New York

Jess, “Danger Don’t Advance,” Salvages IX (last painting), ca. 1990, oil on canvas, 44 x 18 3/4". From the series “Salvages,” ca. 1970–94.

Jess, “Danger Don’t Advance,” Salvages IX (last painting), ca. 1990, oil on canvas, 44 x 18 3/4". From the series “Salvages,” ca. 1970–94.

Jess

Tibor De Nagy Gallery

Jess, “Danger Don’t Advance,” Salvages IX (last painting), ca. 1990, oil on canvas, 44 x 18 3/4". From the series “Salvages,” ca. 1970–94.

The painter and collagist Jess (1923–2004) had a poet in his life, of course. On New Year’s Day, 1951, he exchanged vows with Robert Duncan, sage of the San Francisco Renaissance, and they lived together for nearly four decades. But the poet that Jess’s early paintings—nineteen, made between 1950 and 1966, were exhibited here—brought to mind, for me at least, was Frank O’Hara, specifically his “Memorial Day, 1950”: “Fathers of Dada! You carried shining erector sets / in your rough bony pockets, you were generous / and they were lovely as chewing gum or flowers! / Thank you!” Jess disparaged his own graphic skill, often choosing to copy from magazines, and the jerky innocence of his hand seems limned in O’Hara’s lines, as does the eroticism, conscious of itself as overwrought yet wholly sincere, in works like Hiding Little in Big, 1959, wherein a pair of boneless swains frolic in a springtime wood composed of pigment so blobbed and gummy that it does suggest something played with by mouth and fingers. (Painted into the lower-right corner of the scene is an enigmatic artist’s or lover’s warning: HIDING LITTLE THINGS IN BIG — OK BUT THEY MAY BE LOST.) The bouquets in M is for Mud, 1961, and Petals of Paint, 1964, look literally made of stuck-on gum—and the M in the former, jigsawed from wood and marled in gray-green impasto, is stuck on too. Fans of the hallucinogenically precise collages and “paint by number”–style paintings for which Jess is best known may find these lushly awkward canvases surprising. But their relationships to the later work are piquant; the paintings, too, seem assembled from disparate parts. They are romantic as valentines, and odd as all get-out.

As a young atomic chemist, Jess Collins worked on the Manhattan Project and the Hanford Atomic Energy Project until an apocalyptic dream inspired him to quit. He studied with Clyfford Still at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), but it was Duncan who gave him Max Ernst’s collage-novel Une semaine de bonté, 1934. So Ernst was the “father of Dada” who inspired Jess directly, though he freely mixed the influence with traces of Pierre Bonnard’s and Édouard Vuillard’s glowing domesticity, and the moonlit eeriness of Edvard Munch or Albert Pinkham Ryder. Jess’s contemporary David Park comes to mind too. Such games of strange bedfellowship—each apt, none explanatory—are key to Jess’s charm. “What he achieved is totally his, but in every detail derivative,” as Duncan noted. The slur of lipstick on the woman in Model in Studio 15, #2, 1950–66, or the uncannily plastic anemones in Almost Daybreak, 1958, feel totally private, urgent, and bemused. Their art-historical intelligence is not thereby reduced.

The most weirdly entrancing work here was “Danger, Don’t Advance,” Salvages IX (last painting), the only late work in the show, which the artist abandoned circa 1990. For the “Salvages” series, ca. 1970–94, Jess reworked his student abstractions and, occasionally, paintings bought in thrift stores. This one presents a sinuous nude in a brushy landscape. His hand presses his temple in a gesture of poet’s despair—or shepherd’s ecstasy—or perhaps he is on the phone? His unmodeled torso is scrawled over, in what looks like pencil, with an outline of a crowd scene, obviously traced from a photograph. Men in top hats and bowlers gather for some public occasion; a sign in their midst reads DANGER, DON'T ADVANCE. Apparently, deliciously bizarrely, the source for the image was the driving of the golden spike to complete the first Transcontinental Railroad, in 1869.

Concurrent with the Jess show was “Elizabeth Bishop: Objects & Apparitions,” a small but absorbing display of the poet’s own paintings with items from her folk-art collection. Witness the spooky Sleeping Figure, an undated gouache-and-watercolor of a yellow-skinned woman supine on a striped yellow bedcover in a yellow room. The tenderness and strangeness of this icon—“awful but cheerful,” as Bishop puts it in her 1948 poem “The Bight”—resonates in Jess’s art. “Thank you!” seems an appropriate response.

Frances Richard