suggests an analogy for the peculiar way boundaries are blurred in Jess’s art and Duncan’s poetry, between high art and kitsch, past and present, real and fantastic.

Jess became a shamanistic redeemer of the discard. His “Salvages,” which he began in 1971, involved the “rescue” of ostensibly saccharine thrift-store paintings, using them as a ground to create a new image and extended content that incorporates much of the original. Foraging used bookshops, he took collage to another level. Ironically, he called these densely packed constellations of printed matter, which he started making in 1951, simply “Paste-Ups,” referring to the childhood activity of making worlds by cutting and pasting at the kitchen table. Their engineering is anything but childlike, though, bringing together a vast stored image base that took up much of the second floor of the house. It was here that images carefully cut from, say, an entire 1877 volume of Scientific American could be combined with rare nineteenth-century metal engravings and a 1970s poster of Barbra Streisand. These “collage stories” were built from an elaborate filing scheme of drawers and cabinets with detailed thematic designations: “Animals,” “Structures,” “Buildings,” “Homoerotic,” “Medico-techno-sciences,” “Toys,” “Worship,” “Masks,” and a “Mean Section,” which included such subcategories as “Bigots,” “Police,” and “Militarists.”

The intricacy of the cutting and splicing of his disparate imagery is to be marveled at. Jess purchased special scissors and knives that allowed him to surgically remove particularly meaningful, often minute sections from books, magazines, and engravings. He would then place them on a support and move them around, as if on a Ouija board, fastening them temporarily with pins until his story revealed itself and could be glued into place. “Image-sentences,” which might fill only a small section of the collage, would include a Chevrolet Impala, the hood ornament replaced with a Tarot figure, driving into an Arcadian landscape that covered the face of another figure that looked down into a deep well that reflected an entirely different image, what Jess called an “atomic sequencing” to show a world of layered realities and stories. He often wore a pair of homemade blinders that could block out any peripheral visual information that might cause him to lose focus on the part of the collage under scrutiny at a given moment. Many of the later “Paste-Ups” are monumental by collage standards, sometimes measuring five or six feet across and supporting hundreds, if not thousands, of spliced and layered, pasted-on images.

And then there are the “Translations.” While the “Paste-Ups” refer to children’s scrapbooks and puzzles, the “Translations” evoke the reveries of the coloring book, but with a medieval, if not Gothic, flavor. They began as intricate pencil drawings of found, often estranged images and progressed to enlarged underdrawings on canvas. Each section of the drawing was then painstakingly filled with up to ten layers of pigment rising from the canvas as much as two inches. Begun in 1959 and completed in 1976, the cycle of thirty-two “Translations” constitutes an intense allegorical meditation on the sun, which Jess described as the mother of all nuclear reactors.

The childlike directness of these earnestly painted “copies” belies their hauntingly symbolic ethos, often underscored by a text that invariably accompanies each one: a color “Translation” of a black-and-white photo taken from a 1944 University of Montana yearbook, accompanied by excerpts from Popul Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché Maya; the image from an article devoted to pumpkins in a government-issue horticulture brochure that Jess found on the sidewalk, accompanied by Abbé Noël Antoine Pluche’s Histoire du ciel considéré selon les idées des poëtes, des philosophes, et de Moïse (1748); or a souvenir postcard of Sarah Winchester, the eccentric widow of the rifle tycoon, accompanied by a Gaelic incantation. In different ways each of these follows a route back to the sun. In Montana Xibalba: Translation #2, 1963, for example, the 1944 University of Montana soccer team maneuvers a ball around a dark field. Translating the original black-and-white image into color, the artist rendered the ball a thick and intense yellow. As he did in his “Paste-Ups” and “Salvages,” Jess brought an obscure and discarded image back to life through the enduring power of myth. In Mayan cosmology, the birth of the sun and moon resulted from a ball game between two earthly heroes and the Lords of Xibalba, a realm akin to Hades or hell. The movements of the planets were thought to be determined by the action of the game. One of the soccer players bears the number 8 on his jersey, which Jess saw as a Möbius strip stood on end and a topological symbol that indicated time as moving forward and backward simultaneously.

Jess’s view of history was not only broad but amazingly fluid. In the end he didn’t really want to be limited to simply engaging his own time. Such positions, however, create problems for art historians. Jess found his way in the art world without the requisite identification of belonging to a “style” or “movement.” At the beginning of the ’60s, he was included in “Pop Art USA” at the Oakland Museum, the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to that now-famous movement. Although he used commercial and mass-produced images in much of his work and could certainly have garnered attention and sales through his association with the movement, he was completely perplexed that anyone would think of him as a Pop artist. Even in recent years he would say, “I’m a sentimentalist. I don’t fit in that way.” Yes, and ambitious sentimentalists—who can cross a boundary between their own moment and the world of the mythic imagination—are rare. So Jess will probably always be seen as an outsider, that term of last resort for artists who, like the Princess and Curdie, are brave enough to follow those not so clearly marked trails.

Michael Auping is chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.