Jess: TIBOR DE NAGY

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The painter and eollagist Jess (I 923-20Q4) had a poet in his life, of course. On New Year's Day, 195 I, he exchanged vows with Robert Duncan, sage of the San Francisco Renaissance, and they lived together for nearly four decades. But the poet rhat Jess's early paintings--nineteen, made between I 9.50 and I 966, were exhibited here--brought to mind, for me at least, was Frank (VI lara, 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 your!" 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 UTTLK THINGS IN BIG--OK BUT THEY MAY BE LOST.) The bouquets in A J 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 Flanford 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 Frnst's collage-novel IJne semaine dc bvnte, 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 Fdouard Vuillard's glowing domesticity, and the moonlit ecriness of Fdvard Munch or Albert Pinkham Ryder. …