San Francisco

Jess

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

In the second half of the 20th century, the vision and accomplishments of the vast majority of America’s designated masters have tended to be monolithic, highly focused and, above all, self-referential. For the painter and collagist Jess, this Modernist mainstream seems to have held only passing interest during a lifelong development of a personal vision, shaped by qualities so distinctly unconventional that his remarkable work—difficult either to categorize or describe—has not received the kind of recognition or respect that it has long deserved. This extensive retrospective now touring several museums should go some way toward correcting this situation, although the lyrically poetic, symbolically rich nature of the world he has invented over the past forty years might be a shock to some viewers: the shock of sentiment and memory as well as of humor, fantasy, and even whimsy.

With one exception (his sculptural work has been excluded), the evolution of Jess’ methods and interests is well documented—both through the work itself, and in the auxiliary wall texts. A group of his earliest canvases, both abstract and figurative in nature, provide a kind of introduction for the works he calls “Translations,” 1959–76, and “Paste-Ups,” 1951– (the paintings and collages for which he is best known). Although reading the extensive labels that accompany the “Translations” might be a little disconcerting, the writings documented on them are an essential part of the work. Actually inscribed on the reverse of the paintings (and sometimes on the face as well), these texts come from amazingly diverse sources, revealing both the breadth of the artist’s interests (as disparate as the Popol Vuh, Socrates, and Edward Lear) as well as the multiple levels on which the “Translations” operate, in terms of both words and pictures. Although the images in these paintings have been copied carefully from a variety of sources, including book illustrations, photographs, and even a bubble-gum card, their black and white tonalities have been interpreted in a vivid, highly original palette, rendered in paint so organically lumpy and thick that the surface almost looks alive.

Many of these paintings can inspire a lengthy meditation, but it is in the examination of Jess’ collages, or “Paste-Ups,” that the process of interpretation becomes a headlong tumble down Alice’s rabbit hole. These amazingly complex works, comprised of sometimes hundreds of image fragments, are full of visual puns and elaborate games. Although Life magazine has been a particularly rich source for the artist, old medical illustrations, engravings, and jigsaw picture puzzles have been used extensively as well.

Yet another group of works in the show consists of thrift-store paintings and some of Jess’ own early abstract works selectively repainted, coupled with texts. Clearly, these too are part of the same activity that the artist has been engaged in, since the beginning of his career: remembrance through the act of rescuing and resurrecting images.

Maria Porges